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Non-profit quietly restoring thousands of photographs and documents in wake of mudslide

By: Alys Martinez
Posted: May 12, 2018 10:20 AM PDT
Updated: May 12, 2018 10:21 AM PDT

MONTECITO, Calif. – La Casa de Maria, a retreat and conference center in the heart of Montecito, is one of many groups and people being helped by a local non-profit to recover from the mudslide.

Several buildings were severely damaged or destroyed on the 26-acre property during the mudslide on Jan. 9, along with many historic documents and photos that washed away.

The items were found days later, and blocks away from the property caked in mud.

805 Conservation, a small-non-profit is now working behind the scenes to restore La Casa De Maria’s important pieces of history, and thousands of other damaged photos belonging to families impacted by the disaster.

Paper Conservator Christina Bean works out of a small office at the Montecito Center, which is operated by the County of Santa Barbara to help survivors as they rebuild their lives.

Bean has years of training and is an expert in her field.

Bean has family in Buellton, but lives outside of Santa Barbara County.

But, said she felt compelled to help after volunteering her time at an event at UCSB to help families assess their photos and documents.

So, along with volunteers, Bean started 805 Conservation, and in the beginning worked for free. Now, her project is funded by the Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade, a non-profit working to restore Montecito and help homeowners.

Cleaning and restoring photos and documents is a painstaking task. Typically, conservators are reserved for big institutions, governments or museums impacted by disaster–because the cost is so high and those items are deemed to be “higher in value”.

Bean said, restoring photos for individuals, has never been done on this scale.

“Any group of conservators or any sort of disaster relief agency has never tried to do a coordinated response to save people’s objects from mud or any disaster,” Bean said.

Director Emeritus of La Casa De Maria Stephanie Glatt met with Bean to look over the La Casa’s items being restored.

Bean unveiled a 1956 newsletter she cleaned, along with a photo of an Italian stone carver cutting the rock that formed the base of the La Casa De Maria’s chapel decades ago. The chapel was built out of sandstone quarried on the property.

“That was really exciting,” Glatt said. “Those were early pictures when La Casa was being built and I thought I’d never see them again.”

Bean also cleaned a photo of a nun and a man going over the chapel blueprints.

“It was Sister Regina and Toby Lambert, who was the man overseeing the grounds and buildings, going over the plans of the chapel and in the background you can see the first beams of the chapel had already been constructed,” Glatt said.

Those exact blueprints were also restored by Bean.

“The chapel is still standing, but there were a lot of details that were wiped away and when we rebuild or renew it, it would be helpful to have them,” Glatt said.

The process starts inside a massive freezer stored on the Westmont College campus. The items are frozen in plastic bags for at least three days to deactivate mold and kill any bugs. Then, the bags are removed and Bean gets to work further cleaning and vacuuming mold off of the items.

Bean said through her work on this project, she realized what matters most to people is not the stuff they lost, but the memories captured in their photos and keepsakes.

“It’s the intangible, the photographs from vacations,” Bean said. “Things they never thought they’d see again that represent their lives before the mudslide.”

Bean said the 805 Conservation project is funded through the end of May. She plans to shut down the large freezer on May 18, but will still accept items and work on a smaller scale. The non-profit needs to raise more money to continue the project.

La Casa De Maria lost nine buildings in the mudslide, and its beloved chapel was damaged.

The retreat and conference center is starting a fundraising campaign to restore and renew the property and hopes to re-open in a limited capacity sometime this summer.

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