Bethlehem Baptist Church: A Sacred Island in the City of the Automobile

Bethlehem Baptist Church

A Sacred Island in the City of the Automobile

R.M. Schindler, Architect

by Pierluigi Serraino

Much is known about the work of Austrian master Rudolph Mark Schindler (1887-1953). It is certainly one of the first names architects and lovers of modern architecture quickly learn in their initial exposure to modernity and Los Angeles. His signature is distinctive, his design attitude cultivated, and his massing instantly recognizable. His artistic talent was poured into over 200 residential structures he authored, largely in Southern California, using experimental building techniques, and a decidedly original spatial conception. Most of his architecture is painted white, earthbound, privileging massing to transparency, skillfully articulated for maximum functional use, variety, and addictive visual awe. Although he designed neither big buildings nor cities, his own house on Kings Road in Los Angeles, and the Lovell Beach House in Newport Beach are two projects, among many, that place him in the pantheon of the greats. What is less known is that he has conceived and executed one of the most imaginative sacred buildings in the history of modern architecture: the Bethlehem Baptist Church on Compton Avenue and 49th Street in Los Angeles completed in 1951.

Occasionally modern architecture history textbooks feature landmarks in the religious typology filled with aspiration to radically rethink the imagery and experience of a church, no matter what the denomination is.The position of the core elements is tightly predetermined and worshippers enter these environments with a set of expectations on how they are going to inhabit and pray in them. Within these general parameters, there has been wide latitude of design expressions to represent the will to go beyond the physical world into the metaphysical realm. European examples by Otto Wagner, August Perret, Le Corbusier, Rudolf Schwarz, and Alvar Aalto provide key names in this new vision of places of worship. In the United States the Northeastern and the Midwestern counterparts by Frank Lloyd Wright, Eliel and Eero Saarinen, Wallace Harrison, and Paul Rudolph are powerful statements signaling the genuine artistic investment of these personalities in commissions whose spiritual foundations were in doubt in a deeply secular age.

By the time Schindler got hired to give a new facility to the congregation in 1943, the Golden State could boast but a handful of proto-modernist achievements in church architecture.The most notable amongst them was the First Church of Christ Scientist by Bernard Maybeck in Berkeley finished in 1910. And, with the exception of the Wayfarers Chapel by Lloyd Wright completed in 1951, the several religious buildings worthy of consideration in California Modernism appeared only after the Bethlehem Baptist Church was realized. Schindler arrived in Chicago in 1914, and California in 1918 to help Lloyd Wright in the realization of the Hollyhock House by his father Frank Lloyd Wright, effectively created a prototype for a spiritual complex approached by car. While well-informed through magazines and books about the themes and the iconic buildings of the makers of modern architecture in Europe, Schindler never returned to the Old World. He never saw any of the avant-garde classics now standard in the educational pilgrimage of a modernist architect. Schindler passed on in Los Angeles in 1953. Therefore this project stands out as an extremely novel approach in the context of what was being produced, and the models, religious or otherwise, he could have experienced directly.

For an architect so steeped into the temporal ideology of the 20th century, the mystique exuding from this space is both daring and indigenous to the city’s culture. Although inconspicuous at first from the main thoroughfare, a closer look gradually unveils a carefully conceived compound – a miniature city – nested into the endless tapestry of city lots formative of the Los Angeles urban texture.The new scheme was to replace a 25-year old existing wooden church destroyed in a fire in 1943. On a rectangular parcel of land measuring 135′ by 58′, an old residence and an equally old structure had to be reintegrated in the new arrangement with anncrease in the membership congregation from 500 to 600 parishioners. While the $20,000 construction budget was modest, the pastor Rev. C.C. Hall’s resolve was to finance a modern building, a place where respect for the past and the expression of the future was going to be present in equal measure.

There are multiple surprising points of interest at the large and small scale that make this project in many ways exceptional. For starters, the heart of this religious hub is the garden to which all environments open, instead of the church. Due to the optimal weather conditions all year round, indoor and outdoor community gatherings are core experiences in the social dimension of praying.The church, while remaining prominent in massing relative to the internal hierarchy of the site, is subservient to the overall C-shape form wrapped around a central space facing due north.This arrangement shields the activity of the community from busy Compton Avenue, and shifts the weight of the composition toward E 49th street.The strength of this concept comes across very clearly when reading how emphatic Schindler was about the garden in a letter he wrote to a representative of the congregation where he stated: “I feel that we ought to do everything to complete the church, and especially the gardening around it. I am very much interested to have all this done in the right spirit, and would like to do everything I can to help you.” This is a social space with a church in the mix as opposed to a church surrounded by accessory spaces.The structure is enmeshed into the overall scheme. A parade of wood posts rotated 45 degrees from the plane of the walls stakes out a covered passage delineating the patio geometry while providing circulation to all areas in the project.

