Thursday, August 18, 2011

walking tour: Churches and Temples

Wednesday I had a chance to go on another Oakland walking tour, this time the Churches and Temples tour. As with the other tours, we had an extremely knowledgeable guide, Don Tyler, a former Oakland High history teacher who's been leading history tours since the 1970s. We were fortunate to get access inside many of the buildings, too.

First Presbyterian

Say what you will about churches building huge, fancy edifices, many of them are beautiful, interesting buildings. They're frequently one of the first things people built when they settled an area, so they tend to be some of the oldest structures around, assuming they survived fires, earthquakes, and urban renewal.

We started in front of First Presbyterian Church of Oakland, which you've doubtless seen at 27th and Broadway. I've been in the complex frequently, because that's where Habitat for Humanity East Bay has its offices, but I'd only been in the sanctuary briefly. It's a large English Gothic structure designed by William C. Hays. Its huge organ has over 4,000 pipes, the largest of which are 32 feet tall. First Presbyterian started small, meeting in a tent near the waterfront in 1853 (Oakland was incorporated in 1852), and moved a number of times before constructing the building at 27th and Broadway which was completed in 1916. The history is shown in a series of smaller stained glass windows in the church.

Temple Sinai

Then it was a short walk over to Temple Sinai. That began in 1875 when 18 businessmen formed the First Hebrew Congregation of Oakland. As with First Presbyterian, it moved several times before settling in the current location in 1913. Over the years, the congregation has included such notable Oaklanders as the Capwells (H.C. Capwell department store, later part of Emporium-Capwell), the Kahns (Kahn's department store, noted on the City Center walking tour), the Grodins (Grodin's Menswear store) and Gertrude Stein. Temple Sinai recently expanded their campus, but the 1913 structure still serves as the sanctuary.

St. Augustine's

Another short walk over the south end of Pill Hill took us to Saint Augustine's Episcopal, a smaller but distinctive church on Telegraph at 29th. Originally a black Episcopal church meeting at 27th and West, it merged with Trinity Church at 29th and the combined church kept the name St. Augustine's. The original St. Augustine's is notable because it became a "political and spiritual haven" for the Black Panthers, so it was big news when it merged with the predominately white Trinity Church. The building is a vivid rust red color (you've seen it if you've ever been to the Commonwealth Cafe and Pub across the street) and is built of wood. Inside is stained and varnished, with fine details and a warm color. Additional decorations around the wainscoting are done with lincrusta, a molded linoleum and wood product made to mimic more expensive carved wood. The building was designed by architect William Hamilton. In an amazing bit of timing, earthquake retrofit work was completed on the building just months before the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake struck, and the building came through fine. Read more about St. Augustine's in Annalee Allen's Tribune article.

Walking down Telegraph to 21st we came to First Baptist Church. The building was completed shortly before the 1906 earthquake, and was badly damaged in the quake. Julia Morgan (the Morgan family lived nearby) had been hired to finish the sanctuary, and was instead hired to repair the church and finish the sanctuary. Many Baptist churches are relatively plain in design; First Baptist is not, with fine wood carving, an open redwood ceiling, and lovely stained glass windows around. The building itself is based on the cathedral in Aachen, Germany, designed for Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne. A large pipe organ (the sister instrument to the well-known organ in the Stanford Chapel) sits at the front. The sanctuary was featured in the movie "What Dreams May Come". While the First Baptist congregation merged with Lakeshore Baptist in 2010, the building is still in use by the Burmese Mission Baptist Church.

Christ the Light

We then headed towards Lake Merritt to see Christ the Light Cathedral, which was completed in 2008. Unfortunately we arrived just as mass was beginning, so we couldn't go in the sanctuary, but we did take a brief tour of the mausoleum below. In what's a common theme, this building was built to replace the original cathedral that was damaged beyond repair in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

From there we headed over to the all-brick St. Paul's Episcopal. That was likewise unavailable because of a service, but we stood outside and talked about the retrofit work that has been done to the building -- un-reinforced masonry doesn't do well in earthquakes, though St. Paul's survived Loma Prieta with only minor damage. The Gothic Revival style building was constructed in 1912, and designed by Benjamin Geer McDougall.

First Congregational

After noting the former site of the Piedmont Baths next to Whole Foods, we headed over to First Congregational Church. At this point we were behind schedule, so we didn't get to spend too long there, but it's an interesting building. And F.M. "Borax" Smith was a noted member. The Italian renaissance building with its distinctive tower was designed by John Galen Howard, and opened in 1925. I would have happily kept walking around learning about the churches, temples and people behind them (with a break for lunch, of course), but we were past our scheduled time so we headed back to Broadway where we began the tour.

Lots more pictures:

This is hardly all the notable places of worship in downtown, never mind all of Oakland: the Julia Morgan-designed College Avenue Presbyterian in Rockridge, the First Church of Christ Science on Franklin and 17th, the Greek Orthodox Cathedral, and the Mormon Temple in the hills come immediately to mind. There are lots of other interesting, historical churches and temples around the rest of Oakland, waiting for you to explore.

Additional coverage:
Oakland North

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