San Xavier visitors sheltered from falling debris

TUCSON, AZ - On the eve of the busy Easter weekend, crews have erected a covered walkway structure at the foot of the east tower of historic Mission San Xavier del Bac. Its purpose: to protect visitors from pieces of the aging tower that could break loose and fall to the ground.

"It's only temporary, while we fix the problems we discovered on the exterior of San Xavier's east tower," says a notice posted by the Patronato San Xavier, which raises funds for restoration and stabilization of the mission southwest of Tucson. The building dates to the late 1700s and is still an active church.

"We hope to complete the emergency fixes to the tower within a few weeks, and then we will remove the scaffolding," the notice says.

Vern Lamplot, executive director of the Patronato, said an inspection of the tower last week found loose pieces of material that could fall from the upper cornice, the southeast corner and other parts of the tower.

"The concern was that with all the tourist traffic and the Easter holiday coming up, it seemed prudent to construct a structure to protect people" walking near the tower, Lamplot said.

Daniel Morales, whose Morales Restoration and Builders firm has done extensive stabilization and restoration work on the mission, said his inspection determined that the tower "poses a safety hazard for people."

"It was an emergency-type deal. There are some areas on the front that could let go anytime," Morales said. "It may not happen, but we wanted to make sure it was safe."

No pieces have fallen off the front so far, but Morales said a 7-foot-long piece of material fell off the back, or north, side of the tower last summer.

"Nobody was hit," he said.

Crews last week erected a safety passage of scaffolding reinforced with strong chain-link fence barriers to stop falling pieces and covered with fabric to catch finer debris, Morales said.

"We will wait until after the (Easter) holiday and then stabilize the tower," he said. "We're hoping to get it done by June."

The mission's west tower has been renovated by Morales and his crew, but the east tower is now very much in need of similar restoration, Lamplot said. Needed work includes removing concrete coatings, repairing weak parts of the structure and plastering it with natural materials used in the original construction.

"We're in the middle of a capital campaign to raise about $3 million," Lamplot said. "So far we have gifts and commitments for more than $600,000."

He said the goal is to begin restoration work on the tower later this year.

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