by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It is one of the more picturesque and unusual churches in greater Los Angeles, being a personal project of a widow honoring her late husband rather than one launched by a church hierarchy, congregation or community and the Church of the Angels, established in what was then known as Garvanza and now on the western fringe of Pasadena, is the subject of today’s entry under the dual series of “Take It On Faith” and “Through the Viewfinder.”
The edifice was completed in 1889 under the direction of Frances Palliser Campbell-Johnston (1836-1893) to memorialize her husband, Alexander Robert (sometimes known as Robert Alexander) Campbell-Johnston (1812-1888), who first came to the United States in 1881 after a diplomatic career for Great Britain and two years later purchased from former Los Angeles mayor and real estate developer Prudent Beaudry a section of the northeast corner of Rancho San Rafael for a ranch to own in retirement.
Alexander Campbell-Johnston was born in Colombo, the capital of what is now Sri Lanka, but which was long known to the Western world as Ceylon, off the southern tip of India. His father Sir Alexander Johnston was the chief justice of the court system in the British colony, while his mother Louisa Campbell was the granddaughter of the Duke of Argyll.
In September 1856, Campbell-Johnston, after having retired from service in China (one wonders if he was there for the First Opium War, a tragic era for the Chinese in its conflict with England) for the Foreign Office, married Frances Palliser, a native of Sussex, southeast of London, and the couple, who had twelve children in a short time, resided in Yoxford in Suffolk on the coast northeast of the capital. Later, the family resided in Sandhurst, Berkshire, southwest of London, where he was a J.P. representing the county in Parliament.
It is unclear what specifcally led Campbell-Johnston to Los Angeles, but the Los Angeles Herald of 31 March 1883 briefly reported from a New York source that “among the passengers by the Britannic yesterday was J. Campbell Johnston [sic], a retired English officer in the Indian service, who, in company with his wife and son, is bound for California, where he intends to reside permanently.”
Whatever the reason, Campbell-Johnston purchased his property, amounting to some 2,000 acres from Beaudry, as well as a part of Rancho San Pasqual, east of the Arroyo Seco, and dubbed it, not especially imagintively, the San Rafael Ranch with his land including a snall natural spring-fed body of water now known as Johnston Lake.
His timing turned out to be impeccable as, just a couple of years later, the arrival of a direct transcontinental railroad line built by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe ushered in the great Boom of the Eighties with major migrations of new residents and skyrocketing land values. For a few years, the frenzy of activity, which took place mostly during the administration of William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, as mayor of Los Angeles, brought tens of thousands of new settlers and building throughout the region.
Meanwhile, a local railroad, the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Valley was built up the Arroyo Seco from the Angel City and through Campbell-Johnston’s land into Pasadena and east to Duarte and this led to the development of a new town called Garvanza, purportedly a recasting of “garbanzo,” a product of local farming in what was also known as Eagle Rock Valley, named because of the natural rock formation now just north of the 134 Freeway at Figueroa Street.
Campbell-Johnston, who was aided by three sons and a nephew, created, in 1886, at least two subdivisions on his San Rafael holdings, including Rockdale in the Eagle Rock area and Annandale in what became the western fringe of Pasadena ( in the late 1910s and early 1920s, the Temple brothers, Thomas, Walter, Jr., and Edgar attended the Pasadena Military Academy at Annandale, where the country club of that name is now.)
A review of real estate transactions during the boom years of 1886 and 1887 show that Campbell-Johnston likely realized some significant returns from the sale of land that came relatively cheaply just a few years before (he also owned property in Santa Monica and in Los Angeles.) Just as the boom was ascending to its apex, Campbell-Johnston died at his San Rafael Ranch in January 1888 and it was reported that his local estate was valued at a handsome $260,000, while his English holdings amounted to nearly 82,000 British pounds.
As noted above, this led his widow, Frances, to plan and build The Church of the Angels, inspired by a church in Surrey, England and designed by British architect Arthur Edmund Street and adapted by Ernest Albert Coxhead, a native of England but practicing in Los Angeles, where he worked on several Episcopal churches, in his memory and a little more than a year after his death, the Herald of 12 February 1889 reported:
On Sunday the first services in connection with the Episcopal Church [in Garvanza] was [sic] held in a room fitted up for the purpose in the San Rafael Block . . . Divine service is to be held here in future every Sunday afternoon, pending the opening of the Church of the Angels, to be erected by Mrs. Campbell-Johnston, within a short distance of the town.
