We don’t often think of Los Angeles as a city with any history. It can be almost annoying that our city is so new and that the traces of our past are very much still on the surface. Unlike New York City and London and Paris, Rome, Madrid, and more, our city is a baby: we are the young upstart who is demanding all the same attention the old bags are getting. This said, we do still have history–we just choose to overlook it. With items like the Hollywood Bowl, Angel’s Flight, and more, we gloss over their age and history because they are only near a hundred or so years old, which is still a very long time ago. The First Congregational Church of Los Angeles is staking their name in history and helping show that Los Angeles does have a rich history and that our structures–although often few and far between–are in fact marvels that rival any “older” city in terms of history.
First Congregational is located on 6th Street in between Koreatown and Westlake. It’s one of the many big churches in the area that are tucked in between tall, 1970s and 1980s office buildings. It’s nice looking from the outside with its stone façade and Western facing stain glass rose window. Walking up to the church, you begin to notice how grand it is, details you miss from your car or bike. There are carved details lining corners and elaborate spires that attempt to reach as tall as the black glass office building South of it. There are symbols that represent peacocks, a chalice, a Menorah, the Mayflower, and many stands where saints would go, which is a clever reference since Congregationalists don’t have any saints or images. You can see the four finials on the top of the tower, which you come to find out are replacements to the originals (who now sit at the entrance of the parking lot: they were removed because they were too heavy and unstable when dealing with earthquakes). The cornerstone proudly announces it was erected in 1931 and a slightly hard to read welcoming above the door states, “Enter into this gates with thanksgiving and enter his courts with praise.” The bronze front doors weigh one thousand pounds each and have religious scenes carved into them.
You step inside the doors (which are surprisingly easy to open for being a thousand pounds each) and are in a fairly normal church vestibule. Take note of the details in here. To your left are two photos with carved stone to honor Mr. and Mrs. Frank Seaver, a very wealthy Hollywood couple in the oil business who donated money, resources, and shares of their company to the church in life and after their deaths. Without them, the church would not exist and wouldn’t have made it through being built in the Depression. To the right of the oak doors into the sanctuary is the original ballot box that Angeleno Congregationalists would use to elect church officials. Although no longer in use, it sits by the door as a mark of their history.
You enter the sanctuary and will be surprised to find its walls painted in purple and blue lights, beautiful jewel tones suggested by the stained glass windows and aided by dramatic, almost Hollywood lighting. Taking a seat in a pew, you see more details, which our architectural tour leader and congregation member Diane Kanner explained: the windows on the North side of the church depict Old Testament stories, the windows on the East end of the church depict Christ’s life and death, and the windows on the South side of the church display stories from the New Testament in addition to a few renderings of modern philanthropists and issues (for example, there is a scene depicting the abolition of slavery and another that honors the work of Gandhi). A few other interesting elements are a few original windows, the German made, Gothic styled oak reredos, and many, many pipes that all come together to make the world’s largest church pipe organ, which includes 23 thousand pipes. Did you know LA is home to the world’s largest pipe organ? We didn’t believe it either.
We passed through various hallways and corridors to explore more of the church’s history and you find out things like this is not First Congregational’s first church but in fact their fifth. The previous incarnations were closer to the city’s heart Downtown and–as Kaner said–it eventually moved to the then-suburbs which has now become just as bustling as the Downtown area. Kaner explained that Western Avenue once symbolized “the Westside” of the city. This is why there are many churches in this style and of this age in the area. Kaner also made sure to point out Shatto Chapel, an attachment to the church built to the dimensions of the Mayflower. The chapel is named after Mr. and Mrs. George Shatto, an industrialist and his wife who donated the land the church is built upon.
The tour was a quick forty five minutes and is packed with architectural details and delights in addition to Los Angeles history. Kanner–who led the campaign to get First Congregational recognized as a historic landmark–is a wealth of information in addition to fellow tour guide John Rundall. They are constantly learning new things about the church and are always open to others’ expertise as they purely are researching and celebrating the church’s architectural history out of a passion they have for the church. The whole idea of this tour and to marvel at the architectural style of a church is incredibly metropolitan and I felt like I was in one of those older cities–in a tiny Notre Dame or St. Peter’s–admiring how we built before the Great Depression. It also should be noted how many Angelenos gave to made this church possible and how many Angelenos of our past donated to the city to make the city run: this is something we can learn from First Congregational’s history.
First Congregational Church’s tour is absolutely free and runs once a month. They next two are scheduled for January 20, 2013 and February 10, 2013, both starting at 12:15PM. For more information on the church, check out their website. If you want to know more about the art and architecture in the church now, you can read more about it on their website.