Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is known as “the mission with three arches” and more recently as the mission on an urban plaza. Sketches and paintings from the 1850s and ‘60s show that a plaza, a wide-open expanse at the center of town, gave an unobstructed view of those arches.
During the 1880s, portions of that view were covered, possibly to conceal decay in the unrestored building. But since the arched campanile was rebuilt in 1936, it has been a gift to the street.
Now that view, so appropriate to a city with deeply Hispanic roots, may be threatened. Recently, the city of San Luis Obispo permitted a well-intentioned tree planting that threatens our historic arches. The deodar cedar tree is beautiful, but will grow to an impressive size.
My first Christmas tree was a deodar cedar planted in front of the home that my father was building in 1940. By 1955, it had to be removed because it blocked the view of the entrance to our home.
Michael LaFreniere is a bell ringer at the mission, as was his grandmother during the 1970s and ‘80s. He’s also a superb historian and photographer who devotes countless hours to preserving the mission’s legacy.
Michael recently wrote to the city:
“It is a wonderful idea to want to plant a holiday tree to eliminate the cost and work associated with chopping down and installing a tree every year. However, the location of this tree is upsetting for many in our community because it doesn’t fit with the existing trees and plants, and it blocks the historical view of the mission.
“The mission plaza is used for so many various functions throughout the year. During all the events that take place in the plaza, the mission serves as a beautiful backdrop. Savor the Central Coast, Barrels in Mission Plaza, Brews & Bites, the Greek Festival and many more events use the entire plaza from beyond Broad Street to Chorro Street.
“Mission College Preparatory School holds their graduation ceremony every year in the plaza. The entire class of students sits facing the plaza and walk across the front of the mission to receive their diplomas. If you've never been to an MCP graduation, the plaza is filled. With this newly planted holiday tree, everyone from the fountain to Chorro would not be able to see the class during the ceremony.
“The city of SLO holds an annual ‘Peace Officers’ Memorial’ service in the plaza as well. The front of the mission is the stage. The service consists of salutes and other traditions that require enough space to allow for peace officers to stand in formation. Participants and guests fill up the whole plaza to the street. The tree would block the view of half the audience.
“During the holiday season, the Downtown Association places a Christmas tree, Santa House and large carousel in the plaza. The plaza is only decorated for Christmas. But another holiday is celebrated during this same season. Since 1990, the mission sets up a menorah, designed by Father Jim Nisbet, on the front lawn of the church, marking the eight days of Hanukkah.
“Representatives from Congregation Beth David, Temple Ner Shalom, Congregation Ohr Tzafon, Temple Beth El, Chabad at Cal Poly and the Jewish Community Center Federation of San Luis Obispo participate in lighting the menorah’s candles.
“This event draws a large crowd in the plaza trying to catch a view of the lighting ceremony. During this time, the Santa House, carousel and Christmas tree are taking up the main center of the plaza. People have to stand near the ‘Bear’ fountain because of this. With the new Christmas tree location, the menorah would be completely blocked, obscuring the view of the Jewish tradition of Hanukkah.”
It’s part of the essence and joy of San Luis Obispo to look up from Chorro Street and see the menorah’s candles glowing brightly in the cold night air on the grounds of our 243-year-old mission. Please move the tree to another part of the plaza so these diverse traditions can continue.