Take It On Faith Through the Viewfinder: The Fort Street (First) Methodist Episcopal Church, Los Angeles, ca. 1882

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As has been stated here before, the Methodist Episcopal Church was, for much of the Homestead’s interpretive period of 1830 to 1930, a powerful force in greater Los Angeles, socially and politically, as well as religiously, including activism in temperance and Prohibition regarding alcohol use which involved political lobbying; education, including its founding of the University of Southern California in 1880; and in many other ways.

From humble beginnings in the mid-1850s in an Angel City largely dominated by Roman Catholics, the Church gradually expanded membership so that it could move from services held in the rudimentary adobe court house (the Rocha Adobe, sold by Jonathan Temple to the county in 1853) on Spring Street to a small brick house of worship on Fort Street (renamed Broadway in 1890) in fall 1868.

Los Angeles Star, 7 April 1855. News of masons and militias are also featured in this detail.

That was the year when the first significant and sustained period of growth in Los Angeles began and which lasted about seven years through summer 1875. As the population grew by more than double, including a major increase in Methodists, it is no surprise that it was determined that the congregation needed a much larger church. The New Year’s Day 1875 edition of the Los Angeles Herald, in summarizing conditions among the religions in the city, provided a summary of the Church’s history in town over the previous two decades.

It began by observing that, in 1853, Reverend Adam Bland (1821-1895) was sent to the pueblo to inaugurate the “Southern California Mission.” When he arrived with his wife and daughter, however, it was recorded that they could not find any lodging “owing to the strong prejudice against protestant ministers” said to exist in Los Angeles. It was also stated that there were no adherents of the Church, though John Wesley Potts soon moved into town and was the only attendee of services and meetings for a time, though an El Monte doctor and his family were members.

Los Angeles Herald, 1 January 1875.

While there were a few ministers assigned to the mission, one living in an adobe house on First Street, it was fifteen years before the first church was constructed on the west side of Fort between Third and Fourth streets—this is now where a building is at 331 S. Broadway, as noted below. Built of plain brick and costing $3,000, the edifice sufficed for the time being and a parsonage built next to it when the Rev. Asahel M. Hough (later accused by Horace Bell of being involved in the lynching of Michel Lachenais in December 1870 and whose wife was the sister of railroad tycoon Jay Gould) was the pastor.

By the start of 1875, it was reported by the Los Angeles Herald that there were nearly 150 members in the congregation, but it was added,

A new church enterprise has been inaugurated, which will be completed during the ensuing Spring. Already nearly $6,000 has been subscribed by the membership alone, several of them giving as high as $500, and most of the amount in notes payable on a certain day. This amount, which will yet be increased by the members, together with what will be realized from the sale of church property and the aid they hope to receive from businessmen who feel interested in the growth and development of the city, will enable them to erect a house of worship which will add to the numerous attractions of the place and which will prove a source of blessing to the community.

The estimated cost at the time was between $12,000 and $15,000 and the structure was to include a basement for Sunday School instruction through a pair of Bible classes. As typical, the timetable and cost estimate were more than ambitious, but fund raisers were held through the year, starting as early as April with a gathering at Templar Hall (a temperance facility) where between 200 and 300 persons attended a spelling match—among those participating was a young Yda Addis, whose tumultuous life has been covered in a series of posts on this blog.

Los Angeles Express, 8 April 1875.

In August, a concert for the public was held to raise money for a “first-class pipe organ” for the edifice and this was followed a couple of months later by an “Old Folks’ Concert,” said to be well patronized, for the same purpose. A Thanksgiving Day dinner, under the auspices of women members of the congregation included a musical performance and the admission of 25 cents per person was charged with proceeds to go towards a carpet that was said to have cost about a thousand dollars. More on this event was covered in another prior post on this blog.

A 24 April article in the Los Angeles Star provided a detailed description of the structure, designed by Ezra F. Kysor, whose work included the Pico House hotel, St. Vibiana’s Cathedral, the Mount Pleasant House of William H. Perry and, reportedly, the redesign of the Workman House at the Homestead, and Walter J. Mathews, who were in partnership for just a tad over a year in 1875-1876.

Express, 12 August 1875. Note the reports on the second volunteer fire department in the city, as well as about the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad, of which F.P.F. Temple was initially president and then treasurer when United States Senator John P. Jones of Nevada, founder of Santa Monica, took over as president.

The paper noted that the building was to be, for the Methodists, “worthy of their increasing number and the prosperity which has attended the church, both in spiritual and temporal matters” while “the beautiful edifice” was considered “an outgrowth of the gratitude inspired by the success which has marked the business of its members.” Moreover, the architects’ “finely executed plan” was displayed at the general merchandise store of the Dunsmoor Brothers and it was noted that “some idea of the elegant appearance” was to be understood of the Star‘s description.

The plan showed that the area covered, including a front vestibule of 10’x20′, was 90’x53′ with steps 17-feet wide leading into the structure through two large doors flanked by globe-shaped gas lights. In the auditorium, measuring 71’x43′, was the platform for the pulpit, measuring 13’x5′ and with a choir loft at the back, while galleries were on three sides of the space. For lighting, four large windows on the north and south elevations were to be added, while “a traceried Gothic window, of ample dimensions” was to be installed at the front.

Express, 16 October 1875.

