The first thing to greet the eye when entering my home is a painting of the Santa Clara Mission. It has been in our family for over 70 years, and it came to dwell near the ocean when the desert air at my parents’ began crackling its skin. While it is not illustrative of great art, I love the colors it lends to the room and the story it represents, as my great-grandfather, Henry Miller, was the contractor who rebuilt the mission.
Born in 1867 in Illinois to German immigrant parents, Henry was an orphan by the time he was 5. He had four older sisters, the eldest newly married, and he and another sister went to live with her, while the other sisters lived together nearby. By the time he was 22, he was living on his own in Peoria, Ill. as a bricklayer, and a few years later he was listed in the city directory as a contractor. In 1907 he married my great-grandmother, Elizabeth Gelser, in St. Louis, Mo., and they moved to Alameda, Calif.
As my father recalls, “My Gramma Lizzy was a lot younger than my grandfather—18 years younger. She always called him ‘Mr. Miller.’ He was a contractor building blimp hangers around Livermore for a time. That was a big thing in those days. They were the biggest structures in the world and they’re still there. But his claim to fame was rebuilding the Santa Clara Mission after it burned down in 1926, and constructing many of the buildings at Santa Clara University.”
Santa Clara Mission was founded in 1777 and suffered devastating fates from fire, flood, earthquake and decay throughout its…
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