The cathedral became the subject of a fierce preservation battle in 1996 when the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles tried to level the building to make way for a new Cathedral complex. The Archdiocese cited irreparable damage from the 1994 Northridge Earthquake as the reason for the cathedral’s demolition. On Saturday, June 1, 1996, the diocese began demolition illegally.
After two successful lawsuits by the Conservancy to stop the demolition, developer Tom Gilmore purchased the property and rehabilitated it into a special events venue. The fight to save St. Vibiana’s was a defining moment in the Conservancy’s history, forcing us to stand up to L.A.’s power structure and fueling our commitment to become more proactive.
In 2019, Vibiana-Redbird won a Conservancy Preservation Award for their stewardship of this important historic resource
In 1995, the cathedral entered its 119th year of service to the community. That same year, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, led by Cardinal Roger Mahony, announced plans to demolish the cathedral to make way for an all-new cathedral complex on the site. They cited irreparable damage from the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, despite repeated studies proving that the landmark could in fact be repaired and integrated into a new cathedral complex at a retrofit cost of 60 percent less than estimated by the Archdiocese. Despite ongoing efforts by the Conservancy, the Archdiocese never wavered from its intent to demolish the cathedral and build a new cathedral complex on the site.
At 7 a.m. on Saturday, June 1, 1996, the Archdiocese began to demolish the cathedral with neither a permit nor required environmental review. The Conservancy obtained an emergency court order by midday to halt demolition, but not before the lantern had been removed from the cathedral’s bell tower cupola, with a wrecking ball poised within feet of the landmark. This illegal demolition attempt prompted the first of two lawsuits by the Conservancy to prevent the cathedral’s destruction.
The next month, in an unprecedented move, the City Council voted 14-1 (with Joel Wachs courageously dissenting) to revoke the cathedral's designation as a Historic-Cultural Monument, eliminating the need for environmental review. The Archdiocese obtained a demolition permit within two hours of the de-listing. The Conservancy obtained yet another restraining order on grounds of inadequate review, analysis, and disclosure of the intended result of de-listing: demolition of the landmark. This prompted the second lawsuit against both the Archdiocese and the City of Los Angeles.
August 29, 2007 marked a significant milestone for the building and the Conservancy. In a ceremony attended by preservationists, community members, and elected officials, the former cathedral’s lantern was replaced on its bell tower more than a decade after it had been removed as part of the building’s imminent demolition.
The Conservancy ultimately prevailed in both lawsuits, despite appeals from the Archdiocese and the City. Senator Tom Hayden played a key role in preventing an attempt by the Archdiocese to circumvent state environmental review laws through legislative action.
The crisis prompted a backlash that jeopardized the city's cultural heritage program by proposing the requirement of environmental review of a structure before its designation as a Historic-Cultural Monument (HCM). Mahony threatened to build the new cathedral outside of downtown or even leave Los Angeles altogether. The Conservancy was vilified by business and political leaders, the media, some in the Catholic community, and even longtime allies, who labeled the Conservancy as obstructionist, thwarting downtown's renewal, and even curtailing religious freedom.
The Archdiocese ultimately decommissioned and deconsecrated the cathedral, vacated the site, and built the new cathedral a few blocks away on Temple Street. The Conservancy pursued potential buyers for the property and in 1997 commissioned a study of options for its adaptive reuse. That same year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation included the cathedral on its annual list of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in the United States.
In 1999, the landmark was purchased by Tom Gilmore, a visionary in using downtown’s historic buildings as catalysts for revitalization (starting with the residential conversions at Main and Fourth Streets, known as the Old Bank District).
The Conservancy worked with Gilmore Associates to secure funding from multiple sources, including $4 million from the State of California, thanks to the leadership of Senator Gilbert Cedillo; a $1 million appropriation from Congress, thanks to Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard; and more than $500,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The nonprofit Vibiana Arts Project was created to administer the state funds and manage the site.
The building’s rehabilitation, estimated by the Archdiocese to cost $20 million, came under contract at $3.7 million. Project architects Levin and Associates, with structural engineers Nabih Youssef and Associates and general contractor PCL, adapted the structure for use as a performance and event venue, seismically reinforcing the structure while painstakingly restoring historic details. Now known simply as Vibiana, the building plays host to a wide range of events including fashion shows, fundraising events, live entertainment, and wedding receptions.
In August 2007, after lying in a parking lot for over a decade, the lantern of the former cathedral was reattached by crane to its bell tower -- capping off one of the Conservancy’s toughest preservation battles and, ultimately, greatest successes. This extraordinary moment symbolized the end of one of our most significant preservation efforts, as well as the beginning of a new life for one of L.A.’s most important structures.