Berkeley Landmarks :: Westminster Presbyterian Church

Westminster Presbyterian Church

926 Hearst Avenue & 1901 Eighth Street, Berkeley, CA

Daniella Thompson

Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004

Westminster Presbyterian Church was the third landmark designated by the City of Berkeley. The church is the second oldest standing in town, having been built in 1879—a year after the neighboring Church of the Good Shepherd, Episcopal went up.

Originally called the First Presbyterian Church of West Berkeley, it was designed by the prominent San Francisco architect Charles Geddes (1820–1903). Geddes had already designed the Community United Methodist Church of Half Moon Bay in 1872 and would go on to design the Noe Valley Ministry of San Francisco in 1888.

Community United Methodist Church, Half Moon Bay (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

In the same year that the Berkeley church was constructed, Geddes drew up plans for the Yosemite Chapel, the oldest building standing in Yosemite Valley and the first of the park’s buildings to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Yosemite Chapel (photo by George Fiske, engraved by J.M. Hay, San Francisco,
from “In the Heart of the Sierras” by James M. Hutchings, 1888)

Born in Nova Scotia, Geddes immigrated to the United States in 1848. In 1860, the U.S. census listed his occupation as “carpenter,” but a decade later he had been upgraded to “architect.” He appears to have teamed up with his son-in-law, the contractor-builder Samuel Thomson.

Geddes’ work spans a spectrum of Victorian idioms, including Carpenter Gothic, Italianate, Stick style, and New England vernacular. Late in his career he became more experimental; for the Sheldon Jackson Museum (1895–07) in Sitka, Alaska, Geddes created a plain, octagonal concrete structure topped with a small, windowed octagonal cupola. Alaska’s first concrete building, the museum bridges the gap between Victorian octagon houses of the mid-19th century and Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Dwelling Machine (see photos).

The First Presbyterian Church of West Berkeley was far more traditional—a typical Gothic Revival building executed in wood. Its details were announced in the Berkeley Advocate on 8 May 1879:

The First Presbyterian Church Society has accepted the lot in part donated by Captain Bowen, on the corner of Bristol and Eighth streets. The size of the lot is 52 x 100 feet, and the contract for the building has been awarded to George A. Embury, the builder of the East Berkeley Presbyterian Church, for $2,850. The building is to be 32 feet broad by 57 feet long, with a tower and a spire 80 feet from the ground. The tower will be 10 feet square. The audience room will be 30 ft. 9 in. by 40 ft., and will contain 44 pews, with seating capacity for about 200 persons, although much more space will be available when required by throwing open the lecture room, the size of which is to be 14 x 24 feet. The whole interior of the building on the first floor, and the pastor’s study in the tower, is to be plastered and hard-finished. The windows will be stained glass, imitation of lead work.

Geddes, a Presbyterian and later a Ruling Elder of his San Francisco congregation, kept the design in his files for repeated use. In 1889, the Board of Home Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America published two of his church designs. The more elaborate of the two was a mirror image—slightly larger and more ornate—of the West Berkeley church, with an audience room of 34 x 44 feet, seating 260 people. Mr. Geddes estimated that it could be built in California for $4,000. “In other states, where lumber is less expensive, the cost would not be so great,” concluded the summary of his presentation.

Church design No. 1 by Charles Geddes (Board of Home Missions of the Presbyterian Church, 1889)

Floor plan for church design No. 1 by Charles Geddes (Board of Home Missions of the Presbyterian Church, 1889)

The church was completed in August 1879 and dedicated on 26 October of that year. The congregation that commissioned it had started meeting four years earlier in the Ocean View School, with the Rev. Dr. James Curry preaching. In 1877, the congregation was officially organized as the First Presbyterian Church of West Berkeley. At the time, there were only six members, including the first Ruling Elder, Captain James S. Higgins, owner of the Temperance Grocery Store at San Pablo Avenue and Delaware Street. (Higgins’ store building still exists, now at 834 Delaware Street, and is a City of Berkeley Landmark.)

Captain Willian J. Bowen not only made a partial donation of land for the church but served as one of the congregation’s first five trustees.

The congregation remained small throughout its 95-year existence, seldom reaching 75 members. It occasionally blamed its low membership on the nearby presence of saloons, West Berkeley being outside the one-mile perimeter around the university campus within which liquor sales were prohibited. When local option was being hotly debated in West Berkeley, Rev. George H. Wilkins, pastor from 1906 to 1909, was hung in effigy in the middle of the street.

Chronically impecunious, the congregation relied on assistance from the Board of Home Missions. In 1899, the session minutes recorded that “there are no specially poor to be cared for by the church. All are very poor and while caring for self have but little for other things.” Despite its poverty, the congregation rose to the challenge after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, offering shelter to refugees who had fled to Berkeley.

In 1899, the name was informally changed to Westminster Presbyterian Church to avoid confusion with the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley. The change was never made legal, since that would have entailed the payment of $1 to the Probate Court. Yet in 1914 they managed to scrape together $1,950 and built a two-story clubhouse designed by Walter H. Ratcliff, Jr.

The clubhouse, designed by Walter Ratciff in 1913 and built in 1914 (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2006)

The congregation stopped using the buildings in 1968 and officially disbanded in 1972. The property was acquired by Lawrence Gerard Smith, a self-styled “Catholic Orthodox priest” unaffiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. Smith renamed it St. Procopius Latin Rite Church and celebrated a traditional Latin mass that attracted no more than 20 parishioners each Sunday.

