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Church is a classic worth saving

By Susan Cerny Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday August 24, 2002


First Church of Christ, Scientist is the only building in Berkeley that has been designated a National Landmark. It is the highest honor that can be given a structure or site in the United States. The church, on the northeast corner of Dwight Way and Bowditch Street, was designed by Bernard Maybeck in 1910.  

The church is considered Bernard Maybeck’s masterpiece and in the words of Kenneth Cardwell, Maybeck’s biographer, “no other building demonstrates so completely Maybeck’s imaginative architectural genius…with its masterly handling of space, structure, color and light.” Others have remarked that it is one of the Bay Area’s greatest architectural monuments, a monument of inner beauty and strength, an inspiration for unique formulations of space, light, and texture and perhaps, simply one of the great buildings of the world. Indeed, most anthologies on American architecture include this church.  

The building is a fusion of ordinary materials such as reinforced concrete, industrial sash windows glazed with translucent glass, panels of asbestos siding called transite, and redwood trellises and roof framing. The building is a highly creative combination of historic references from Byzantine, Romanesque, and Gothic to Japanese.  

Structure and decoration merge on the interior of the church where the color scheme has been well preserved. The natural brown of the roof trusses and the gray of the concrete pillars contrast with the gold gilt in the tracery enhanced by blue, red, black, and green in the depths of modeled ornament and flat stencil work. Natural and artificial light is used to enhance the structure and different shades of translucent glazing create the desired effect. 

The Christian Science hurch was founded in Boston in 1879 by Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910) who claimed to have discovered the principles by which Jesus had healed the sick and by bringing the material body into harmony with the spiritual, man can achieve perfection and be healed. Most Christian Science churches are plain, often classically inspired structures, reflecting the rational principles of the religion. Maybeck created a church for the Berkeley congregation that is non-traditional, yet immensely spiritual.  

When the university began acquiring properties south of campus for redevelopment during the 1950s, members and friends of the church obtained National Landmark status for the building to discourage its destruction. The church was built in the heart of an established residential neighborhood that is now mostly gone.  

There will be an opportunity to visit the church and tour the neighborhood 6 p.m. Aug. 29. Please call the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association at 841-2242 for further information and reservations.