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East Bay, Then and Now: Schweinfurth’s First Unitarian: A Powerhouse of a Church

By Daniella Thompson
Thursday May 15, 2008 - 10:23:00 AM
The west façade is a gigantic gable supported by two unpeeled redwood trunks. The church now serves as the university’s dance studio.
Daniella Thompson
The west façade is a gigantic gable supported by two unpeeled redwood trunks. The church now serves as the university’s dance studio.
Playful buttresses are a reference to traditional masonry churches.
Daniella Thompson
Playful buttresses are a reference to traditional masonry churches.
The apse prompted passerbys to compare the church to a powerhouse.
Daniella Thompson
The apse prompted passerbys to compare the church to a powerhouse.

“The First Unitarian Church of Berkeley was founded on Sunday, July 12, 1891, in space rented from the Berkeley Odd Fellows Temple, then on Shattuck [Avenue], a couple of blocks south of its present location. Some have said that this first meeting was held in a saloon on the first floor, but if so, suitable quarters were found for subsequent meetings.” 

The paragraph above opens Chapter 2 of The Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley: A History, which goes on to say, “On that great Founders Day, 32 charter members signed the book. A few more signed the following week, and by the end of the year, membership was 50. Then, as now, there were as many who didn’t sign the book as did, so that the total church family was approximately 100.” 

On the origins of the idea to establish a church in Berkeley, the History speculates: “It is quite possible that Thomas Starr King, second minister of the First Unitarian Church of San Francisco, 1860-1864, and Western Unitarians’ great hero, looked across the Bay and envisioned a large and influential Unitarian church standing there beside a magnificent institution of higher learning. 

“If Starr King didn’t envision this church, he at least inspired the man who did: Charles William Wendte, a young man in Starr King’s congregation. Twenty years later, Wendte, aided by Dr. Horatio Stebbins, successor to Starr King in the San Francisco pulpit, advocated the establishment of the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley, along with a seminary in Berkeley, at the September 1890 meeting of the Pacific Unitarian Conference. Their proposal was accepted unanimously and enthusiastically and they proceeded forthwith.” 

Among the members of the young congregation were early settlers of Berkeley’s Northside and founders of the Hillside Club, who would exert a profound influence on the development of domestic architecture in northern California. These included Charles and Louise Keeler, Bernard and Annie Maybeck, Volney and Mary Moody, Allen and Katherine Freeman, Oscar and Madge Maurer, and Warren and Sarah Gregory. 

In its first six years, the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley experienced numerous difficulties and financial hardship. There was a great deal of borrowing and “refinancing” from members, from funds, and from banks. Straitened circumstances notwithstanding, in 1893 the congregation purchased a desirable and apparently affordable site on the corner of Dana Street and Bancroft Way. The seller was William Carey Jones, founder and first director of the University of California’s law school and author of the Illustrated History of the University of California. 

The first architect selected to design a church on the site was the transplanted Norwegian Joachim Mathisen. His 1894 plan, published in Jones’ History, called for a large building, Romanesque in style, and incorporating a tall tower-more than the struggling congregation could afford. 

Three years were to pass before an affordable design was produced. By then, Mathisen was dead by suicide. The new commission fell to A.C. Schweinfurth, who had recently completed a widely published Northside residence for the Moody family. According to architectural historian Richard Longstreth, Schweinfurth was asked to prepare the plans even before an architect had been officially selected. 

The church representative who entrusted Schweinfurth with the design was none other than Volney Moody’s son-in-law, Edmund S. Gray, who had been actively involved in the Moody house project. This fabled residence, called Weltevreden, was built entirely of clinker brick and boasted Dutch step gables at both ends. It survived the 1923 Berkeley Fire, became a fraternity house in the ‘30s, and was drastically altered in the ‘50s by architect Michael Goodman. Still standing on the corner of Le Conte and Le Roy Avenues, Weltevreden is now the home of the Cal Band and known as Tellefsen Hall. 

The church’s official history makes no mention of Mathisen’s earlier design, proceeding directly to Schweinfurth’s contribution: “The new church was of unique design and, like most Unitarian churches built since, symbolized this faith’s difference from orthodox faiths. It was the creation of architect A.C. Schweinfurth of the office of A. Page Brown & Co. of San Francisco and New York. He had been instructed to use only the best materials for each purpose. Bernard Maybeck, then a young member of the congregation and eventually a famous California architect, worked in the same offices and may have helped with the church’s design. It was an excellent early example of the Bay Area Shingle style. The building was 40 feet square, with a basement. A member gave the redwood pillars that graced the two front entrances and there were other gifts.” 

There is no record of Maybeck’s having had any part in the church design, which was completed in January 1898. It’s interesting to note, though, that both Maybeck and Mathisen passed through the office of the fashionable architect A. Page Brown, where Schweinfurth was chief draftsman until opening his own practice in 1894. 

The First Unitarian Church design was revolutionary for its time-in its single huge west gable, the use of shingles and metal sash windows, the exceptionally heavy rough beams resting on unpeeled redwood trunks, and the semi-circular apse with a bisected conical roof on the east side. Curved buttresses along the side walls—structurally unnecessary in a wood-frame building—make a playful allusion to traditional masonry churches. 