The mural painted by Gerald Gaxiola in 1973 (postcard from a photo by Charles G. Haacker)

The church interior being rather plain and austere, Smith set about adorning it. He was fortunate to meet the Albany artist Gerald Gaxiola, who agreed to paint a mural on the empty wall behind the altar. Gaxiola, later to gain a modicum of fame as the subject of Les Blank’s film The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists, spent four months populating the wall with life-size figures forming an ecumenical survey of Catholicism. The deep-perspective scene also included Lawrence Smith, dressed in black robe and cowl, and the bare-chested, muscle-bound artist at his easel. At the very top, two adult male angels in their birthday suits, wings flapping, looked down on the mitered crowd.

The figures depicted in the mural were described by the artist as follows:

There are 23 figures in the work, including five portraits; Peter Mollica and Albert “KC” Lewis on the [left] balcony above the Pope, Rt. Rev. Dom Bernard Johnson, O.C.S.C., Asst. General of the Trappist Order, kneeling with the open book in his hand containing the Latin inscription “haerescoere” (to adhere), Fr. Lawrence in black habit on the right standing behind three angels, and Maestro Gerald Gaxiola at his easel.

Next to Fr. Abbot Bernard are two Trappist monks, one representing a Chinese monk from their new monastery of Our Lady of Joy in Hong Kong. The monk sitting below the Maestro represents the Franciscan Friars who founded the California Missions, to which the Gaxiola family is connected. The priest directly behind the Maestro represents the Orthodox Catholic Church, which is made up of many different nationalities, such as Russian, Greek, Ukrainian, Syrian, etc.

Mural detail showing Gaxiola at the easel and Lawrence Smith (upper right) in a cowl. (postcard from a photo by Charles G. Haacker)

Smith also installed stained-glass windows in the sanctuary. Although Geddes’ original plans called for “stained glass, imitation of lead work,” funding must have proved insufficient, and the Westminster Presbyterian congregation made do with hammered glass. The new stained-glass windows were removable, attached to the window frames by hinges.

In an e-mail dated 17 August 2007, Smith stated that the church had never possessed an organ before his time. He reinforced the balcony and brought in a seven-rank Austin pipe organ acquired from the Masonic Temple in San Francisco after it closed. He also installed a large altar and pews. It was during Smith’s watch and on his initiative that the church was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark on 15 December 1975.

In 1977, Smith was one of 20 candidates running for the Berkeley city council. The same year, he was convicted on a misdemeanor child molestation charge and sentenced to probation. The police kept an eye on him thereafter. They said he was in the habit of picking up boys at James Kenney Park, as well as in San Francisco and Oakland, but no evidence against him turned up. In 1983, Smith was charged with six felony counts of sexually abusing Vietnamese and Hispanic boys. He was sentenced in January 1984 and served nine years in prison. Smith continues to deny all the charges, insisting on his complete innocence.

Berkeley Gazette, 17 May 1983

While he was away, said Smith, the church was repeatedly broken into by street people, and many religious artifacts he had collected and treasured were stolen. One of the missing items was an outdoor statue of St. Rose, reportedly stolen by Smith’s neighbors.

Following his return in 1993, Smith sold the church buildings to the Mekane Selam Medhane Alem Ethiopian Orthodox Church and moved to Mexico. The sale price was $300,000, reduced from the asking price of $400,000. According to Smith, he could have sold the property for a higher price to other interested buyers who wanted to turn it into a caf´┐Ż, among other uses. “I left them the beautiful pews which I installed, and the organ, and one large altar, which they later cut up,” he wrote in his e-mail. “They wanted more items, which I offered to sell apart from the building and they declined.” Among the latter were the stained-glass windows, which Smith took with him to Mexico, said Benyam Mulugeta, chair of the Medhane Alem board and the realtor who handled the sale.

Smith settled on Calle Libertad in Guadalajara, across the street from the U.S. Consulate General. There, too, he got into trouble, albeit of a different kind. David Agren, a Canadian journalist living in Guadalajara, twice reported in his blog that Smith aroused the ire of his neighbors by sheltering as many as 95 stray dogs in his home. Following a lawsuit, a failed appeal, and many fines from the city, Smith moved the dogs and was looking for another place to live.

Shorn of its stained-glass windows, the sanctuary next lost the Gaxiola mural. According to Smith, the mural was badly damaged by the Loma Prieta earthquake and could not be salvaged. He adds that the fire department demanded that dry wall be put up in its place to prevent a fire, and that Medhane Alem complied after buying the church. For his part, Mulugeta says that the Ethiopian Orthodox congregation was not interested in a Roman Catholic mural, and the nudity offended some parishioners. There was apparently no curiosity about the identity of the artist, either. With the mural gone, the sanctuary reverted to its plain and austere Presbyterian appearance, only more so, since much of the original hammered glass is gone, too. Remaining is the lovely wooden staircase ascending to the organ loft, where the organ appears to be intact, although long unused.

Medhane Alem eventually outgrew the church. In 2005, the congregation bought the former First United Lutheran Church at 4100 Mountain Blvd. in Oakland. Initially they had planned to turn the Berkeley church into a monastery and school but have since determined that they need at least ten acres—they want to include a retreat and some farming operations—and are looking beyond the Bay Area for suitable land.

After sitting empty for a year, the church was acquired in 2006 by the Pentecostal congregation New Word of Faith. By the summer of 2007, the church was listed again for $1,700,000. Bishop Nathaniel L. Brown said that his congregation was already outgrowing the space. Since many of the parishioners are in recovery from substance abuse or other criminal activities, they were finding it hard to keep up with payments on their usurious 14% first mortgage (the second mortgage was carried by Medhane Alem).

Included in the listing were the 4,200 sq. ft. chapel and the Ratcliff-designed assembly hall, which contains a dining hall with a 200-person capacity, a full kitchen, 4 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, 4 offices, a storage room, and an attic.

A previous version of this article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 10 August 2007 under the title “Buyer Sought for Historic West Berkeley Church.”



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