A second element of distinction is the church layout. Worshippers enter the space diagonally facing the altar and pulpit.The assembly is split along the two wings and can only be seen in its entirety from the altar. While Schindler never declared the origins of this unorthodox plan idea, a very similar arrangement can be found in Mission San Luis Obispo completed in 1819.That building presents a similar layout, with the pews arranged on an L-shaped plan, one wing hosting the nave, the shorter perpendicular one containing the chapel. In the architect’s early intentions as shown in the schematic design drawings, one of the wings could open to turn a classroom into an extension of the split nave, but already in construction drawings that idea was abandoned to leave space for a lawn that was never built on. Also from the first iteration of the drawings, of the three outdoor stairs conceived to give access to a roof terrace on the second floor, only one was built leading to a partial upper level of limited collective use, yet giving entry to the space right underneath the tower.

The tower, holding the four sided cross is a third striking ingredient. It is within the tradition of sacred architecture for such a building type to be an anomaly- in either scale or architectural language, or in the built environment near and far. Whether Gothic, Neoclassical, Baroque, or Spanish Colonial, these structures stand out because they are singularities in the day-to-day inventory of utilitarian buildings. Here, although at street level the church rises straight up from the limits of the lot to reach similar height to adjacent construction, the three-dimensional cross operates both at the symbolic level because it signals the vertical centers of the space and at the prosaic level because it works as signage for car drivers looking forthe church.The sculptural presence of the cross dominates both the interior and exterior experience of the space.Such unique motive, unprecedented in early modern architecture and anticipatory of the iconicity of architect Louis Kahn, is a light source, a perpendicular magnet, a portal to the divine. Because the interior of the church is closed off to any exterior views, all the focus both from the pews and from the pulpit goes uniquely toward this powerful glow radiating the inside with soft graduated luminance.The remaining windows are clerestories occasionally affording views of the sky.

The subtle vertical and horizontal modularity of this unique architecture is its fourth point of distinction.The spacing of the pews at 2′-6″ was used as a module, both for the plan and all the interior and exterior elevations, thus securing rhythmic coherence to the volumetric complexity of the project. A design characteristic of Streamline Moderne, an architecture period of the 1930s, is a pronounced horizontality in grooves and lines in the walls. Such disciplined striation marking the exterior surfaces of the Bethlehem Baptist Church is further accentuated by the singular profile of the inside and outside faces of the walls.They offset outward 3/4″ per board, adding controlled dynamism to what otherwise would have turned into an abstract box. These corbelled walls are the architectural canvases for potent reveals under the angular California light.The vertical increments in the inches confer grandeur to the structure and activate every single plane to bestow metaphorical speed to the building with kaleidoscopic shadows penetrating every corner. It is worth noting that following the module the exact position of the cross in plan is in golden section ratio to length determined from the outer edge of the wall to the inside face of the existing building toward the patio, along the E 49th street side.

Budgetary constraints must have reduced the scope of work as originally stated. While the church remained intact in intent and execution to a reasonable extent comparing the initial version of the design with its latest stage, the educational and support spaces were drastically rethought.The perspective of the church on the E49th street side appeared in a brief article in the January 1945 issue of the magazine Interiors, showcases a highly compact banded massing, pierced strategically with open voids, and enclosed by a continuous partial height wall to protect the patio. In its final stage, the banded treatment is reserved to the church only and an iron fence replaced the pristine partial height wall along the patio side. Schindler’s conflicts with the leaders of the parishioners were apparent by 1949 when he wrote: “The appearance of the whole is a disgrace to your community. Your congregation has spent a good deal of money to build the place, and it is quite apparent that they are getting neither use nor pleasure out of their sacrifices.”

Despite the animosity of those years, the project was completed in its reduced form and the relationship was closed under more conciliatory tones. The domestic character of this community center with a church was in fact quite successful. The patio became a popular play area for children age 8 to 10 at all times as well as a place where wiener bakes were being served, whereas on Saturday guitar classes were being given in the classrooms. The reception of the design as a religious complex was mixed in the congregation.
Due to its unusual appearance some felt it looks like a night club. And apparently, shortly after its opening, a real estate broker offered to buy the church for $40,000 to indeed turn it into a night club. But the church remained as such. It received no significant coverage in the media, although correspondence by the architect with the client refers to visits of students to the premises and the chances that more people will come due to its inclusion in a book published by the University of Southern California.

Ambitious in spatial concept, the load-bearing structure is rather traditional.The wood frame was stucco outside and plaster inside, with various size blocking realizing much of the wall acrobatics. While tame in the building system, Schindler thought of a rather flamboyant color scheme for the church: it featured red floors, blue and plum for the interior, and pale mulberry for the exterior.Today the complex is white and fresh of code upgrade and long overdue maintenance. It remains one of the great treasures of Los Angeles. And justly so.

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