Arts

Oldest Remaining Church in Fullerton Has Historic Past

Rapidly constructed in seven months in 1909, the building on the corner of Pomona and East Amerige has served the needs of three different religious congregations over the years. When the building was dedicated on November 21, 1909, it was considered to be “the finest most modern edifice in the County,” featuring electric lights, a back-up generator (an “independent gas plant”), telephone connections, and a 12- by 15-foot furnace room in the basement designed to heat the entire building, according to local newspapers at the time. Ventilation and cooling were provided by transoms, fans, and in the case of the auditorium, two windows within the larger west stained glass window.

According to the city of Fullerton’s website, “The Methodists erected the church in 1909 at a cost of approximately $20,000. When the Methodists built their present church across the street in the late 1920s, they sold the property to the Seventh Day Adventist Church, which occupied the building until 1964. The Methodist Church took ownership a second time with the intention of demolishing the building to use the property as a parking lot. That endeavor proved too expensive, so the property was again sold, this time to the First Church of Religious Science.”

This historic local landmark exhibits many features reflecting the New England roots and the British heritage of the Methodist minister who commissioned construction of the building. It is one of two structures in the City designed in the Gothic Revival style. According to the building’s National Register of Historic Places Registration form, courtesy of the Fullerton Public Library’s Local History Room, “The Gothic Revival design characteristics include a pitched gable roof, obtuse angle arched windows and doorways, hood molding, a battlement tower, crenellation, stained glass, tracery, and engaged buttresses. The building also contains minor, unusual touches of the Craftsman style, present in its square wooden windows, wood trim, board and batten interior, and original furnishings.” These touches add an element of charm and freshness to the traditional style of the church.

Inside the church, there are two stained glass windows, one on the west side and another at the north end in the balcony. Of opalescent glass, the windows are noted for their deep, rich coloring. According to the National Register of Historic Places Registration form, “Archival church documents indicate that artist Joseph McKay of Los Angeles designed the stained glass windows, but there are no records of the art glass firm responsible for their production and installation.” At the turn of the 20th century, most architects and contractors in Los Angeles and Orange County ordered stained glass pieces from catalogs put out by eastern and midwestern firms. In 1909, Los Angeles had only two stained glass firms – W. H.  Judson Art Glass Company (later the Judson Studios) and L.A. Art Glass – and craftsmen from Judson Studios, who currently maintain the windows in the church, have identified the building’s decorative art glass windows as probably being crafted by L.A. Art Glass.

Also referred to as “art glass” and “American glass,” opalescent glass was produced and used in America in both secular and ecclesiastical buildings. According to H. Weber Wilson’s book, Great Glass in American Architecture: Decorative Windows and Doors Before 1920, in the 1890s, “Large figural opalescent windows” that used “paint only for hands and faces” became particularly popular in churches. This opalescent style competed with other styles of the period, such as traditionally painted glass or cathedral glass. This church is the only building in Fullerton that features opalescent glass.

According to the Fullerton Heritage website, “The parsonage – built prior to the church in 1905 and adjacent to the church on the west side – is considered to be one of the finest examples of the Colonial Revival architecture in Orange County.”

The building’s exterior remains remarkably unchanged. The tower was originally intended to house the bell from the Methodist’s original 1893 church, which had grown too small for its membership and was razed. However, it was thought that the ringing of the bell would disturb patients at the nearby Fullerton General Hospital, so the bell was donated to the Wintersburg Church, according to an unpublished paper by F.R. Holcomb and Mrs. William Starbuck, titled, “A History of the Methodist Episcopal Church of Fullerton, California from 1888-1937,” available through the Fullerton Public Library’s Local History Room.

The reddish-brown bricks seen on the outside of the church were hand-crafted by the Simons Brick Company in Los Angeles. These distinctive bricks, each bearing the Simons stamp, are noted for their superior hardness and were used to build thousands of L.A. landmarks, including UCLA’s Royce Hall, the University of Southern California (USC), Walt Disney Studios, the Los Angeles City Hall, and more than half of Pasadena’s homes and businesses. This church is the only building in Fullerton built with bricks from the Simons Brick Company.

