A church in South Los Angeles with famous roots is revitalized by an up-and-coming design star
Story by Neal Broverman, photographs by Lara Everly
Driving down Compton Avenue, it’s easy to miss the Bethlehem Baptist Church. Even walking down the street you can miss it: surrounded by fences, overgrown trees, and cluttered auto repair shops, architect Rudolph Schindler’s creation seems to shirk from attention. But the 70-year-old church was thoroughly poked and prodded, when deLaB stopped by to explore its recent restoration.
Only a year ago, the church—South LA’s only Modernist structure and Schindler’s only church and civic building—was left for dead, covered by graffiti and trash and topped by a leaking roof, even though it’s been a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument since 2009. The church’s protected status was granted without the aid of the absentee owner, who could never be tracked down by city officials. The church finally found a hero with Pastor Melvin Ashley of the Faith-Build International congregation, who spotted the Bethlehem Baptist Church and realized he needed to bring it back to life.
Ashley managed to contact the owner—a private equity firm—and work out a deal to rent out the church to his congregation, which was worshipping out of a storefront at the time. But first the old church needed extensive work. Two Schindler enthusiasts, San Diego architect Steve Wallet and lighting and furniture designer Brandon Ravenhill, knew of the blighted church and offered to help (the owner and Faith-Build provided the funds). Ravenhill, who lives in a Schindler house in Highland Park, led the deLaB tour with church administrator Capri Blount and they helped share its rich history.
The Bethlehem Baptist Church, an African-American congregation, was founded in 1933. Three years later they purchased land at 49th and Compton, site of a former church that burned down, with the intention of making it their new home. Fundraising started soon after, but kicked into high-gear in the ‘40s, when the congregation found themselves flush with cash from the manufacturing jobs pouring into the city during World War II.
“This neighborhood and this street is very much part of this L.A. manufacturing base,” Ravenhill said.
The congregation first reached out to famed African-American architect James Garrott, but his designs proved too expensive. The commission was passed on to different architects, finally landing with Schindler in 1944. It’s believed that Schindler, often underemployed, needed the work and relished the opportunity to design something non-residential, while the congregation was confident Schindler could deliver the church on time, while not costing them a fortune.
After several revisions, many of which were cost-saving measures, Schindler presented a two-story, L-shaped structure. A small courtyard hugs the church, as well as a small collection of one-story buildings that were there when the church was built in ’44 and incorporated into Schindler’s design. The church was painted an “intense” rose/lavender shade that would fade into white, decades later.
The church’s distinctive steeple was placed in the center of the church, instead of in a closed-off bell tower, while glass windows underneath it allowed California light to pour in. “It was very much the idea of looking up into heaven,” Ravenhill said. “[The steeple] anchors the whole space.”
After the Bethlehem congregation sold the church in 1975 and it moved from owner to owner and eventually closed its doors, much of the structure deteriorated, including the pews that Schindler designed. The renovation budget didn’t include money for new pews, so chairs stand in for now. Ravenhill donated the distinctive mid-century lights that hang above Ashley’s congregation, which held its first service in the restored church in April.
Before deLaB attendees got a tour of the church, including the second-floor mezzanine only accessible by a courtyard stairway, Ravenhill and Blount pointed out that Faith-Build International was eliciting donations to buy the church themselves, and restore it even closer to Schindler’s original vision, including adding classrooms to the smaller buildings.
“This is a special property and special piece of L.A. architecture,” Ravenhill said.
See more photos from the event here.
Neal Broverman is editor-in-chief at Out Traveler, contributing editor at the Advocate and writers regularly for LA Magazine and Curbed LA.
Lara Everly is an actress, director, and photographer based in Los Angeles. She is the founder of Sweet Potato Productions.
This is the seventh event in our Making LA series, which is made possible by support from the National Endowment for the Arts. Making LA consists of ten free programs hosted throughout the city between fall 2013 and fall 2014 that focus on designers and architects working closely with communities and civic leaders to improve Los Angeles. The series will culminate in the Making LA conference in fall 2014, a one-day event where creative leaders from across Los Angeles will share best practices and investigate new ways to make their burgeoning civic, architectural or design projects a reality. Want to sponsor an upcoming event? Learn more.