For many decades, Bethlehem Baptist Church in South L.A. has been plagued with endless electrical problems, leaky roofs, and graffiti.
To save the abandoned building, Pastor Melvin Ashley and his church, Faith Build International, decided to step in. The goal was to revitalize and bring back to life what was once architect Rudolph Schindler's only ecclesiastical structure designed in the early 1940s.
Schindler spent much of his career designing single family houses and apartment buildings in Los Angeles. He was big on making the most of small spaces and providing as much indoor lighting as possible to create the illusion of a larger space.
Reporter Jennifer Sabih interviews Pastor Melvin Ashley for more on the congregation as well as the efforts of community members, church-goers, and volunteers to rebuild what was once lost in South L.A.
Jennifer Sabih: Right across from this liquor store on Compton Avenue is something you would not expect to find in this area: A cultural landmark built by a renowned L.A. architect. His name was Rudolph Schindler, an immigrant from Austria who came to America in 1920. He admired and worked for Frank Lloyd Wright in the ‘30s and ‘40s, but he made his own mark in Los Angeles, designing homes in a unique style he called “space architecture.” The Bethlehem Baptist Church was built in 1944 but over time, it fell into disrepair. Even being declared an historic landmark didn’t help. Vandalism, graffiti, and years of neglect made the building uninhabitable. Until a local pastor looking to expand his ministry, stumbled on this hidden gem, and together with his congregation, resurrected the only house of worship Rudolph Schindler ever built.
Judith Sheine: Architects come from all over the world to see Schindler’s work in L.A.
Jennifer Sabih: Judith Sheine is an architectural scholar and leading expert on Schindler’s work.
Judith Sheine: If this building is at all accessible, it will draw architects from all over, which is pretty amazing.
Jennifer Sabih: And just as amazing is just what this church looked like only a year early. So describe for me when you first got in here, what exactly did you see?
Pastor Melvin Ashley: It was a mess.
Jennifer Sabih: Pastor Melvin Ashley was looking for a bigger space for his Faith Build International Church, when he noticed this dilapidated structure. He says it was like a patient on life support.
Pastor Melvin Ashley: There was water puddles where the roof had been leaking. There was no lighting in here. The only light came through was partial light through the windows. The roof was dilapidated where the wood had rotted from the rain.
Jennifer Sabih: And so did people say, “How are you going to make a church out of this, pastor?”
Pastor Melvin Ashley: Actually, yes. I was quite surprised. I did not know.
Jennifer Sabih: Nevertheless, he leased the church, unaware of its cultural significance.
Had you ever heard of Schindler before?
Pastor Melvin Ashley: At the time, it didn’t mean anything to me.
Jennifer Sabih: The pastor and the congregation quickly got to work, restoring Schindler’s church.
Judith Sheine: This is the only church he did. He thought that architecture should be designed with space, climate, light, and mood as the materials of architecture.
Pastor Melvin Ashley: When I came here, it was like, “oh my god. We have balcony space, pulpit space, we have this tremendous space.”
Jennifer Sabih: And you utilize it to, because I saw you walking up and down.
Pastor Melvin Ashley: I run. I run from this side, then I run from this side.
Jennifer Sabih: And that’s thanks to Schindler. He was all about giving you space. Schindler did something unusual. He did not place the structure in the middle of the lot.
Judith Sheine: Schindler pushed the church to the edge of the sign, turning its back on the busy street on Compton, and he made an L-shaped plan which he typically did in his houses because it’s the easiest way to define an outdoor courtyard. So for him, instead of putting a cross on the church, making it kind of 3-dimensional sculpture out of the cross, and making it into a tower in itself and making it part of the interior space by having a skylight at the base. So when you’re inside, you can look up at the tower and see it. It’s a very kind of Schindler-esque way of handling it.
Jennifer Sabih: There are other unique features as well. A diagonal entrance, columns
set at 45 degree angles, and grooves cut into the beams for texture and sound absorption.
Judith Sheine: Schindler worked as his own contractor and managed to make modern architecture cheaper than almost anybody else could and it’s certainly possible because the congregation had very little money, Schindler said “I can build it for a very low budget.”
Jennifer Sabih: Schindler was not a believer. But he wanted his work to inspire those who are.
Pastor Melvin Ashley: I think Schindler had a design to get people to look up. To elevate their spirits, elevate their head, to elevate their consciousness.
Jennifer Sabih: And the parishioners can feel it.
Parishioner Lee James: We can work through God anywhere. But the thing is that once we move to something more beautiful -- where the vision is more clear -- I think it makes the worship more divine.
Church administrator Capri Blount: Acoustics are beautiful. The sound sounds really nice. It’s just a feeling of peace.
Jennifer Sabih: This church was built at a time in Los Angeles when racism ran deep and African-Americans were confined to certain neighborhoods.
Judith Sheine: Schindler had sort of...was certainly progressive and open-minded about who he worked with. He was an immigrant himself.
Pastor Melvin Ashley: Schindler was a very extraordinary man, who did not think like ordinary people. And someone like me who was not even born yet but yet linked with him, can still see his vision and yet it was passed on to me and is flourishing.
Judith Sheine: It’s kind of a miracle that it’s come back alive, as a church again. You know, with a congregation that really loves and appreciates it and wants to bring it back. Really, it’s just miraculous and wonderful.
Pastor Melvin Ashley: It has life, it has music, it has people. It has movement. The vision just came alive again. So what Schindler saw then is living today.
Jennifer Sabih: now 70 years later, a new generation can bask in the life and space Schindler is famous for.
Pastor Melvin Ashley: This place will never go back to disrepair. Never again. This will be an icon. This will be a beacon for all underserved communities that it can be done.
Jennifer Sabih: I’m Jennifer Sabih, for “SoCal Connected.”
Photo Credit: Bruce Jia-Chi Chan/Artbound