South Berkeley Community Church

Bradley Wiedmaier

Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004

26 January 2006

South Berkeley Community Church is one of the truly great monuments of the Arts and Crafts, Mission Revival, and San Francisco Bay Area styles. Boldly scaled and sumptuous in the sequence of its interior spaces, the building is also modest in size, fitting in a neighborly fashion into its residential setting. The monumentally scaled corner entrance tower is actually shorter than many nearby residential structures. The architect, Hugo W. Storch, assembled a series of components that transition through an amazing range of variation, both on the exterior and in the interior. In this building Storch recalled the structural variety, play of scale, and component collage previously used by Ernest Coxhead in St. John the Evangelist Church of San Francisco, which burned in 1906. The monumental scale coupled with the diminutive reality of the arches, the details, and the sequence of varied components used by Storch are an inheritance from Coxhead’s Bay Area Style sensibilities.

Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005

Storch reworked the Mission Revival style by mixing it with the freedom of the Arts and Crafts style. His South Berkeley Community Church went up at the same time that Julia Morgan was working on St. John’s Presbyterian Church, James W. Plachek was planning the North Berkeley Congregational Church, and Bernard Maybeck was building the First Church of Christ, Scientist—all City of Berkeley Landmarks. Joeseph Worcester’s Swedenborgian Church in San Francisco and A.C. Schweinfurth’s First Unitarian Church in Berkeley, both built in the 1890s, influenced the four later church designs.

At the South Berkeley Community Church, Storch scaled the Mission Revival Style office elevation on Fairview Street to domestic proportions. This elevation has the most traditional Mission Style details, including a curving parapet with “mission bell” opening. A 1960s addition at the choir must be overlooked. At the Ellis Street corner, the Arts and Crafts–transformed Mission tower shows how Storch reinvented the Mission Revival Style. Battered walls are only suggested—above, in the battered squat corner finials. Below, the buttresses at the arches are very low, almost a stair rail. Not one clay tile is present, nor one faux adobe bulge in the stucco surface. The Mission Style here has been abstracted. As the building continues south on Ellis Street, simplified buttresses and a second arched and buttressed entry repeat the lower part of the corner. Finally, the curving wall segments of the south-facing, semicircular Sunday school exterior are straightforward and unadorned. The low roof is not visible. The second level rests on projecting partition piers of the first level. Here, “Mission” is inferred only from the context of the other parts of the structure.

Storch fitted the complex requirements of an urban church along two street fronts in a dense city neighborhood, where the building itself is a smaller version of the surrounding urban landscape. Storch designed a similar, but larger, church in Fruitvale (destroyed in 1973) where he detailed the exterior in single gestures that hold the corner of two busy main streets. At South Berkeley, Storch articulated the parts to soften the insertion of the building into the residential district.

Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005
  The interior must be seen with daylight illuminating through the three ranges of windows, the light structural trusses, and the widely spaced purlins. The highest windows are repeated in size and detail with those above the side spaces and are similar to those at the sides. Storch assembled a hierarchy of spaces, which recall the nave, aisle, and side chapels of church tradition. The light trusses have diagonal braces, knitting the structure downward through the spreading spaces. The uncovered vertical wall studs, which project to braces across open space, suggest an abstracted perpendicular gothic tracery. The fan vault-like semicircular Sunday school space recalls a chapter house of the Gothic age. It opens from the main sanctuary through a linking space with roll-down doors. Storch re-allocated more space in the modern church to teaching and social activities, away from sanctuary, pulpit, and choir.

At South Berkeley Community Church, Storch pulled together structural, stylistic, and ecclesiastical filaments into a superbly subtle California masterpiece. He reinvigorated the Mission Revival Style with the Arts and Crafts, while recalling Bay Area Style roots, loosely alluding to, but not encumbered by, historic precedence.

Essays & Stories

Copyright © 2006–2019 BAHA. Text © Bradley Wiedmaier. All rights reserved.