by Paul R. Spitzzeri
For any organization, it is always a point of pride when a new building goes up, whether it is a family and their home, a business and its headquarters, a community and the civic buildings, and fans and their favorite team’s stadium and arena, as just some examples. The structure represents both a venue and a vision for the ventures involved and today’s featured object from the Museum’s collection is a representation of just such an instance: a panoramic photograph of the laying of the cornerstone for St. Paul’s Cathedral in Los Angeles on 20 May 1923.
The church’s history goes back to the building of the first Protestant church structure in the Angel City, St. Athanasius’, which was erected in 1864 on the southwest corner of Temple and New High streets. The city’s Episcopalians, basically Anglicans from the Church of England (William Workman was born into the church in 1799), formed a congregation seven years before, but held services in a Wells Fargo office until the modest St. Athanasius was built.
In 1881, several years after the first boom in greater Los Angeles resoundingly ended with the failure of the Temple and Workman bank and as the city’s growth was moving south and west, the Episcopalians moved their church to a lot off the west end of Central Park and changed the name to St. Paul’s.
It remained there for four decades as the city went through a series of booms, including in the late 1880s and early 1900s, and as the park’s name was changed to Pershing Square and the church was rechristened St. Paul’s Pro-Cathedral in 1895. That designation was an acknowledgement that, while the church was serving a congregation in such a way as to be cathedral-like, the building didn’t warrant that full descriptor.
That changed when it was decided, as property values were jumping during another boom, beginning about 1920, to sell the land in November 1921 for nearly a half-million dollars and build a few blocks to the west. In its reporting on the sale, the Los Angeles Times noted that the deal was signed in the vestry of the church and that the party on behalf of the purchasers, Lee Phillips
acted as agent for the men who are to direct the drive for funds with which to erect a $7,000,000 hotel, to be known at [as] the Biltmore, on the southwest corner of Fifth and Olive streets.
The cash sale included a provision by which “the congregation of the parish will be provided with a meeting place over the period of at least eighteen months, or until a church building is completed for its use.” This appears to have led to the temporary move of the Episcopalians to the Scottish Rite Temple, a masonic building at 929 S. Hope Street, a site now across the street from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM). The temple moved in 1961 to a prime spot on Wilshire Boulevard and was sold to the Marciano brothers of the Guess fashion empire, who opened an art museum there several years ago that abruptly closed in 2019 amid charges that it did so to avoid unionizing of its employees.
A little over two months later, it was announced that the congregation worked with the real estate firm of Robert A. Rowan and Company to buy a 132′ x 245′ lot on the west side of Figueroa just south of Sixth Street to build the new (and not pro-) cathedral. The price was $185,000 in cash, leaving the church over a quarter million dollars to apply to the building costs, with the proceeds from the Hill Street property sale due to be handed over in a couple of days. It was expected that bids for the cathedral were to be taken immediately and “work is to be started at the earliest possible moment.”
It was convenient that the designer, prominent architect Reginald Johnson, then in a partnership in Pasadena, happened to be the son of the diocese’s bishop John Horsfall Johnson. The family came to Los Angeles from New York as the bishop took charge of the diocese when St. Paul’s became a “pro-Cathedral” in 1895. The Johnsons moved to Pasadena at that time and remained there until the bishop died in 1928.
Reginald was widely known for his designs of Spanish Colonial Revival houses in Pasadena, Santa Barbara, Montecito and other regional communities, as well as some major commercial projects including the Biltmore Hotel in Santa Barbara, Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, the Hale Solar Laboratory at Cal Tech, and the chancellor’s house at U.C.L.A. He also worked on the Harbor Hills housing project for the federal government’s housing authority and the Baldwin Hills Village apartment project.
As for the new St. Paul’s, the change to a bona fide cathedral was announced in mid-May 1923, just before the cornerstone laying ceremony. The rector, Rev. William MacCormack told the Times in an article published on the 14th that
our old building, though it played no insignificant part in the work of the diocese, was not an architectural poem and we never considered it worthy to be called a cathedral . . . however, our new home of worship . . . will not only stand for a cathedral—it will be a cathedral.
The church, the contractor of which was Peter Hall, was expected to cost $325,000 and the parish center an additional $175,000, with work on the latter projected to be completed in November and the former by January 1924. When it came time to have the “Cathedral Trowel Ready,” as the Times headline read on the 18th in a piece about the upcoming ceremony, it noted that, not only would the Episcopalian leadership be present, but so would many local freemasons, including representatives from four lodges and a masonic band.
