The phenomenon of the megachurch, though now associated with the geographical and cultural flatlands of suburban and exurban “middle America,” began in no less coastal and cosmopolitan a city than Los Angeles. Standing at the corner of Glendale Boulevard and Park Avenue in the currently fashionable neighborhood of Echo Park, right across the street from the recently rehabilitated Echo Park Lake, the Angelus Temple comes with not just greater architectural interest than its big-box descendants, but a compelling personality behind it as well. The newly built – and, for the time, extravagantly scaled – house of worship opened its doors on New Year's Day 1923, owing to the tireless efforts of rural Ontario-born celebrity preacher Aimee Semple McPherson, not just a towering figure in the history of Pentecostal evangelism, but one of the most unlikely urbanists in the history of Los Angeles.
Some might regard the Los Angeles of the 1920s, and even more so the Los Angeles of the 1910s in which McPherson first arrived, as decidedly pre-cosmopolitan. Though booming, the city still had a great deal of growing and diversifying to do, and a considerable segment of its population then consisted of recent arrivals from elsewhere in the country – from that vast, staid “middle America” especially – and invalids in search of cures, climatic, spiritual, or otherwise, for whatever ailed them. McPherson knew what it meant to hope against hope for recovery: she'd lost her first husband, an Irish Pentecostal missionary, to disease on an evangelistic tour of China, and when their only daughter Roberta later fell ill in New Rochelle, McPherson claimed to have received a vision of the California dream, “a little home in Los Angeles,” as she prayed by her bedside.
Roberta returned to health, and the two, along with McPherson's mother and business manager Minnie, soon moved into that envisioned little home in Los Angeles, or something close enough to it. Having picked up on the East Coast where her late husband left off to become increasingly well known as a traveling evangelist in her own right, Sister Aimee (as her followers knew her) found herself working under an expanded mandate from above on the West: not just to find a house for herself, but to “build a house unto the Lord” unlike any other in this city unlike any other. She delivered the first of the ecstatic sermons that made her famous in Los Angeles in rented spaces around the city, soon filling even the Temple Auditorium (later known as the Philharmonic Auditorium) across from Pershing Square, but in time she became enough of a phenomenon to need a permanent space of her own.
“One day Sister and I started out impressed that we would be guided to some suitable place and would know it when we saw it,” Minnie later remembered of their search for the right location in town. “After many hours we came to the now beautiful spot upon which Angelus Temple stands. It was then but a vacant, rough, debris-strewn lot.” But McPherson saw its potential, not least in the peaceful appeal of the nearby lake, and after a characteristically dramatic silence made her declaration: “This is the place God would have us build.” Beginning with her own sketch of a building in the shape of a megaphone, an apparent attempt to honor her road-show revival background, she set about raising the sizable budget for its design and construction.
Over a period of years, this religion-devoted Canadian immigrant employed all the techniques of the good old American commercial hustle, naturally soliciting donations from the faithful but also engaging as necessary in more everyday forms of moneymaking: selling sacks of cement out of the back of a truck, for instance. “McPherson had originally intended to build a wooden tabernacle,” write Otis B. Wheeler and Anne C. Loveland in “From Meetinghouse to Megachurch: A Material and Cultural History,” “but as attendance increased at her evangelistic meetings, she realized such a structure would be inadequate. So she hired a construction company so start work on a church, and the builder-architect, Brook Hawkins, visited one of her meetings so as to be able to tailor the plans for her ministry.”
The solid résumé of Hawkins' Winter Construction Company had included the Culver City Hotel, Grauman's Metropolitan Theater, and the Pasadena Playhouse, but McPherson brought plenty of her own ideas to the drawing board as well. The result struck one visiting preacher as “half Roman Coliseum, half like a Parisian opera house,” and, at a cost of $1.5 million, had every feature a church of the day could need and then some: 5,300 seats (though the building would often accommodate up to 7,500 worshipers); stained-glass windows depicting Biblical scenes; a 125-foot, sky-and-cloud-painted concrete dome touted as the largest on the continent; classrooms used for the training of 500 evangelists a year; a watchtower used for prayer at all hours; a baptismal tank refilled by a real stream and waterfall; a section dedicated specifically to faith healing; a separate room just for speaking in tongues; and no fewer than 25 exits, so as to avoid the kind of stampedes she'd too often seen at overheated revival meetings before.
McPherson herself, as Wheeler and Loveland write, “preached from a platform large enough to hold a one-hundred-voice, white-robed choir, an orchestra that included a gold harp and a Steinway grand concert piano, and visiting dignitaries. She incorporated a large number of theatrics into the temple services, so the platform was also designed to accommodate the elaborate stage sets she used for her 'illustrated sermons.' It even had an apron that could be raised or lowered by hydraulic pistons – an apparatus she copied from P.T. Barnum's Hippodrome in New York City.” Morrow Mayo, an observer of Los Angeles in the 1920s and 30s, described Sister Aimee as commanding “a brass band bigger and louder that Sousa's, an organ worthy of any movie cathedral, a female choir bigger and more beautiful than the Metropolitan chorus, and a costume wardrobe comparable to Ziegfield's,” all to preach the word, to a full house three times a day and seven days a week, of the Christian movement she called the Foursquare Gospel.
