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Nontraditional church undergoes restoration

By Jennifer Dix Daily Planet Correspondent
Tuesday May 15, 2001

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church is ordinarily filled with the sounds of hymns and prayers, but lately the rafters have been ringing with the sounds of saws and jackhammers. 

In anticipation of its centennial next year, the 99-year-old church on Bancroft Way is undergoing a much needed renovation and restoration.  

The project will restore some of the original Mission Revival architectural details, provide seismic reinforcement and create disabled access. 

That’s an important part of the church’s mission, said Pastor Robbin Clark.  

“We feel a moral responsibility to provide safety and access to all our parishioners. Part of our theological stance is inclusivity,” she explained.  

“That means being inclusive of people of diverse sexual orientation, different lifestyles and disabilities. But how inclusive are you being if people can’t get up to the second floor?” 

Long known for its liberal tradition, St. Mark’s played an important part in the free-speech movement of the 1960s. Under the leadership of pioneering minister George Tittmann, the church was a space where opposing sides could come together for discussion and mediation.  

Tittmann laid the ground for a congregation that today is a mixture of singles and couples, gays and straights.  

The church membership is comprised of 225 households.  

“It’s not your typical suburban congregation,” Clark said.  

But this nontraditional congregation does inhabit a historic building, with a handsome sanctuary whose fine acoustics and Flentrop organ make it a favorite concert space. St. Mark’s is the first Episcopal parish in Berkeley.  

It was one of the first local buildings and some believe it to be the very first built in the new Mission Revival style. Designed by William Curlett and built in 1902, the distinctive Spanish-style church features a prominent open belfry tower with a contrasting smaller second tower, large arched doorways, and a long arcade reminiscent of a cloister. 

It has several stained-glass Tiffany windows, including the focal rose window. 

Over the years, some features were lost or diminished in the wake of modern “improvements.” The towers were boarded up to discourage pigeons. 

Some decorative stucco details were stripped from the exterior.  

When a plaza was added on the north side in the early 1960s, a massive concrete wall went up around the old church entrance, hiding it from view.  

Now the wall has come down and the towers are being restored. As far as possible, the church building committee hopes to restore the look of the original church.  

But the project, originally budgeted for $1.7 million, has ballooned to over $3 million, and some wished-for architectural details have had to be sacrificed.  

Restoration of the decorative stucco quatrefoil around the rose window, wrought-iron stair railings, and replacing the roof with authentic tiles all have been axed. 

Unless, that is, more funds can be raised.  

The Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association has taken an interest in the restoration of St. Mark’s.  

A recent BAHA newsletter declares the church to be a landmark Mission Revival building, and BAHA is appealing to its members and the larger community for donations.  

Meanwhile, St. Mark’s continues its Sunday worship services a few blocks up the street, at the YMCA. If all goes according to schedule, the congregants will return in September to a building that meets modern safety and accessibility standards while enjoying its former pristine architectural glory. The original cornerstone has been uncovered, and church members hope to open the time capsule inside, which according to church records contains news clippings, documents, stamps, and coins dating from the beginning of the 20th century.  

And while renovations to the building are in progress, Clark thinks there may be some subtle changes taking place among the congregation as well. 

Although St. Mark’s is known as a liberal institution, she said, the worship service consists of, she said, “a fairly stately and classic liturgy, in line with the music.”  

Clark thinks it wouldn’t hurt to loosen up a bit. 

“Frankly, that’s happening now, with worship at the YMCA, which is a very plain, simple space,” she said. “It will be interesting to see how it carries over when we go back.”