A few places in Oakland feature these sandstone blocks. Two I can think of immediately are on Lakeshore Avenue, including this one.
I always wonder whether the stones were salvaged from somewhere else, like Andy Goldsworthy’s wonderful “Stone River” on the Stanford campus. They have tool marks on them, and I don’t know much about stonecarving tools, but I’ll bet they haven’t changed in centuries. These stones echo the most ancient practices of civilization, in which building stones were recycled again and again without regard to the structures they previously gave life to. The stones were precious in bulk rather than as individuals, the way that gold bullion is precious.
These stones always remind me, every time I see them, of one of William Randolph Hearst’s greatest follies. He purchased an ancient chapter house, built in Spain by Cistercian monks in 1190, and shipped it to California as disassembled stones. He never got around to putting them back together again, and as I recall the story, they sat in a pile somewhere in Golden Gate Park. (That’s probably an exaggeration, but who knows?) Now those stones were precious in the way that old gold coinage is precious—they embody history. These days we are a sentimental people, and the Spanish stones have a bit of holiness in them, as if the monks’ prayers had saturated them. Scattering them on the ground in a strange land is an affront to their previous owners.
That’s why I loved today’s Tribune column by beer writer Jay Brooks. A California branch of the Cistercians, the Abbey of New Clairvaux north of Chico, has acquired the stones and plans to reassemble the chapter house using the profits from a series of Trappist-style beers to be made by Sierra Nevada Brewing next year. The Trappists are the order of monks that include the Cistercians, and they’re famous for brewing Belgium’s greatest beers. That’s worth a toast.