Take It On Faith: The Dedication Program for the First Methodist Episcopal Church, Los Angeles, 8 July 1923

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In the early twentieth century, the Methodist Episcopal Church was a powerful religious, social and political presence in Los Angeles. Reflecting the huge growth of the city, including by large numbers of Protestants migrating from other parts of the United States, the church grew from humble and challenging origins to a place of prominence in the spiritual and secular realms.

For example, Methodists were the primary founders (though Jews and Catholics were also very much involved) in 1880 of the University of Southern California, which remained affiliated with the church into the early 20th century. They were also at the forefront of the temperance movement and utilized sophisticated politicking to advocate for local and national Prohibition. Pastor Charles Edward Locke, whose tenure lasted from 1908 to 1920, was involved with many social issues, including “white slavery” and a publication on that topic was featured in a post on this blog.

Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the museum’s collection is the program for the dedication of the church’s third permanent location with the new building at the southwest corner of Hope and 8th streets “thrown open to the public,” as the Los Angeles Times put it, on 8 July 1923. The paper, whose publisher Harry Chandler was a benefactor as discussed below, covered the proceedings with great detail.

Los Angeles Times, 9 July 1923.

There is a “Historic Statement” in the publication, which noted that, in spring 1850, “the Mayor, J. C. Nichols” hosted the first services of the Methodists in his adobe house. Actually, the individual was John G. Nichols and he was not mayor until a couple of years later, but it is the case that Rev. John Brier preaced the first Methodist, and earliest Protestant, sermon in what was then a Roman Catholic-dominated town just a few years removed from the American seizure of Mexican California.

The statement continued that, three years later, the Rev. Adam Bland was sent from the north as a missionary and he preached at Wilmington, where Phineas Banning had just settled, and the newly established “Anglo” community at El Monte, as well as at Los Angeles. It was noted, however, that “the work, though very feeble, was bitterly assaied and persecuted by the Roman Catholic Fathers.”

Over the following half-decade, five other pastors tried to establish a toehold for Methodism in the Angel City, but, it was asserted, “on account of the slavery agitation and the strong feeling incited against the Methodists because of their pronounced attitude against slavery, the work was temporarily discontinued.” In this case, it was more than purported Catholic animosity, as there were many Southerners in southern California who were very much supporters of the slave-holding states soon to secede from the Union as the Civil War developed by the early 1860s.

Times, 9 July 1923.

Not coincidentally, it appears, Bland returned in 1866, just after the war’s end, and brought the editor of a Methodist newspaper with him. The pair established a Quarterly Conference and Love Feast, with thirty-one persons in attendance and at which the first sacramental service was held in the region. A formalized church for Los Angeles was established with thirty members and the first pastor was the Rev. Columbus Gillet.

He was soon replaced by the Rev. A.P. Henden and parishioners were able to acquire a lot on Fort Street (later Broadway) between 3rd and 4th streets, where a one-story brick church, with a capacity, was dedicated on 15 October 1868. About then, Los Angeles and its environs was undergoing its first significant period of growth, which meant that more Methodists would settle in the region.

Henden had five successors over the course of the next several years, including the Rev. Asahel M. Hough, who was accused, along with prominent Methodist real estate developer and attorney Robert M. Widney (a key founder of U.S.C.), by memoirist Horace Bell of being involved in the December 1870 lynching of Michel Lachenais. Bell is the only source for this accusation, though the question dogged Widney subsequently and led to the removal of his name last year, in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing, from a building on the campus. Hough, meanwhile, has been long forgotten.

Times, 9 July 1923.

In 1874, likely as a reflection of the growth of the Angel City, which peaked during that and the following year, a substantially larger wood-frame structure was built next to the brick one and it was dedicated just before Christmas 1875. By then, however, economic disaster struck Los Angeles, including the suspension of the Temple and Workman bank during a panic that erupted in late summer. While the institution reopened about two weeks before the new church dedication, it failed within just several weeks and the resulting financial malaise lasted most of the following decade.

As for the church, it had eight pastors, including Marion M. Bovard who left in 1880 to be U.S.C.’s founding president, during the last quarter of the nineteenth century and during the first half of the 1890s, a new site was acquired for $44,000 at Hill and Sixth streets, with the impressive Gothic Revival stone church including a curved corner entrance cater-corner from Central (or Sixth Street) Park, now Pershing Square, costing $73,000 when it was completed by Easter 1900.

