Berkeley Landmarks :: St. John’s Presbyterian Church


St. John’s Presbyterian Church

2640 College Avenue, Berkeley, CA

Daniella Thompson

The church building shortly after completion (photo: BAHA archives)

The official history of St. John’s Presbyterian Church informs:

Following the devastating earthquake and fire that destroyed much of San Francisco in April of 1906, many families moved to the East Bay after losing their homes in the tragic event. Some of these new residents joined about 100 people from the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley to consider the formation of a new congregation. On May 15, 1907, these people petitioned Presbytery to establish a new church in Berkeley, and, on June 16, 1907, this church was officially organized by the Presbytery.

Many of the first members of this new church who had come from San Francisco brought with them a cherished memory of the St. John’s Presbyterian Church there along with a hope that its pastor, Dr. George G. Eldredge, might be influenced to accept the call to be the first pastor of our new church in Berkeley. On November 10, 1907, Dr. Eldredge did indeed accept a call to be our pastor and brought with him one sentimental stipulation: that the new church be called St. John’s.

Services were held temporarily in Stiles Hall (the University YMCA) until all the structures needed to serve the church could be built. The final stage of construction included the sanctuary and was completed in 1910. The buildings were designed by the architect, Julia Morgan, who created an architectural icon which has since been designated as a State Historical Landmark and now serves as the Julia Morgan Theater

One of the congregation’s leaders was Clifton Price, Assistant Professor of Latin at U.C., who lived in the Maybeck-designed Boke house on Panormaic Hill, and for whom Julia Morgan would design an apartment house next door.

Former church sanctuary (left) and school (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

In her book Julia Morgan, Architect (New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1988), Sara Holmes Boutelle explained:

The Presbyterian group had a large double lot on College Avenue, not far sourth of the campus. They first wanted a simple and economical building for a Sunday school, with a main church to follow in the next year or so, to be called Saint John’s Presbyterian Church. Ira Wilson Hoover’s name appears on the 1908 building permit for the Sunday school, but by the time the church was under way in 1910 he had left Morgan’s office, and Walter Steilberg joined her on the project.

Mark L. Brack continues the story in his article Redefining Religious Architecture:

The Presbyterians wanted to build a church for the lowest possible price, so Morgan and her assistant, Walter Steilberg, produced a modest design that cost only $1.60 per square foot. The exterior makes a strong but understated impression with its broad gables, stained shingles and clapboard. Built of plain studs and planks of Douglas fir, the structural system of the walls and roof trusses are left completely exposed on the interior of the church. This structural exhibitionism forms a worship space of great visual interest. The patterns and rhythms created by the exposed beams give the feeling of being in a medieval hall, but without any actual medieval details. The fixtures of the church are equally simple. Its hanging lights use bare bulbs to make an elegant design. The small scale of the church and the warm color of the wood help create a cozy and restful space while the plain lumber serves to remind one of God's creation—the unadorned beauty of natural materials.

Sanctuary interior (photo: Environmental Design Archives, U.C. Berkeley)

Sara Holmes Boutelle provides this description:

The interior of Saint John’s was originally lighted from all four sides by a diffused glow through clerestory windows of smoked glass common to industrial buildings; one end has since been blocked in. The sloping floor and simple wood pews give visual access from everywhere in the building, but the visitor’s eyes are inevitably drawn to the overhead beams and supports. All hardware is exposed. The warm, rich color of the wood reflects the changing light and takes away any sense of cool austerity that such economy of material and design might have created. Although the natural lighting is perfectly suited to the space, artificial light was also provided by the Morgan office in the form of wood and iron “electroliers,” with bare bulbs pointed down. The acoustics are remarkable, which has helped to make the church an admirable performing-arts center since the expanded congregation built a large modern church down the street [...].

Although Julia Morgan had opened her architecutral office only four years prior to receiving this commission, Saint John’s Presbyterian Church was her Job #237, attesting to the extremely busy practice she had developed following the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906.

Main fašade (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

In 1955, the growing congregation bought another property, located one block to the north at 2727 College Avenue. Here it constructed a fellowship hall and adjoining classrooms, which it occupied in 1965. In 1968, a bequest from Dr. Howard Campbel allowed the congregation to build a new sanctuary, completed in 1975.áThe congregation had already vacated the Morgan building the previous year, and its future seemed uncertain at a time when any property was deemed ripe for redevelopment. The movement to save the building from demolition was one of the milestones that led to the formation of BAHA.

Samuel Scripps, founder of the American Society for Eastern Arts (ASEA), bought the building in 1974. A stage was built, space was arranged for classrooms, and ASEA opened the Center for World Music (CWM). This phase lasted only a year; the church building was resold, and CWM eventually relocated to San Diego.

By 1977, the building’s use as an arts center became more focused. In 1980, the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts was incorporated as a Section 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. In addition to serving as venue for the Berkeley Opera and various theatrical productions, the building is home to several arts organizations, including the Berkeley Ballet Theater. The theater was renovated in 1989 to include new seating, lights, and sound system, a sprung stage for dance, and direct backstage access to the ballet studio.

St. John’s Presbyterian Church was designated City of Berkeley Landmark no. 4 on 15 December 1975. It is #74000507 in the National Register of Historic Places (added in 1974)

Additional reading:

Vernacular Language North: Julia Morgan Center
Descriptions and analyses by various architectural historians, including substantial passages by John Beach and Sara Holmes Boutelle.



Copyright © 2005–2019 Daniella Thompson & BAHA. All rights reserved.