It was often featured on old postcards and promotional literature mailed to the east coast. The building’s standing in Fullerton and the north Orange County community was enhanced by the fact that everything associated with the church, from the architect to the builder to the masonry came from the more cosmopolitan Los Angeles. Early Fullerton buildings were usually designed by local builders or architects, such as Frank Benchley, and the use of a Los Angeles architect was unusual for the period.

The church was designed by famed L.A. architect Albert R. Walker who also designed hundreds of buildings that changed the Los Angeles skyline, and is credited with starting the City’s westward development along Wilshire Boulevard. In 1909, he concentrated his efforts chiefly on domestic and church architecture. These buildings relied on traditional styles popular at the time, but were also noted for their freshness, interesting touches, charm, and high quality materials. It was during this period that Walker designed the First Methodist Episcopal Church in Fullerton, one of only a few structures built by Walker before he formed a series of partnerships with other architects. The church is reflective of Walker’s early fondness for Gothic architecture, which continued throughout his long career but became more elaborate and ornate in style in the 1920s and 1930s. Walker later joined forces with Percy A. Eisen to establish the prolific and influential architectural firm of Walker and Eisen (1919-1941).

In 1987, the Whittier Narrows earthquake and the aftershocks that followed caused extensive damage to the church. According to an article titled, “City Church is Vacated after Earthquake Damage Found,” by Jackie Brown for the Fullerton Star-Progress the church’s upstairs balcony separated from the wall, wooden trusses in the ceiling came apart, cracks from the interior walls went through to the bricks outside, the chimney crumbled, and the west stained glass window suffered minor damage when the window frame bowed. Fullerton city officials and structural engineers at the time studied the building and originally estimated the cost to repair the church and to bring it up to code would be approximately $500,000, and ordered the building to be vacated. The congregation was allowed to hold one final service on October 18, 1987 and was asked to decide whether it wanted the building demolished or restored. According to a March 29,1988 article in the Los Angeles Times by Kirk Jackson, titled “They’re Halfway Home: Concert’s Proceeds Go Toward Repairing Church Damaged by Oct. 1 Earthquake,” members of the congregation, unwilling to give up the historic structure, raised $350,000 to restore and retrofit the building. The California State Office of Emergency Services provided two grants ($98,000 and $11,500), the Fullerton Redevelopment Agency supplied an interest-free $75,000 rehabilitation loan, and fund-raising activities netted an additional $70,000.

To preserve the historic look of the building, the congregation hired Melvyn Green of Manhattan Beach, a seismographic expert, as structural engineer and architect on the project. James McDowell and Company, a contracting firm based in Arcadia, completed the major structural work. Church member Carroll Avery served as contractor for the interior and other cosmetic reconstruction. Because the church is a Local Historic Landmark, The Secretary of Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation were followed during the restoration and retrofit, which preserved the property’s historic integrity. For the retrofit, workers removed floorboards around the edge of the walls, drilled holes into structural supports, and inserted steel bolts that anchored the walls. A steel frame was constructed in the interior walls to reinforce the structure and six steel I-beams were paired alongside the wooden trusses that run from the floor to the arched ceiling, according to a 1989 article from the Orange County Register by Mary Owen, titled “Fullerton Church Badly Damaged in Whittier Quake Reopens.” The church was reopened in June 1989, and aside from the loss of the brick chimney in the 1993 Northridge earthquake, has suffered no damage from later earthquakes.

The historic 112-year-old church on the corner of Pomona and East Amerige is now a space occupied by the Holy City Bethesda Full Gospel Church.

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3 replies »

  1. What is left out of the article on the oldest remaining church in Fullerton..
    Since its acquisition in 1967, the First Church of Religious Science has faithfully restored the building. In 1987, the Whittier Narrows earthquake caused extensive damage. Within three years the church completed the work to retrofit and repair the building at cost of over $500,000. The Northridge earthquake in 1993, however, again damaged the tall brick chimney on the west side of the building, and the decision was made not to rebuild it.

  2. Yes I agree, a lot of the history of this building was left out. I grew up in the Church of Religious Science at this location and Reverend Bushard also officiated at my wedding. I was disappointed you only have one sentence dedicated to them and that you did not mention the contribution they made in the resoration and maintenance of this historic building.

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