an Easter surprise: The unexpected rebirth of Schindler's "lost" church

awesome stylized representation of the church (and the iconic nearby palm tree) by Steve Wallet

A couple of years ago, while cruising Los Angeles gawking at various houses built by R.M. Schindler, I ventured down Compton Avenue to see his only built church. Designed in 1944 with construction complete in 1945 the Bethlehem Baptist Church is a gorgeous volume of sliding planes and intersecting volumes designed for a small congregation with varied needs. Sadly, when I first saw it, it had been long abandoned, covered with graffiti  and seemingly starting to collapse. It appeared to be one flicked cigarette away from only existing in photographs and memories (scarily, a few days before, this nearly happened when someone lit up a mattress in the alley). Nevertheless, the bones of its beautyand potentialwere still there.  

photo I took on May 12, 2012

So imagine my joyful surprise when I learned that the church was being restored, had a new congregation, and was having an open house to celebrate its new life! Instantly I thought: “We must go.” And so we went!

Schindler’s structures are sights (and sites!) to behold, but their true beautyand surpriseare held within. Schindler described himself first and foremost as a “space architect”, space in the sense of the space we live in (Gregory Ain, in describing the difference between working for Schindler versus working for Neutra, said “Schindler was different than Neutrahe had transitions from one volume to another, there were sequences of space. Neutra was more concerned with windows.”). Schindler also felt strongly that his architecture couldn’t and shouldn’t be judged on outward appearances. He wanted you to experience his work in the flesh, to see and feel the space to fully appreciate it. 

And he was absolutely right. Although I find the outside aesthetics of his work phenomenal, the surprise on the inside is how much bigger the space feels than what appears outside. The interlocking volumes and various levels (echoes of Loos’ raumplan) create deliciously lively and open spaces.

In the 2009 recommendation for the church to become an Historic-Cultural Monument for Los Angeles, the authors described the church as “an example of modernist de Stijl architecture.” “Built in 1944, the character-defining features of the building include horizontal bands of stucco, an L-shaped floor plan, and an open cruciform tower. The horizontal layered de Stijl pattern was both simple and complex enough to attract the attention of passing cars. The horizontal bands also allowed the insertion of planters and other openings for natural illumination. By placing the church at the corner of the lot rather than in the center and marking its presence by means of an abstract cruciform tower, Schindler organized his design to enable flexible use of both indoor and outdoor space. These distinctive elements of the building are designed in a unique mid-century modern architectural style.” The church also embodies the early stages of what became the “Schindler frame”, formally developed in 1945. 

Schindler showing the plans for the church to Theodore Dreiser (photographer unknown)

What is further amazing is the location: “This building is the lone example of Modernist architecture to cross Los Angeles’ economic and racial boundaries during the era of Jim Crow housing covenants which began in the 1890s and ended in the 1970s.” Many early modernists dreamed of creating architecture for the common man but, because of the nature of custom construction, wound up building for the rich or near rich instead. With this project, Schindler designed and built an affordable yet inspired church for a socioeconomically challenged part of the city.

The request for historic designation in 2009 wasn’t the first. Another request was made in 1974, a year before the original congregation sold the church. This request failed due to lack of a second on a motion to protect the property, perhaps due to budgetary snobbism. The Cultural Heritage Committee of the American Institute of Architecture commented at that time that “since the building was constructed under a very low budget, it was not one of R.M. Schindler's best works.” (quote from the 2009 application).

The church is now occupied by the lovely people of Faith Build International (aka the FBI, complete with a badge logo!). It’s unclear who presently owns the church as he or she (or they) wish to remain anonymous. Reverend Melvin A. Ashley, Jr. and his crew didn’t realize that they were not only acquiring a space for services, but that they were assuming stewardship of an architectural jem. As Capri, one of the pastor’s crew, stated, she had never heard of Schindler before they worked on the church, and that now she loved him (Schindler seems to do that to people). She’s now, appropriately, the church’s historian. The Schindler factor is helping the congregation with restoration of the church (there’s quite a crew out there of folks looking after Schindlers including the architect Steve Wallet and designer Brendan Ravenhill). And after learning the history of the church and its architect, they now have a goal of fully realizing Schindler’s original vision for the property, which included a larger facility with an ample rooftop deck for outdoor sermons.

Pastor Ashley
Schindler's original plans

Footprint of what was built.

From Compton Avenue, the church offers an elevated sense of sliding horizontal volumes, some cut short, some extended, some accommodating windows and built-in planters. Perched on the top of the church is the only indication that the structure is a church: a three-dimensional stylized cross, a cross that’s a cross no matter which direction you see it. From the side street, the L-shape of the plan is apparent with a garden space nestled in the elbow and bordered by a loggia connected to the outbuildings. The church, now white (and white works well with the building...), was originally, according to Esther McCoy, “a mulberry grey that deepened into rosy violets and deep plums for the interiors.”

view from Comptom Avenue

view from the side street

Steve Wallet's representation of the church in its original color.

The inside space is simply amazing. Schindler smoothly contoured the floor for stadium seating on either side of the pulpit, something that heightens the space much more than is apparent from the street. Indirect light pours in from beneath the cross at the top of the structure. As Wallet pointed out at the open house, the symbolism is thick: from the cross comes The Light. The entry also adds drama to while entering the church. First a low, somewhat claustrophobic, ceiling followed by the full opening up of the space. And all those that visit enter with a baptism of light from above. Various clerestory windows create an airy lighted atmosphere. Above the pulpit on an L-shaped balcony is where the choir sings as if angels from on high (not to mention an efficient use of space in the third dimension). Even here, indirect light pours in from the sides of the balcony to carry the “angels” to their place above the pulpit. The materials are simple (stucco, wood, concrete) but the use of these materials is sophisticated. A simple jesture with the supporting poststurning them 45 degreessomehow gives them an ecclesiastic spirit in this setting.

view from the pulpit

looking up through the skylight to the cross

The pulpit and balcony above the pulpit for the choir. Brendan Ravenhill's light.

The floorplan evokes the Packard House (1924) and the Howe House (1925) and, apparently, an earlier but unbuilt church Schindler designed for the Hollywood area. There are two wings on opposite sides of the pulpit, which faces the entry doors and the light beaming in from the ceiling beneath the cross. The pastor joked that he doesn’t know which side to talk to, but I imagine it’s useful to look up to the light in front of him when referring to higher authorities. The pastor says the space easily accommodates his congregation of 125 folks with the ability to double that in the future. The church clearly demonstrates Schindler’s untapped capacity for designing institutional buildings. It’s sad he didn’t get more opportunities to flex these designing muscles.

Steve Wallet, an architect from San Diego and something of a Schindler buff, has built a three-dimensional computer model of the church and will be blogging about the design of the church in the near future. His other posts about the nuts and bolts of Schindler’s work are fantastic. Plus, he's a cat person, so you know he ain't a bad guy. We also got to meet John Reed, another architect from San Diego, who finished design work on the Schlessinger House, Schindler's last built project. Reed is also an Irving Gill historian, one of the first to sing his praises. A discussion with Wallet overheard by a reporter fascinated that we came all the way from Texas just to see the church led to a radio interview that might air this week. hmmm.... 

Steve Wallet

John Reed

All in all it was a joyous occasion. A congregation proud of their new space, various Schindler gear-heads absorbing a long-forgotten space, and neighbors wondering what was going on (we chatted with the folks to the east of the church and filled them in). And how appropriate that in the Easter season the church has had the rock of neglect rolled to the side allowing it to be reborn with new purpose.

scary fire in the alley a few days ago...

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