Placed in the cornerstone were copies of the Times and other local newspapers; the Diocesan Journal of the church for 1923; newsletters from the church; a history of St. Paul’s; photos of bishops and Rev. MacCormack; photos of St. Athanasius at its original location and of the previous church; a piece of the cross from that building as well as material from its cornerstone; and a coin from 1923.
When Alma Whitaker of the Times covered the ceremony, held in the late afternoon of the 20th, she began by essentially quoting Bishop William Bertrand Stevens that
The corner-stone of a great Christian temple, which is to equal in service, beauty and significance St. Mark’s of Venice, was laid at Sixth and Figueroa Streets . . .
She went into some detail about the “beautiful and impressive ceremony” and observed that “a platform was erected on the vacant lot upon which the cathedral is to rise” and noted that bishops Johnson and Stevens looked out a second-floor window from an adjacent structure until the event was ready to begin. There were photographers, like the unattributed one who snapped the photo here, as well as those doing filming.
A procession included the carrying of flags and then the architects and contractor were followed by guests (evidently including some members of the City Council) and clergy, after which was a boys’ choir singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” A couple of workmen set up the machinery for placing the cornerstone as Bishop Johnson was given a silver trowel.
After a prayer, the recitation of the Apostle’s Creed and another hymn, the speechifying took place, including remarks from leaders of the various Masonic fraternities. Special note was made of Judge William Rhodes Hervey of the Scottish Rite, of which the article said “the congregation of St. Paul’s feels indebted to the Scottish Rites, for it was this order which stepped into the breach when the old cathedral was torn down and loaned their auditorium for worship. Hervey said it was because of his fraternity’s friendship for Rev. MacCormack that the offer was made and added, “Masonry is the handmaiden of Christianity.”
In his remarks, MacCormack heaped praise on Bishop Johnson who “had saved St. Paul’s [Pro-]Cathedral, when heavily in debt, [and] the vestry had almost given up the struggle. He it was who paid off the $15,000 debt and made the cathedral of today possible.” The bishop expressed pride in his son for the building’s design, of the joy he felt in his old age as the project moved forward, and of his recollections of past struggles with the church.
As for the highlighted photo, it was taken after the cornerstone was set into place, with the clergy members and Masons standing atop the platform, the mechanism for setting the stone to their right, and attendees behind the dignitaries and on the ground, along the band members in their uniforms, all around the platform. In the adjacent wood-frame building there are some folks looking out the windows at the scene.
Inevitably, the ambitious timetable for completing the cathedral was off rather significantly and it was six months beyond that anticipated date, in mid-July 1924, when the new structure was dedicated. Notably, when Bishop Johnson delivered his sermon, he didn’t just choose a celebratory theme, but took occasion to critique modern trends in church activities. The Times reported that “he declared that men and women as never before in this age are longing for religion and he lamented, in no mild terms, what he held to be the modern tendency of the churches away from the gospel toward what he termed the ‘town hall’ or ‘social center’ idea.”
Johnson continued to advocate that the architecture created by his son “was suited to worship because of its difference from every-day surroundings” and added that “the modern atmosphere of some churches suited the messages from their pulpits, which he declared apparently were no longer interested in the gospel.”
He elaborated that the true purpose of a church was not about present concerns but that “there is another world nearer to each life than it.” He claimed that too many preachers were about reforms and “eloquent in their denunciation of evil” but “lacks what I call a constructive, uplifting quality.” The denunciations of sin, he argued, did not lead to how to become a saint and “I have the feeling that many a soul must go away from such ministers aroused, but not stimulated or helped.”
Warming to his subject, Johnson denounced those religious leaders “who are seeking for sensation” and were “frothy vagrants who wander from one place to another for amusement and entertainment.” Perhaps attacking the likes of evangelists such as Billy Sunday or Aimee Semple McPherson, Johnson proclaimed that “the preacher should always speak of topics that make the daily life a sweeter and better thing” and delivered simply and practically to convey “important truths about the life that every-day men and women are living” rather than rely on “sentimental rhetoric and silly jests.”
St. Paul’s Cathedral survived just over a half-century and, apparently because of earthquake damage from the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, the site was sold by the church to a Japanese real estate company and the building demolished in 1980. For over a decade, the diocese lacked a cathedral and services were held for a time in the chapel at Good Samaritan Hospital. In the meantime, there was a combination of the parishes of St. Paul and a revived St. Athanasius and a new Cathedral Center of St. Paul opened in Echo Park in 1994 as diocesan headquarters.