November 17, 2013

Photo Essay: First Congregational Church Architecture Tour

When I first visited the First Congregational Church in Wilshire Center near LA's Koreatown, I'd been meaning to take their architectural tour for months—but I crawled through their organs instead. And it was awesome.

circa 2020

Still, I'd had it on my list to go check out the concrete behemoth, that looks like perhaps an English cathedral, the kind of church the pilgrims ran away from.

Funny enough, the first congregational churches were started by the pilgrim fathers.

Situated on Commonwealth Avenue, this is actually the FCC's fifth home, completed in 1932 after they'd moved around LA's Downtown since being founded in 1867. Including the adjacent Shatto Chapel and Seaver Building, the current church footprint encompasses 157,000 square feet, and the tower of the main building rises to a height of 157 feet.

Built entirely out of reinforced concrete, the church has stood strong for decades, save for the spires of the tower, which suffered damage from the 1994 Northridge earthquake, and had to be replaced. The original spires were relocated to flank the entrances to the parking lot, where they can still be seen (up close!) today.

Embedded in the concrete are over 500 tons of steel bars.

There were no skilled stone carvers at the time, so even the intricate ornamentation on the church's façade came out of a mold.

It's a properly gothic entrance to welcome you into LA's oldest Protestant church...

...that houses the world's largest pipe organ.

To enter the sanctuary from the forecourt, you must pass through two large bronze doors...

...each three inches thick and weighing a thousand pounds, depicting scenes from the Bible.

You then encounter the first of many oak carvings: a set of double doors, inscribed with IC XC NIKA...

...,a Christogram (or monogrammed initials) that loosely translates as "Jesus Christ, Conquerer," more commonly found in Greek and Russian traditions.

Just inside the sanctuary, you can see more ornamental wood carvings...

...and, upon looking up, the back pipe organ...

...and, above it, the "rose" stained glass window depicting JC enthroned and surrounded by kings, saints, angels, martyrs, and prophets.

It is the first of many stained glass windows contributed by LA's own Judson Studios that can be seen in the sanctuary.

Like the church's exterior, the sanctuary itself, with its grand arches and cruciform shape, was modeled after the great cathedrals of England (and France), and features carved oak pews.

While facing the chancel in the front, to the left you'll find more of Judson Studios' handiwork, with colorful stained glass portraying various scenes from the Old Testament...

...the surrounding lights kept dim to let the sun shine through and illuminate the stunning colors.

Up front at the chancel (the area surrounding the altar), a hand-carved oak screen surrounds and supports the altar itself.

Added in 1949, the screen - called a "reredo" - is designed with a number of symbolic carvings, including the ship (presumably the Mayflower) as a nod to their pilgrimage to escape persecution.

The oak pulpit features a total of seven symbolic carvings, including a repetition of IC XC NIKA, an ox, a man, an eagle, and a lion...

...each with a book representing the writers of the four gospels of the New Testament.

Next door, the Shatto Chapel - which is reportedly the same dimensions as the Mayflower ship and houses its own pipe organ (The Hildreth Memorial Organ) - features the church's oldest stained glass window.

Salvaged from their previous church building on 9th and Hope, and retrofitted into its new space, this stained glass window was not designed by Judson but rather the J&R Lamb Studios, the oldest continuously-run decorative arts company in the country, predating famed stained glass artist Louis C. Tiffany. Originally located in New York City and now operating out of Midland Park, NJ, Lamb now restores many historic and vintage Tiffany Studios stained glassworks.

The Lamb-designed one is the church's only stained glass window that's protected from the outside, since it is inconveniently located right next to a playground where unpredictable projectiles threaten its integrity.

It feels like the FCC is pretty settled into their most recent digs, having resided there for over 80 years. They just brought on a new organist-in-residence. They're friendly to same sex weddings.

But will they stay there forever? Well, who knows? There's always some reason to move around and change something in the big city.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: First Congregational Church Organ Crawl
Photo Essay: Judson's Historic Glass Studio

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