BY DAVID DERSARKISSIAN Asbarez Staff Writer
The Armenian community of San Francisco took its first steps towards owning a piece of California history early this week–as it won a $26,000 bid to purchase a third of an acre of land atop the city’s historic Mt. Davidson.
But the story doesn’t end there.
The plot of land on the 32-acre mountain also houses a 103-foot concrete cross–the largest and highest of its kind in the nation– and recently–local church groups have filed suit in state court claiming the 63-year-old symbol is located on city property–and thus in violation of the controversial issue of church and state separation.
"As a result of the law suit–the city had to divest itself of the cross based on the principle of separation of church and state–and thus put it up for auction," said Roxanne Makasdjian–who is serving as ANC representative to the Council of Armenian American Organizations of Northern California–a not-for-profit organization representing 31 Northern California Armenian organizations which made the bid on the site.
"The Council decided it would like to participate in the auction and acquire the cross to symbolically give it back to the San Francisco city and community where it has flourished for so long."
In the early 1920s–and in the face of rapid growth and expansion within the city–local citizens led by then-Board of Supervisor member Maddie Brown–began an effort to try and save the natural space on Mt. Davidson–seeking to have the land designated a city and open space–and thus maintain its status as a scenic area.
The cross at the center of the controversy was erected in the early 1930s by designer George Kelham–and is made of concrete and takes on an art-deco style.
In 1934–President Roosevelt traveled to San Francisco and dedicated the cross as memorial monument to veterans of World War I–where it has remained–untouched–ever since.
"The majority of residence would like to see the cross remain on top of Mt. Davidson," Makasdjian said. "In order to do that–the Armenian community thought that we would be an appropriate caretaker for the cross considering our history and background."
The Council of Armenian American Organizations of Northern California was one of just three entities to bid on the property–the other two being the Museum of San Francisco and the Friends of Mt. Davidson Conservatory–which is an association of neighbors around Mt. Davidson representing some 2,200 families.
"All of the parties involved in the bidding for the property have expressed their pleasure at the outcome," Makasdjian said. "All three were interested in the preservation of the cross."
Makasdjian went on to add that the cross was built in a time when society was far less concerned with such things as state and church separation–and that in light of what had occurred–the city had taken appropriate action.
"Anytime you have a religious symbol on city or government property–it creates controversy," Makasdjian noted. "Many of these symbols were established in a time when public opinion was not opposing it. In this case there was a law suit based on the opposition of having a religious symbol on public property. Frankly–we believe that the Board of Supervisors came up with an appropriate way of divesting themselves of the cross."
Makasdjian says those who filed suit against the cross did not necessarily want it removed–but that church and state be separated–which may seemingly come to pass provided the Board of Supervisors approve the bid during its upcoming August 4 meeting.
"We’ve had an immense response not only from Armenia’s but from local citizens as well," said Attorney Paul Tour-Sarkissian–who is representing the Council of Armenian American Organizations of Northern California. "This is an emotional issue in San Francisco–and for Armenia’s to be able to be custodians of this cross that means so much would truly be an honor."
Providing that first hurdle is past–San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown must also affix his stamp of approval on the transaction–followed then by a final citywide vote.