Later additions to the already grand temple included a rotating cross, visible from fifty miles away when lit up at night; a fifteen-foot-tall statue of Sister Aimee herself; and, carrying her voice much farther than even the near-perfect acoustics inside the temple, the 250-foot-tall twin broadcasting towers of radio station KFSG (“Kall Four-Square Gospel”). “On February 6, 1924 at 8:00 p.m., McPherson stepped before a microphone and spoke, not to thousands but to tens of thousands, and not just in Los Angeles but across the West,” writes D.J. Waldie in a piece on Southern California's early radio evangelism. Though “probably the first woman to be issued a broadcast license for a religious radio station and the first woman to preach on radio,” her words had little novelty: “She supported Prohibition. She denounced the teaching of evolution. Jazz was an instrument of Satan to snare the young. The world was about to end. The city’s police took payoffs from bootleggers and brothel keepers.”
Architect William Pereira, whose starkly futuristic work defined mid-20th-century Los Angeles, credited “gadgetry” like the radio, and even more so television, with making life such a widely dispersed city possible: “It meant that unsophisticated people could stay home for their entertainment. It sweetened the sprawl.” But he said that in the 1960s; McPherson, at the peak of her fame in the 1920s, must count among the first to have understood the power of broadcasting in a place like Los Angeles. KFSG, only the third radio station in town, did its part to bring people to the city and to turn the Angelus Temple, already a mainstay of prewar postcards, into a bona fide tourist attraction. McPherson understood that those who visited from afar would go back home as a form of living advertising, wide-eyed with stories of what they'd seen. Some wouldn't go back home at all, deciding instead to settle down right near Sister Aimee's church.
The Angelus Temple quickly received no small credit for making Echo Park into a respectable neighborhood.
The church itself, which expanded into a campus with a bible college, a parsonage, and dormitories, quickly received no small credit for making Echo Park into a respectable neighborhood: one Los Angeles Times article published soon after the Angelus Temple's opening estimated “that since the church was built more than 250 residence flats and apartments have been erected within a radius of a few blocks of the temple, and many of the hitherto vacant lots are now being improved with residential structures of various kinds.” During the Depression, the church's commissary became, according to McPherson's biographer Daniel Mark Epstein, “one of the region’s most effective and inclusive welfare institutions,” feeding children lunch when their schools couldn't, providing bread and quilts to those turned away by welfare agencies. “Angelus Temple was the only place anyone could get a meal, clothing, and blankets, no questions asked.”
Those down on their luck and in the know could even stop into the parsonage house for a complimentary token good for a ride on Los Angeles' streetcar system, though McPherson pushed for the construction of a subway system instead. “Los Angeles has ever been a city of beauty, a place of refuge where tired men and women from all over the world have come seeking rest,” she once said. “They left the noise, dirt, unsightliness, gloom and danger of the elevateds to come to our fair city where there is peace, quiet and comfort,” and so “let us have subways, the safe, sane, and practical solution to this great problem. They are out of view and take care of congested traffic in a smooth, efficient way.” Alas, the first branch of Los Angeles' modern subway system wouldn't enter service until the 1990s, nearly half a century after her death.
Even in the 1930s, though the Angelus Temple remained as much a landmark as ever, Sister Aimee's star had already begun to fall. The well-known “nutty religions” of Los Angeles, reported novelist James M. Cain in 1933, “don't cut anything like as much ice as you might think from reading about them, and “Aimee doesn't seem to cut any ice at all. The newspapers treat her with the amiable levity that New York reserves for the Metropolitan Opera House, and I personally have never met a Californian who has even seen her.” She'd already gone through a bizarre, high-profile “kidnapping” scandal and subsequent trial in 1926, about which H.L. Mencken correctly observed that “Los Angeles will remember the testimony against her long after it forgets the testimony that cleared her,” and life would have many a professional and personal struggle in store for her before her untimely death, of a seemingly accidental sedative overdose, on tour in 1944.
Yet none could deny the good McPherson did for the city. “She made migrants feel at home in Los Angeles,” wrote her neighbor Carey McWilliams, author of “Southern California Country: An Island on the Land.” “She gave them a chance to meet other people, and she exorcised the nameless fears which so many of them had acquired from the fire-and-brimstone theology of the Middle West.” But her legacy today manifests primarily in the Angelus Temple itself, which remained a fixture of Echo Park even as the area, like so many “inner city” neighborhoods, gradually fell back into gang-associated disrepute in the decades after World War II. Dramatically renovated in the early 1970s and subsequently stripped of several distinguishing features (the antenna towers and the Sister Aimee statue, for instance, both long gone), “the present sanctuary resembles any large, tech-savvy megachurch,” in the words of Curbed's Hadley Meares, “though Aimee's impressive stained glass windows still draw the eye.”
The Angelus Temple also set the template for the larger megachurches to come across the country, though most have been free of stained glass – or, for that matter, any other architectural feature of note. But a few ambitious examples followed in Southern California, such as Richard Neutra's Garden Grove Community Church in Orange County (“with its drive-in 'sanctuary,'” writes architecture critic Martin Filler, “where the faithful could receive the word of God from the evangelist Robert Schuller as they sat in their cars during his 'Hour of Power' telecasts”) in the early 1960s and Philip Johnson and John Burgee's glittering, angular Crystal Cathedral, built there 20 years later. Still, though impressive, do either look as miraculous to their occupants as McPherson's house of worship looked to her and her followers? A larger-than-life figure like Sister Aimee is by her very nature surrounded by implausibilities – her ambitions, her Pentecostal belief in faith healing, her sometimes inconsistent life story – but she had a way of refuting them, after a fashion, by simply gesturing to the building itself. “Many have said that a woman could not have built Angelus Temple and do these other seemingly impossible things,” she once told skeptical reporters. “But I did.”