The basement, with the ceiling 12-feet high, was partially built above ground and was to include a 43’x40′ Sunday School room, a library and two classrooms, one of which measured 30’x19′. The paper continued that “the exterior of the building will correspond fully in elegance of finish with the ample proportions given above” and the Gothic style was reflected in many aspects including a 150-foot main tower with belfry and a 60-foot side tower. The article ended with the statement that,

The new church will be built upon the same lot as the old one [which remained adjacent to it, as shown in the photo] . . . It will cost about $20,000, and the construction of the building will be commenced as soon as the minor details can be determined upon. The design reflects great credit upon Messrs. Kysor & Mathews and the building will be a very decided ornament to the city.

The dedication was held on 19 December 1875 and the structure was hailed by the Herald as “the finest Protestant church in Los Angeles, and a credit to the society that built it.” The paper recorded that seating capacity was about 600, exclusive of the gallery, and added that “the new Church is very commodious and comfortable.” The cost was pegged at $23,000, but it was averred that “the entire work has been completed in an unusually short period.”

Los Angeles Star, 24 April 1875.

In addition to noting the design by the architects, the paper stated that the contractor was Spencer H. Buchanan (1845-1901), who worked in Los Angeles in the last half of the Seventies before moving to El Paso, Texas, where he remained until his death; the painters were from Knowlton and Company; and the furnishings were provided by the firm of Dotter and Bradley, previously discussed in a post on this blog concerning a Temple and Workman bank check.

The ceremony was presided over by the church’s pastor, the Rev. George S. Hickey, while the Rev. Peter Y. Cool of Santa Barbara, who was a Gold Rush miner in northern California before finding religion and admitted as a pastor, assisted. The Herald noted it was a cloudy day, but “the gloomy hue of the sky did not darken” the event, during which all seats in the church were filled “and the attentive ushers were forced to carry in chairs and benches until all the available space was occupied.”

A bit of Christmas Day dark humor about the newly dedicated church during hard times, which included the failure of the Temple and Workman bank, under three weeks later, Herald, 25 December 1875.

The performance of the choir was adjudged to have “never been excelled” in the Angel City, while Hickey’s morning service sermon was “a fervent and appropriate address,” while the evening service featured Rev. J.D. Hammond of Nevada, who delivered “a rhetorical triumph” during her sermon. Moreover, there was $8,300 of debt incurred going into the dedication, but that was all subscribed during the day, including a contribution by F.P.F. Temple and Mayor Prudent Beaudry (who were both Roman Catholics.)

The Herald then observed that

Such an exhibition of religious liberality was never before witnessed in Los Angeles. As we looked over the immense congregation we observed the devout Catholic sitting side by side with the earnest Protestant; the Jewish Rabbi in neighborly companionship to the Gentile; the German Free-Thinker occupied the next seat to the orthodox Calvinist; the Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian and Methodist all joined fervently in the exercises. The sight was pleasing and suggestive of that millenium of religious freedom, when theological differences will no longer breed political turmoil, religious bickerings or religious persecutions.

With this cheering note, the paper ended its coverage by stating, “Thus the new Fort Street M.E. Church commenced its history” and it offered the wish “let us all hope that its life may be marked by the growth of that liberality which is the safeguard of human rights all over the civilized world.”

A very interesting comment on local “Church Progress” in the Express, 7 January 1876.

The photograph featured here from the Museum’s holdings was taken by the firm of Payne, Stanton and Company, headed by Henry T. Payne, who began his work in Los Angeles around 1870, and new arrival Thomas E. Stanton, as well as the former’s brother, Daniel. The partnership was commenced in late May 1880 and lasted exactly four years before Stanton took over what was known as The Elite Gallery. The 1882 date is, however, an estimate, though we know the range is obviously pretty narrow as to when the image was taken.

Within a few years, a new and much larger boom burst forth in greater Los Angeles and the rapidly expanding downtown business district led to the sale of the church (which was renovated in 1887 by the well-known brothers, Joseph and Samuel Newsom) to real estate speculators in February 1898. In August 1899, as the dedication for a new and much larger church was underway at the northeast corner of Hill and Sixth streets, across from Central Park (Pershing Square), where the International Jewelry Center is located now, it was reported that the old edifice was being razed (in 1900, a four-story building, occupied by the Jacoby Brothers store [formerly Jacoby and Harris and, before that, Herman W. Hellman’s store[, was erected there by Homer Laughlin, whose namesake structure now housing the Grand Central Market is just to the north—the Northridge earthquake of 1994 led to the upper two stories being removed, so the lower two remain today), so that

The tower has been torn down, the outer boarding stripped off, and when the final services are held in the old church today [Sunday, 20 August], it will be in a mere shell, which a few days more will wholly destroy.

A letter from Rev. Hickey, then residing in Detroit, was read and it “spoke feelingly of the old members of the church, some still among its most prominent workers, some dead for many years.” The main address was by the Rev. Charles Edward Locke of San Francisco, who became the pastor of the church in 1908 and was widely known for his social activism until he became a bishop in 1920 and left the area until 1933 when he retuned when named president of the California Anti-Saloon League.

Further major growth in downtown Los Angeles led to another move, in the early 1920s, for the First Methodist Episcopal Church to the southwest corner of Hope and Eighth streets and a prior post here featured the dedication program for that edifice. After about six decades and with a membership that dwindled from several thousand to just a few hundred, that church was sold to the Southern California Gas Company, which razed the structure even though it decided not to build a new building and a high-rise apartment complex was later built there.

As for the First Methodist Episcopal Church, it purchased a parking lot at Flower and Olympic with the proceeds, but elected not to construct a new edifice, but chose to operate as a “church without a home” with services outdoors in the lot. The institution has certainly changed a great deal in 170 years, though its operation without a brick-and-mortar home is a notable example of a sort of “coming full circle.”

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