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A Look At San Gabriel Mission’s Historical Significance Following Weekend Fire

View of the front entrance of the San Gabriel Mission.
View of the front entrance of the San Gabriel Mission.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

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The blaze that gutted the historic San Gabriel Mission early Saturday morning appears to have started in the church's choir loft before darting up the roof, destroying most of it, according to a city fire official.

The choir loft, a 250-square foot area that housed the pipe organ, is now the focal point for investigators who are considering arson as a possible cause, said Capt. Antonio Negrete of the San Gabriel Fire Department.

"Pretty much everything below (the loft) was smoke and water damage," Negrete said. "All the fire damage was on the second floor and so that's how they came to the conclusion that that is where the fire initiated."

Negrete said there was no sign of forced entry into the mission, other than by fire crews who charged through the front door and who also broke the lock on the exterior door to the second floor.

An electrical issue has not been ruled out but it is unlikely to have anything to do with a recent renovation to the church interior, according to Negrete. He said no work was done on the electrical system and that updates were largely "aesthetic," including the refurbishing of the original pews. (He said the pews sustained water and smoke damage and look salvageable.) He said investigators hope to determine the cause of the fire in the coming week.

Today on AirTalk, we discuss the latest and look at the church through a historical lens. Do you have thoughts? Call 866-893-5722. 

For more on the fire, go to


Steven Hackel, professor of history at the University of California, Riverside; chairperson of Mission San Gabriel Conservancy’s Museum Committee

Richard White, professor emeritus of history at Stanford University, his latest book, with his son and photographer Jesse Amble White, is “California Exposures: Envisioning Myth and History” (W. W. Norton & Company, 2020)