Churches, despite their complicated history, have been one of the largest employers of artists and architects—not just because they believed some of these creatively inclined men and women were touched by God, but because churches were believed to be direct extensions of God.
The Catholic Church has been one of the world’s largest employers of architects, having garnered work from everyone from Richard Meier to Rafael Moneo to Trey Trahan. Denmark’s Church of the Holy Cross brought on KHR Architects. Guðjón Samúelsson’s masterpiece in Iceland, the Church of Hallgrímur. Finland’s Chapel of St. Lawerence brought on Avanto Architects for its chapel in the snow.
And let us not forget the ancient temples, long removed from their architects but still providing the world with utter wonder: Wat Rong Khun in Thailand, Paro Taktsang (The Tiger’s Nest Monastery) in Bhutan, the Golden Temple in Punjab…
Despite one’s faith, or lack thereof, these pieces of creation connect us all through the thread of human imagination and talent—and Long Beach is home to some captivating houses of worship.
St. Anthony Catholic Church (600 Olive Ave.)
Nestled on the eastern edge of Downtown Long Beach, St. Anthony is the Mother Church of Long Beach for Catholics, being the first Catholic house of worship to be built in the city when it broke ground in September of 1902. (The first religious structure in Long Beach was the Methodist Tabernacle of 1885.)
Five years later, its school would be built and each would become an epicenter for Catholics throughout Long Beach. According to historian Louise Ivers, the church was designed in the popular “Mission mode, which was loosely based on the Spanish missions of California. St. Anthony’s was constructed with a wood frame and clapboard siding, however, which was unusual for buildings of this type which generally had stucco walls. A curved and stepped parapet at the top of the structure held a bell pulled by a rope, which is still extant.”
First Congregational Church UCC (241 Cedar Ave.)
Built in 1914 and one of the city’s oldest surviving churches, this prime example of Italian Romanesque architecture has always stood out for me with its tower.
Yes, there are a plethora of other features: the red brick, the terra cotta details that include massive rosettas … All designed by H.M. Patterson, a Los Angeles-based architect, and built to perfection by Long Beach-based construction manager C.T. McGrew.
But the tower is a shining example of the kind of details that would eventually usher in modernism: Straight white lines act as the precursor to the modernists’ obsession with latitude and—if one to were to remove the ornate details of the arches and roof—would be a prime example of minimalism. Of course, there is nothing minimalist nor really modern about the building as a whole but it offers some spectacular beauty either way.
Second Samoan Congregational Church (655 Cedar Ave.)
Originally the Second of Church of Christ, this historical landmark in DTLB is a dedication to the Renaissance Revival style complete with a Roman Temple facade and large dome.
This church was designed by Pasadena-based artist and architect Elmer Gray, the man behind the Huntington Art Gallery and the Wattles Mansion. Gray’s philosophy was fascinating: he believed his creations were at one with the “natural climate” surrounding it—but in all honesty, it is clear that his style looks to supersede its surroundings while simultaneously blending with them. By today’s standards, this church, now surrounded by secular structures, still stands as a testament to a long-lost style of architecture.
Temple Israel (269 Loma Ave.)
Hidden in Belmont Heights, this Jewish temple is not only one of the most unique houses of worship but one of the most unique buildings in all of Long Beach. Originally built in 1945, you can see that its overall mid-century modern style was also catering to some Googie elements.
In 2010, adaptive reuse master JR van Dijs was brought on to bring the building back to its full potential and glamour, and that he did. He noted that primary project elements “included a custom-fabricated ceiling in the temple sanctuary, retention of an original mosaic mural and mid-century roof details on the building exterior, and the reframing and integration of original stained-glass windows in communal interior spaces. ”
Grace Methodist Church (2325 E. 3rd St.)
Grace Methodist Church at Third and Junipero has a history tinged with disaster: Originally built in 1906, with a wooden structure added in 1913, both burned to the ground in 1964 due to arson. Out of this tragedy came, at the time, one of the most unusual features for any form of architecture, let alone a church: a circular gem designed by Palmer W. Power, a man known for his monolithic, religious gems—and in this case, breaking entirely away from the typical architecture of churches and using the circular piece of real estate to his advantage.
A wonderful mix of mid-century modern trying to interpret Italian Romanesque style with its brick and arches, filling those arches with 136 stained glass designs to create a gorgeously colorful interior when the sun hits its walls.
Perhaps, more than the architecture of the Grace Methodist Church, I should end on the purpose of this particular church. You see, this is a church of many churches. It hosts LGBTQ Christians. It hosts weddings of various faiths. It hosts various cultures. I suppose the ultimate point of this particular church is that it is not a particular church, and for me, even as an atheist, that is quite powerful.
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