The two-story commercial block was built by the Campbell-Johnston family in Garvanza, a little south and west of the ranch and the church site.
On 23 April 1889, the Herald covered the laying of the cornerstone for the edifice on the day before Easter three days prior and it noted that a box containing newspapers, British and American coins, corn and flowers raised on the San Rafael Ranch, and other items was placed within the stone, situated at the northeast corner of the tower.
It was added that stained glass for the church “has arrived from London and, judging from a painting of it now to hand, it promises to be one of the most beautiful spciments of workmanship ever seen in this county.” The topic was the resurrection of Christ and the designw as from Cox and Buckley of New York “and is pronounced by them to be the most perfect piece of work they have ever accomplished.” Finally, it was stated that work was well underway and the foundation was expected to be finished soon.
The building was made of pressed brick with facings of sandstone from the San Fernando Valley and red stone quarried from the family’s ranch, while the ceiling is comprised of redwood. The 44-foot tower has an eight-day clock made by Seth Thomas and there is a sundial added later by her sons in memory of Frances Campbell-Johnston.
The church was consecrated on 29 September 1889 and became known as “The Bishop’s Chapel” for the Episcopalian Church diocese, centered at St. Paul’s Church, located to the west of Central, or Sixth Street, Park, now Pershing Square. Eventually, it became its own parish church for that denomination, into which William Workman was baptized when he grew up in northern England just 50 or so miles from where the Campbell clan hailed—Annandale, in fact, is the name of a place in southwestern Scotland associated with the family.
A short description in the Los Angeles Times of 6 November stated that “The Church of the Angels at San Rafael ranch is one of the most beautiful and artistic church buildings in the State.” By the end of the year, the organ, built by the brothers Frank and Hilborne Roosevelt, cousins of the future presidents Theodore and Franklin, was installed by a San Francisco company and the Times reported that it “will be ready for use at the afternoon services on Christmas day” and the intensive work was such that services the Sunday prior were moved to the San Rafael Block at Garvanza. The instrument is still in place today and was long enjoyed for concerts outside services.
The New Year’s Day edition of the paper included a brief description of Garvanza, including praise for the Campbell-Johnston family for their building of the San Rafael Block and “many valuable improvements, thus showing their faith in the town.” It noted that “the most important public improvement is the Church of the Angels, on the property of the famous San Rafael ranch” and added that “the building and its equipment cost over $50,000, and is one of the finest in the State.” As for the ranch, the paper stated that it had a winery, stock and pasturage making it “the choicest and largest ranch in the vicinity.”
The Times of 4 October 1890 referred to the font that was soon to be installed, thanks to Mrs. Campbell-Johnston and the contributions of Americans that was increasing to the point where it would soon be paid for. It added that a draing was sent from London, where the widow was then residing, so that the church’s officers could give it their stamp of approval.
It described the alabaster bowl and column, the kneeling guardian angel of alabaster, and the base and steps of stone made locally. The idea was by Mrs. Campbell-Johnston and the sculptor was a “Mr. Ingram” who also carved the Angel-themed lectern. The font was consecrated on Easter 1891, as covered by the Los Angeles Express of 30 March.
The church continued to be regularly noted as a focal point of the Garvanza community with the Times of 27 March 1892 observing that it was “perfect in every particular” and those entering could “imagine yourself worshiping upon some nobleman’s estate.” It noted the olive wood chancel and the “strikingly beautiful” lectern, as well as the stained glass windows and inlaid memorial tablets, all of which “add to the interior beauty of the edifice.” Finally, it stated that people were not only drawn to the structure’s features and decoration, but to recitals “frequently given my master hands on the massive organ.”
This description, it should be noted, came as part of a lengthy article on the famous “kite-shaped track” rail tour promoted heavily for the rapdily growing tourist trade, greatly facilitated by the transcontiental connection made several years earlier. The route went from downtown Los Angeles along the Arroyo Seco and through Garvanza into Pasadena, along the foothills to Redlands, looped back through Highland to San Bernardino and southwest through Colton, Riverside, Corona, Orange and Anaheim and then back to Los Angeles.
On the first day of winter, 21 December, 1893, Frances Palliser Campbell-Johnson died, but the Church continues, over 130 years after its completion, to be a treasure in its community, both as a neighborhood Episcopal Church and an architectural marvel.
The photos shown here came from an album and appear to be from the 1910s, giving a glimpse, albeit in black and white, into the beauty and serenity of the edifice.