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East Bay Then and Now: SBCC: A Grand Building On a Modest Scale

By Daniella Thompson
Friday August 25, 2006

The half-dozen years before World War I were significant ones for Berkeley’s ecclesiastical architecture. 

Between 1908 and 1913, five remarkable Arts & Crafts church buildings went up in five neighborhoods. These were Knox Presbyterian Church (Henry Starbuck, 1908); St. John’s Presbyterian Church (Julia Morgan, 1908–10); First Church of Christ, Scientist (Bernard Maybeck, 1910); Park Congregational Church (Hugo Storch, 1912); and North Berkeley Congregational Church (James Plachek, 1913). 

Although each of these churches—all designated City of Berkeley Landmarks—is unique in its appearance, they have in common an unassuming scale in keeping with their residential surroundings. Gone are the steeples and soaring bell towers seen in earlier houses of worship. The five architects derived at least some of their inspiration from the First Unitarian Church (A.C. Schweinfurth, 1898) at Bancroft and Dana, a one-story structure combining shingles and amber-glass steel windows with natural redwood interior. This church in its turn followed the path set by the Swedenborgian Church in San Francisco (A. Page Brown & Rev. Joseph Worcester, 1894). 

The southernmost of the five churches, Park Congregational—now South Berkeley Community Church—is located on the southeast corner of Fairview and Ellis streets, in the historic Lorin district. 

The community of Lorin was developed on the land of farmer Edward Harmon, who sold lots to prospective homeowners. According to Berkeley historian Charles Wollenberg, Harmon went into the construction business in the 1870s and over a twenty-year period built more than forty houses on what had been his South Berkeley farmland. Harmon was the major developer of the community of Lorin, which once boasted a train station located at Adeline Street and Alcatraz Avenue, as well as a school and post office. In the early 1890s, Berkeley annexed Lorin and some adjacent tracts in the city’s first territorial expansion since incorporation in 1878. 

On July 24, 1912, the Oakland Tribune announced that construction had commenced on a new building to be occupied by Park Congregational Church. The congregation’s previous home, in use since 1883 and located a block and a half to the west, had been sold to the Seventh Day Adventists. 

According to the Tribune report, the new building was to be finished in stucco on the exterior and in natural wood on the interior. The main auditorium would seat 300, with room for 200 additional persons in an auxiliary room. A semicircular Sunday school room would accommodate seventeen classes, with seating space for 400 children. Public reading rooms and assembly halls for community clubs would be provided. The cost was to be $15,000, exclusive of furnishings. 

The residential architecture of the Lorin district consists primarily of Victorian and Colonial Revival homes that rarely rise above two stories. It was into this context that Hugo Storch had to place the church building while incorporating requisite features such as a bell tower and a lofty sanctuary. 

Storch met the challenge admirably. Blending several architectural styles—Arts and Crafts and Mission Revival outside, First Bay Region Tradition within—his church stands out without overwhelming its neighbors. Seen from the street, the building is low-lying. Its corner bell tower is massive but squat. The residential-scale portico leads into an intimate redwood antechamber, which serves as a space of transition into the main sanctuary, also lined in redwood. 

But no transition space prepares the visitor for the breathtaking contrast between exterior and interior. The sanctuary soars to the high rafters, exposing roof trusses, diagonal braces, and wall studs. The pews are arranged in a semicircle that is echoed by the semicircular social hall in the rear, separated from the sanctuary by three enormous roll-down redwood doors. In the hall, formerly a Sunday school, a fan-like mezzanine balcony is partitioned into loges that used to serve as classrooms, with more classrooms directly underneath. 

Revolutionary for its time, the stark interior space nevertheless mirrors the spatial arrangement of historic church architecture. The nave, aisle, and side chapels are all here, albeit free of any ornamentation. The rounded social hall recalls the traditional apse, normally located behind the altar. Since the altar of this church is placed at the front of the building, with no space for a real apse, the architect ingeniously created an interior “apse” in the rear. 

The son of a Bohemian-German mining engineer, Hugo William Storch (1873–1917) was born in Mexico. In the 1880s the family moved to San Francisco, eventually settling in the Fruitvale district of Oakland. At the age of 17, Storch became an apprentice to the respected San Francisco architect John Gash. Three years later, the young man left Gash to start his own office and practiced as an architect until 1899, when he took a job with the Electrical Engineering Co. of San Francisco. The company would be renamed Van Emon Elevator Co. in 1903 and relocate to Berkeley after the 1906 earthquake. 

Storch may have designed the company’s Berkeley plant. The post-earthquake building boom probably spurred his return to architecture, which was his primary practice for the next eight years. During this period he designed the Fruitvale Masonic Temple (1905–06, built 1909) and the Fruitvale Congregational Church (1911, destroyed in 1973). The Fruitvale Pythian Hall (1913, severely altered in 1941) was built on his modified plans, according to a 1913 report in the Oakland Tribune. In 1915, Storch moved his family to Sonoma County, building a home on the bank of Santa Rosa Creek. He died in 1917, aged 44. 

After 30 years on Fairview Street, the Park Congregational Church found itself with a steadily dwindling membership. Much of the attrition had to do with the area’s changing demographics. In November 1942, Rev. Tom Watt’s annual pastor’s report informed his parishioners, “I am appalled and tremendously disturbed when I discover the change in the population … that materially effects our work. Only two colored families were in the immediate vicinity. Now … the block directly across the street on Ellis is predominantly colored … If we are to maintain ourselves as an organization it seems to be quite evident that we shall be compelled to depend on growth from outside this area.” 

As told in the church’s history, the remnant congregation decided to discontinue services. In 1943, following a recommendation of the United Church of Christ Conference, Berkeley’s first interracial congregation was born, led by two ministers: Robert K. Winters, a junior at the Starr King School, and Roy Nichols, a senior at the Pacific School of Religion. One of the fledgling congregation’s charter members was Berkeley legend Maudelle Shirek. 

Time has taken its toll on the church building. A 1988 architectural report found it to be in “relatively poor shape. Considerable repair and rehabilitation will be necessary if the building is to remain as it is without further deterioration.” The funds required for full-scale restoration are beyond the small congregation’s means. 

Last fall, a capital restoration campaign was inaugurated with a lecture sponsored by the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association. An article by Martin Snapp attracted the attention of Mike Van Brunt, who volunteered the services of his construction company, Walnut Creek–based Van Brunt Associates, in preparing a restoration plan. Some of the firm’s past renovation projects include the San Francisco Ferry Building and the Fairmont and Mark Hopkins hotels. 

The Friends for the Restoration of South Berkeley Community Church are now writing a proposal to place the building on the National Register of Historic Places as a means for facilitating fundraising. A National Historic Landmark status has helped the First Church of Christ, Scientist to obtain matching grants from the Getty Foundation and National Trust for Historic Preservation. 



The writer is indebted to Bradley Wiedmaier for information about the life and work of Hugo Storch. 


Photograph: South Berkeley Community Church, 1802 Fairview Street (Daniella Thompson)