The church’s History informs that “Opinion was divided as to its architectural beauty. One passerby was heard to say ‘It looks like a powerhouse,’ to which the pert answer, of course, was ‘It is a powerhouse.’” 

The church building cost $5,130. Once the furnace, furniture, and insurance were added, the grand total came to $5,924.81. It was dedicated on Nov. 20, 1898, with four Unitarian ministers and a rabbi participating. The architect was not present, having left for Europe in the summer. 

One of the most original American architects of the late 19th century, A.C. Schweinfurth is little-known today, having died at the age of 37. Most of his buildings succumbed to fire or demolition over the years, leaving a much reduced legacy. 

By his own account, Albert Cicero Schweinfurth was born in Auburn, N.Y., on Jan. 7, 1863 (for an unexplained reason, practically all publications date his birth at 1864). Like Bernard Maybeck, his elder by a year, Schweinfurth was the son of a German woodcarver and received his early design training at his father’s architectural ornament business. His two elder brothers, Charles Frederick (1856-1919) and Julius Adolph (1858-1931), also architects, gained national reputations—the former working in Cleveland, the latter in Boston. 

In 1879 Albert moved to Boston, sharing an apartment with Julius. Here he worked for a year at J.R. Osgood & Co., printers of the American Architect, before securing a position as draftsman for the important architectural firm Peabody & Stearns. From 1885 until 1888, he was employed by A. Page Brown (1859-1896) in New York. While in that office, he was responsible for the design of the Museum of Historic Art at Princeton University (1886-92). 

In 1886, Schweinfurth left Brown’s office to work with his brother Charles in Cleveland but returned within the year. In 1888 he opened an independent practice in New York, but that, too, proved unsuccessful. His obituary in The American Architect and Building News detailed his subsequent moves: “Here excessive application to his profession brought on illness, and he was obliged to remove to Denver, Colo., where he soon felt the benefit of the climate. In Denver may be seen many examples of his work, distinguished by its peculiar simple dignity and refinement. In 1890, having recovered his health, he removed to San Francisco, where he assisted Mr. A. Page Brown in the erection of many large and important works; he, being entrusted with their design and execution, thus rendered valuable service in beautifying the city.” 

As chief draftsman in A. Page Brown’s San Francisco office, Schweinfurth would work alongside Willis Polk, Bernard Maybeck, and Joachim Mathisen. While in that office, Schweinfurth was the lead designer of the San Francisco Ferry Building (1893-98) and Trinity Episcopal Church on the corner of Bush and Gough. Schweinfurth and Brown are credited with having been the first to introduce the Mission Revival style, in the California Building they designed for the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition. (Maybeck and Mathisen submitted an independent entry to the design competition, and their proposed building contained many of the same Mission elements.) 

Although Schweinfurth’s role in the design of Joseph Worcester’s Swedenborgian Church of San Francisco has been disputed by some architectural historians, the National Historic Landmark Nomination for the church makes a case for Schweinfurth’s involvement. 

In 1894, Schweinfurth left Brown’s office for the last time, establishing a successful practice under William Randolph Hearst’s patronage. His first commission was a country estate in Pleasanton, Hacienda del Pozo de Verona (1895-1898), which was appropriated by Hearst’s mother, Phoebe Apperson Hearst, before its completion. 

Drawing on Hispanic and Pueblo traditions, the Hacienda was called “The greatest California patio house” in the October 1904 issue of Country Life in America. The California Architect and Building News (Vol. XX, No. 9) opined: “Mrs. Hearst’s house was designed by Mr. Schweinfurth, one of the most talented architects of the United States. He stands to this style somewhat as Norman Shaw does to Queen Anne. The one using a creamy colored stucco where the other employs a deep rose brick work. The one style in clear California light being as happy as the other is in the thick grey atmosphere of London.” 

Other important Schweinfurth projects commissioned or initiated by William Randolph Hearst were the San Francisco Examiner building at Third and Market Streets (1897, burned in 1906) and the circular brick Little Jim Ward (1895) and matching Eye and Ear Pavilion (1896-97) of the San Francisco Children’s Hospital on California Street at Maple. All evidence points to the conclusion that until his premature death, Schweinfurth was to the Hearsts what Bernard Maybeck and later Julia Morgan would come to represent. 

On May 27, 1898, Schweinfurth applied for a passport for himself, his wife Fanny, and their 7-year-old daughter Katrina. The passport was issued on June 2, and the three embarked on a two-year trip through Italy and France. On their return, Schweinfurth suffered an attack of typhoid fever while spending the summer with Fanny’s family in Dryden, N.Y. He died there on Sept. 27, 1900. His widow and daughter did not return to San Francisco but went to live in Brookline, Mass., where Julius Schweinfurth made his home. 

The expanding University of California acquired the Unitarian Church property in 1960, and the congregation moved to Kensington the following year, where a new church was built on land donated by Maybeck. The Berkeley parish house and auxiliary structure were razed in 1965 to clear land for the Zellerbach Auditorium and Playhouse complex. The church building was retained and has been converted into the Dramatic Arts Department’s dance facility. In 1998, the building underwent seismic, life safety, and ADA upgrades at a cost of $778,000.00, a far cry from the original construction costs a hundred years earlier. 

The First Unitarian Church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated a City of Berkeley Landmark in 1981. 


Daniella Thompson publishes berkeleyheritage.com for the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA).