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Schindler's Lift: Bethlehem Baptist Church Resurrected

RM Schindler’s only surviving public building, seemingly doomed to extinction for decades, is enjoying a facelift that will not only restore it, but may finally fully realise the original design

On the eve of Easter came news of a miraculous resurrection in South-Central Los Angeles. The Bethlehem Baptist church, built by RM Schindler for a poor African-American congregation in 1945, stood empty for decades. Scarred with graffiti and seemingly doomed to extinction, it was leased by Faith Build International, which had been operating out of a stopfront. They assisted the owners in repairing and repainting the stucco shell, and they have an option to buy the property. Visitors are welcomed to their exuberant Sunday services – a revelation for those whose spiritual impulses were extinguished by compulsory school chapel – and Faith Build want to raise funds for a full-scale restoration.

The creation and resuscitation of this church seem equally improbable. South-Central has always been poor and detached from downtown, as well as the centres of wealth and commerce to the west. Despite its vibrant community life, the neighbourhood of Watts is better known to most Angelenos for the devastating riots of 1964 and 1992, than for Sam Rodia’s Towers – an artistic masterwork. In the 1940s, when LA was de facto segregated, it must have seemed very remote from Schindler’s studio in West Hollywood, and from Silver Lake and Studio City to the north, where he built many of his houses. The original congregation bought the corner site in 1936, and they did not immediately replace the ruined church that occupied it. An African-American carpenter, who worked for Schindler, may have led them to his office in 1944, at a time when private building had been halted by the war.

The condition of the church before the restoration

The condition of the church before the restoration

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The stepped profile animated by sweeping bands of stucco has been repaired and repainted in anticipation of funds for a full-scale restoration

Schindler, an Austrian emigré who worked with Frank Lloyd Wright on the Barnsdall estate in Hollywood, was one of the most adventurous and least appreciated California architects of the 20th century. He launched his practice in 1922 with a house-studio (now administered by MAK from Vienna ) which remains the most radical live-work space in LA. In contrast to Richard Neutra, who was briefly his partner and enjoyed a productive career playing variations on a few basic themes, Schindler was born to struggle. Every job was a fresh departure, usually working hands-on with meagre resources and a minuscule budget. A master of space and light, he wrought magic from mundane construction. The profession and the press derided or ignored his work, much as they did with pre-Pritzker Frank Gehry, whose early ‘cheapskate’ buildings are in direct line of succession to those of Schindler.

R. M. Schindler and Theodore Dreiser looking at a blueprint of the Bethlehem Baptist Church

RM Schindler and Theodore Dreiser looking at a blueprint of the Bethlehem Baptist Church. Photo: Archives of American Art

In 1944, Schindler hired Esther McCoy, in part because she had been excluded from the USC architecture school, to replace an assistant who had been called up for war service. She had been working as a draughtsman at the vast Douglas Aircraft plant where ‘girls on roller skates brought armloads of blueprints to my desk’; here she was on her own in a cluttered room, searching for misplaced plans and adding details to Schindler’s drawings for the church. ‘He has discarded all the clichés of ecclesiastical usage,’ she wrote, ‘without indulging in extraneous brilliant techniques. He simply made a gracious statement in wood and glass.’ She accompanied him to the site, where he borrowed a saw to demonstrate to the carpenter the way he wanted the cross to be cut. Later, McCoy would become the pre-eminent chronicler of California Modernism.

It was Schindler’s only church (aside from an unrealised project of 1935 in Hollywood)and, though he may not have cared much about religion, he created a building that is a numinous worship space as well as an inspired response to the site. Using everyday materials and simple forms, he achieved a complexity of form that recalls the asymmetrical geometries of De Stijl and links up with the humble cottage to the side. To shut out traffic noise, the facade facing Compton Avenue is windowless, and its stepped profile is animated by broad bands of stucco, resembling giant clapboards, and planters. A shallow projection marks the sanctuary, and a corner door is recessed. The L-plan church encloses a narrow patio, opening off the side street and framed by a covered walkway. The forms are closed and enigmatic, but the cruciform tower that emerges from the inner corner of the L clearly announces the building’s purpose.

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The intimate interior is still a work in progress, requiring strengthening before the galleries are reopened

The interior anticipates the intimacy of present-day churches. Schindler designed two blocks of seating converging on the corner sanctuary. This establishes a strong diagonal axis with the cruciform skylight beneath the tower, and the timber posts supporting the choir and organ galleries are rotated 45 degrees. Windows, clerestories, and skylight pull in abundant natural light, which models the layered spaces and jutting forms. The geometry of the plan and elevation, the diagonal axis, the stained wood ceilings, and exterior banding are all strongly reminiscent of the recently restored How House of 1925 in Silver Lake.

This is still a work in progress. Though the structure proved surprisingly resilient, it needs to be strengthened so that the galleries can be reopened. Schindler designed pews with hand-cast concrete ends that may now be realised. Most importantly, experts will be taking paint samples in the hope of recreating the original palette. ‘The basic color is blue mixed with varying parts of red and black, the resulting shades ranging from warm blue to eggplant to purplish red,’ Schindler wrote. This scheme was whitewashed long before the church was reopened, so it would be a revelation to see the building as the architect intended.

The original plan called for a classroom opening out of one wing of the church, with two more classrooms and parish offices to the rear, and a roof terrace above, as shown on an elevation in the archives of the University of California, Santa Barbara. Money ran out and this second phase was never realised although, according to Schindler scholar Judith Sheine, the architect was still hoping to complete his project as late as 1952. Another devotee of the master, San Diego architect Steve Wallet, has been advising the congregation and introducing them to outside specialists. This is Schindler’s only surviving public building and its revival is cause for celebration. You wish that Beverly Hills and other enclaves of rich philistines cared a fig for their heritage.

Illustrations:

Exterior: Brendan Ravenhill; interior: Steve Wallet

Plan and elevation: RM Schindler papers, Architecture and Design Collection, Art, Design & Architecture Museum, UC Santa Barbara

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