By the following year, Los Angeles was in the midst of another of its many boom periods and the population skyrocketed while downtown continued its transformation. The church then found the land for its new home in summer 1913, when Locke was pastor, though the total cost for acquisition was just below a half million. It took almost eight years, though, for construction to begin, as ground was broken in July 1921 and the cornerstone laid a few months later. By then, Locke departed to become a bishop in the Philipines and was replaced by the Rev. Elmer Ellsworth Helms, who helmed the church from 1920 to 1933. The president of the Board of Trustees was 85-year old Abram E. Pomeroy, who with George W. Stimson, founded the town of Puente, now La Puente, nearly four decades prior, as well as Pismo Beach near San Luis Obispo.

Times, 14 July 1923.

Beside the much larger land cost, the construction of the church (it was noted that since 1920, over 1,600 new members joined the church) and its complex also was significantly higher that previous home. As the program stated,

The Church, including organ, mosaic panels, furnishings and equipment represents an investment of one million dollars, and this has been made possible only by the fact that the church has been fortunate in placing many contracts thousands of dollars below actual cost . . . The blood sacrifice of hundreds of subscribers will never be recorded save in the Book of Remembrance . . . All clases and organizations, with no exception, did the heroic and sacrificial.

The story of the structure included many notable details. The architect was John C. Austin, one of the Angel City’s best known in his field and also the designer of the previous church. The “Spanish Renaissance” style building, said to have motifs copied from the famous cathedral at Toledo, Spain, had a steel frame, filled and faced with concrete, brick and hollow tile. Ornamental terra cotta was used on the exterior and the auditorium, which seated over 3,000, had eighteen windows on three of its sides with a 48 foot square skylight—the glasswork was down by the Roy C. Bailie Studios, the Los Angeles branch of the famous Tiffany Studios of New York, which was also responsible for the interior design.

A separate Sunday School building was four stories high, with the upper level containing a social hall and a dining room, with capacity for 700 persons, and the main kitchen adjacent. There was a smaller dining room for 150 with its own kitchenette, while parlors, choir rooms, the pastor’s study, general offices, and a young persons’ reading room and parlor also included.

A separate description discussed a trio of mosaic panels by the Tiffany Studios, whose founder Louis Comfort Tiffany was then in his late seventies, along the building’s frieze with representations of Christ, some of the apostles, Old Testament kings and prophets, and major figures in Methodism, such as founder John Wesley. William Taylor, the first Methodist to preach in California when he arrived in late 1849 was also represented and there were panels for each of the seventeen pastors for the church.

Finally, it was trumpeted that,

The congregation has met and successfully solved a tremendous financial problem in the construction of the building and in the purchase of the ground on which it stands. From the time plans were begun until the time they were completed, building materials and labor were constantly rising and the cost mounting from day to day, yet the congregation met every call, and completely financed it [the total cost was over $1.15 million] months before its completion . . . No marvel that the Methodists of Los Angeles, the Pacific Coastand the world are proud of this, Methodism’s largest and most costly Church so far ever erected.

The dedication on Sunday the 8th kicked off a Dedication Week, with all services broadcast over KHJ, the radio station owned by the Times. With radio broadcasting having only started within the last couple of years, there was some innovation involved, as KHJ engineers outfitted the church with facilities so that Arthur Blakekey, the organist, performed a half hour recital on the new instrument, including Wagner’s “Cathedral Music,” a Beethoven religious piece, and Blakeley’s own ” Chimes on the Desert,” based on the notes sounded by bells at the San Xavier del Bac Mission (Catholic, of course, despite the enmity of decades past in Los Angeles!) in Tucson.

There was also a dedication hymn by Mrs. I.S. Leavitt, which included the lines: “Thou Master-builder, all creation thine / Matchless and glorious workmanship divine / We laud and magnify Thy holy name / With voice and life thy sovereignty proclaim / All hearts rejoicing, we this temple bring / Thy benediction crown our offering / Take full possession, make this house thine own / Fill with Thy glory, here Thyself enthrone . . .” Other dedicatory elements included a prayer, anthem, the presentation of the building by Bishop Adna Wrught Leonard, and an organ postlude of Handel’s “Dedication of Solomon’s Temple.”

In the evening, there was another half-hour organ concert, the unveiling and dedication of the panels, and address of their message and meaning, “addresses of felictation” by district superintendents of the church as well as by USC president Rufus von KleinSmid (whose name has also been effaced on campus because of his support of eugenics). Distributed at this service was a brochure about the panels “with the personal compliments of Mr. Louis C. Tiffany of New York.”

