Los Angeles

Bethlehem Baptist Church: A Schindler Saved

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A segment on KCET's award-winning TV show "SoCal Connected" was based on this story. Watch it here now.

When Reverend Melvin Ashley leased the building on the corner of 49th Street and Compton Avenue, he didn't realize he'd become part of the architectural history of Los Angeles. Bethlehem Baptist Church was built in 1944, with a sleek white Modernist shell design by celebrated architect Rudolph Schindler (1887 - 1953). Schindler, known for innovations in residential architecture, realized only one church, this one, which would be radically unlike any church or building in this neighborhood, then or now.

Ashley had been looking for a building to extend his ministries and house his small African American congregation -- at the time it was meeting in a storefront. Covered in graffiti, Bethlehem Baptist Church had caught his eye. He knew it had been a church from the cornerstone marker. Last summer he saw a for sale/lease sign dangling on the iron gate, and he contacted the owners. Eventually they worked out an agreement.

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that Ashley and his church, Faith Build International, arrived just in the nick of time. Having had been empty for about a decade, the building was in bad shape. A section of the roof had collapsed which led to water damage, vandals had stripped out all the electrical wiring. The pews were so deteriorated, they had to be tossed -- they were not original, in any case. Church members pitched in to clean up and paint. Furniture and lighting designer Brendan Ravenhill donated the contemporary hanging lights -- a metal star-shaped structure with frosted round bulbs on the ends -- which blend in beautifully with the austere interior.

Bethlehem Baptist Church | Photo:  Brendan Ravenhill

Rev. Melvin Ashley in his new church | Photo: Scarlet Cheng

Looking around, Ashley points out the renovations, then adds, "There's still a lot to be done." Still, it was a triumph when they had their first service in the building the first Sunday in April. "And we had a full house on Easter!"

The history of the building goes back 80 years. Bethlehem Baptist Church, an African American congregation, was founded in 1933. In 1936 they purchased an existing church on 49th and Compton, and tore it down to make way for the new church they commissioned from Schindler. "The neighborhood still would have been a mixed neighborhood at that time," says Alison Rose Jefferson, a historian and historic preservation consultant who studied the church and its history for a 2006 exhibition at the California African American Museum, "Intersections of South Central: People and Places in Historic and Contemporary Photographs." "Anglos would have been moving out, they would have had more options to move."

She suggests that the Bethlehem Baptist congregation was "an adventurous group of people looking for new ways to interpret their spirituality through their structure." The new building would be have been possible, she says, because, "This was a time when people had a little cash from working in the war industries."

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"The way it sits on the site and the way Schindler uses space is brilliant," says Steve Wallet, a San Diego architect and Schindler aficionado. "It's designed to grab your attention from a distance, and it's designed to look very big, even though it's only 2000 square feet." Although the building is only two stories, a tower extends its height, and the white siding with horizontal bands makes it look large and imposing.

Happy to hear that someone was finally taking over the building, Wallet contacted Faith Build International and volunteered his services. He helped publicize the open house that took place April 12, when dozens of architects, art and architectural historians, and fans of Schindler's work came to visit. Many had been aware of the building, but few had ever stepped inside and were eager to.

The church is in an L-shape, with two seating areas set at a 90 degree angle, sloping gently downwards towards a raised platform where a pulpit has been placed. In the back corner are traces of the baptismal --- in old photographs taken by Julius Shulman, one can see that it had a low wall to contain the water. Steps on either side lead to the small chamber behind, that would have been used for changing clothes. There are second story mezzanines and terraces accessed by an outdoor staircase.

Bethlehem Baptist Church | Photo: Bruce Jia-Chi Chan

Bethlehem Baptist Church | Photo: Bruce Jia-Chi Chan

Bethlehem Baptist Church | Photo: Bruce Jia-Chi Chan

One-story buildings on the other side of the small courtyard were built in an earlier era but tied to the church with a connecting arcade. The side of the building facing 49th Street has also been given a horizontal band detail that echoes the main church.

In 1975 Bethlehem Baptist Church sold the property to move to larger quarters, and it was purchased by a Pentacostal church, The Prayer Tower for All Nations Evangelistic Center. Later the building went into private hands, and its future was uncertain. Fortunately, the building got some protection in 2009 when it was named a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument by the City Council, but it remained empty, and fell further to disrepair and vandalism.

Reverend Ashley already has plans for those other buildings. They will eventually house offices and community rooms. He wants to set up pre school and after school programs for local youths, as well as provide counseling and other social services for what he sees as an underserved population. "I believe when Schindler developed this, he was a visionary," Ashley says. "I believe that all visionaries have a higher goal and purpose. To him it was more than a building, it's the significance and hope it brought to the African American community."

Bethlehem Baptist Church | Photo: Brendan Ravenhill

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Top Image: Bethlehem Baptist Church | Photo: Brendan Ravenhill

About the Author

Scarlet Cheng is an arts writer who specializes in the visual arts, architecture and design, and cinema.
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