On Tuesday, there was a “Service of Congratulation” with another Blakeley concert, including works by Haydn, Rachmaninoff, Rimsky-Korsakov, Moussorgsky, Elgar and Donizetti, followed by addresses by pastors of a variety of Protestant churches, including the Lutheran, Congregational, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Baptist denominations. One of those offering his congratulations was Robert P. Shuler who became pastor of Trinity Methodist Church, South in 1920 and would soon develop a notorious reputation as “Fighting Bob,” using his radio station KGEF as a bully pulpit for his crusades against politicians, law enforcement officials, universities, the public library, other religious leaders and anyone else who crossed his righteous path in the wrong moral direction.

There was a special organ recital on Wednesday evening with Blakeley playing Handel’s fourth organ concerto, a Bach fugue, Wagner’s Tannhauser orverture, and other workds including his own anthem based on Psalm 126. Friday the 13th brought a Young People and Sunday School Night featuring the several Methodist churches of the city, including an orchestra performance, remaks from the region’s Sunday School Association general secretary, the secretary of the Life Work Conference of the Epworth League, a young person’s group within Methodism, and an address by another Bovard, William (Marion’s brother), who was then living in Chicago and was the corresponding secretary of the Board of Sunday Schools.

The week ended with a Service of Jubilation on Sunday the 15th, with another half-hour organ recital; the telling of the story of the instrument played by Blakeley; the performance of a sonata by the organist dedicated to Robert Watchorn, a British-born miner, union leader, United States immigration official and oilman whose best-known legacy was endowing, in his son’s memory, the Abraham Lincoln Memorial Shrine in Redlands, and his wife, Alma; and the dedication of the instrument by Helms. An evening “Our Guests” service included another recital (Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” no doubt was stirring!), a payer from a representative of Retired Ministers, greeting from “Representatives of Commanderies,” appearently masonic ones, and more.

The $50,000 organ was, in fact, a gift of the Watchorns for their son, Emory, who fought in the Army Air Service in World War I, contracted severe pneumonia and succumbed in July 1921 to blood poisoning related to his wartime health issues. Many details about the new features of the instrument (keyboards that tilted, a double touch component for piano-like emphasis on melody, a multiple pedal system for crescendos, and features to create violin, clarinet, saxophone, harp and other sounds sounds, as well as two human voice imitators) were provided.

A description of the mosaic panels, the memorial windows, and a listing of memorial and special gifts, including the organ and panels, as well as the skylight, the four main chandeliers, the pulpit, the bronze church sign on 8th Street, the windows in the church tower, and more and a list of the builders and contractors completed the thirty-one page program.

The Times also devoted extensive coverage to the church’s dedication, including the fact that parishioners raised the $21,500 to buy a large Craftsman style residence for Rev. Helms near Wilshire and Western (the pastor and his wife, Ora, later deeded the house, now long gone and replaced by an apartment building, back to the church) and an additional $3,500 was given to Mrs. Helms “for her personal use.”

The announcement was made during the dedication service and just before Bishop Leonard was ready to deliver his remarks. It was reported that Mrs. Helms “wept with gratitude” and that women choir members and in the congregation followed, leading many of the men to dab their eyes with handkerchiefs or even to openly wipe away their tears. It was requested of the bishop that Helms be made a permanent pastor, though the prelate could not promise this would be the case, he offered to do what he could. Notably, the crowd of over 4,000 (a quarter of which were standing in the auditorium) was silent during Leonard’s remarks, but broke into applause when he thanked President Warren G. Harding, who died less than a month later in San Francisco before a scheduled visit to Los Angeles, for his support of Prohibition.

The church remained standing for not quite sixty years, though this was quite a bit longer than its predecessors. Notably, as the congregation declined rapidly in numbers, from some 6,000 to just 400 or so, with downtown emptied of most residents, it was decided to sell the property, to no small amount of controversy, for $9 million to the Southern California Gas Company, predicated on the demolition of the structure.

Ironically, the gas company chose not to build on the site, which now has a high-rise apartment complex on it, though the church invested the proceeds of the sale toward housing for the needy and purchased a parking lot at Flower and Olympic where it is a “church without a home” holding services in the open lot. It now states that it is “a church without walls, without borders, without barriers,” truly a far cry from the monumental, ornate and elaborate structure that was its home for so many decades.

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