Blessed Buildings – The Little Church at the Base of Pound Cake Hill

The scene at Pound Cake Hill in the 1870’s. St. Athanasius in center foreground. Los Angeles’ first High School (1874) crowns the hill. Photo snapped from the roof of the Temple Block.


This week’s “Blessed Building,” is one of the very first churches ever built in Los Angeles – the old St. Athanasius Protestant Episcopal Church at the corner of Temple and New High Streets at the base of Pound Cake Hill. Completed in 1865, this little church was the first permanent bastion of Episcopalianism in Los Angeles with all of ten congregants to populate it. Apparently there had been an earlier abortive attempt to establish an Episcopal parish in 1857 or 1859 (sources differ) with the organization of the parish of St. Luke’s. For whatever reason, however, the parish disbanded the following year and Episcopalianism went fallow in the City of the Angels for the duration of the Civil War. Towards the end of the conflict, a second attempt was made when a small group of Los Angeles Episcopals petitioned Bishop William I. Kip, the (first) Bishop of California, in San Francisco to please send a lay reader to conduct services for them. The Bishop heeded the call, appointing a young and dynamic 33 year-old Rev. Elias Birdsall to what was then the far flung outpost of frontier Los Angeles. Making the long and arduous trek from Indiana with his family by way of the Isthmus, Birdsall arrived in L.A. in mid-December of 1864 and began conducting services for the grateful congregation in the Odd Fellow’s Hall located in the Downey Block. Soon, however, enough funds had been gathered to build a permanent church structure. Fortunately for the Episcopalians, they really only had to build half a church as there was already a half-finished one sitting empty at the base of Pound Cake Hill. Originally started as a Presbyterian church in about 1863-1864, the incomplete structure was abandoned when the Presbyterians had run out of funds. The Episcopalians took over the property and completed the church, which they named Saint Athanasius after Saint Athanasius of Alexandria. The church quickly became known as “The Little Church on the Corner” for the possible reason that it was indeed a little church on a corner, but probably more because  no one (including yours truly) seemed to be able to pronounce Saint Athanasius. Even the congregants must have had trouble and by the dawn of the 1880’s, the parish had renamed itself “St. Paul’s.”

Detail from map of Los Angeles as it was in 1871. Number 17 is St. Athanasius. “29” is the future site of the Los Angeles High School and, of course, much, much later, the Los Angeles Civic Center. FYI: “3” is the old Courthouse, site of today’s City Hall; “24” is the Temple Block and “25” is the Downey Block, where Spring and Main Streets come together.

A great view of Pound Cake Hill showing the Los Angeles High School at the summit and St. Athanasius at its base. Students had to make quite the trek up a very long set of steps to reach the school.

An early (1870’s) Blanchard view of Main and Spring Streets. Temple Block on the left, Downey Block in the foreground. Can you see the little peak of St. Athanasius sticking up towards the upper right? (California State Library Collection)

The view from Pound Cake Hill with St. Athanasius in the foreground. (California State Library Collection)

For the next decade and a half, the Little Church on the Corner faithfully served the growing congregation until by 1882, they were making arrangements to build a handsome new Gothic edifice on Olive Street between 5th and 6th Streets. Built at a cost of $10,000 and with a capacity for 500 parishioners, the new church was a huge step up in size from the tiny one at Pound Cake Hill. The last services were held at the old church on Christmas Day 1883.

The “new” St. Paul’s as seen from Central Park (Pershing Square).

The sanctuary.

The Gothic designed church at 523 South Olive Street was home to the congregation of St. Paul’s from 1884 to 1922 and witnessed its rise from church to Pro-Cathedral to full Cathedral. Among the items placed into the cornerstone in its May 1883 laying ceremony was a Confederate States Five Dollar Bill, perhaps a reminder of the parish’s founding during the Civil War or perhaps just some old rebel parishioner who wanted to have a little rebellion built into the church’s very walls.

A picturesque view of St. Paul’s showing the State Normal School in the background, future site of the Los Angeles Public Library.

A later view from the same direction shows more development around St. Paul’s. In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson, on his disastrous national tour to promote the League of Nations, dropped into St. Paul’s for some spiritual comfort. Sadly, but a few days later he would be felled by a paralytic stroke.

Nellie Naysayer and Dora Doubter out for a stroll in Central Park in the days of their fetching youth. (California State Library)

As fine a church as it was, St. Paul’s nonetheless could not keep pace with the mammoth growth Los Angeles was experiencing and by 1921, there were serious proposals afoot to demolish the cathedral and replace it with a new, bigger structure. However, that same year, they received a very generous offer for their land from the consortium planning on building the biggest hotel in the west (the Biltmore) on the site. The check was so big they were able to build as fine a new cathedral as they wanted on a new site and that’s exactly what they did.  In February 1922, the congregation held its last service in what was now “old” St. Paul’s.

Johnson, Kaufmann & Coate’s graceful St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Two years later, the congregants were able to begin worshipping in their beautiful new cathedral, located at 615 South Figueroa Street, a structure of great beauty and charm designed by the powerhouse team of Johnson, Kaufmann and Coate.

How many St. Athanasiuses could you fit in here?

The magnificent cathedral, which deserves (and will get) its own “Blessed Buildings” post would be home to the Episcopals for the next half century. One can only imagine what the original ten congregants would have said if they could have seen this elegant cathedral rising from the birth of little St. Athanasius in the 1860’s. And what would they say if they saw it demolished in the name of “progress” in 1980?

“Nihil sanctum.”

As for little old St. Athanasius, the grand daddy of St. Paul’s Cathedral, it led a productive second life as an annex to the Los Angeles County Court House, even serving for a time as the County Assessor’s Office. On April 6, 1888 it saw the founding of the Los Angeles Daily Journal, which printed its issues off an old Washington hand press. By the end of the 1880’s, the County made plans to transform Pound Cake Hill into “Court House Hill,” with the construction of Curlett, Cuthbertson & Eisen’s mammoth new red sandstone edifice crowning the hill, which meant the removal of the two structures presently on the site – the Los Angeles High School, which was physically moved across Temple to Fort Moore Hill (a story in itself!) and the little church, which wasn’t. In 1891, it was knocked down, returned to the dust from which it was born. When St. Athanasius was first built Los Angeles had a population of 5,000. By 1891, when it was demolished the population was over 100,000. The Little Church on the Corner had seen a lot of growth in its brief lifetime.

Old St. Athanasius in its final days in 1891. It looks like it is about to be swallowed up by the giant new County Courthouse looming menacingly behind it, which, of course it was. The former church was soon to be razed to create green space around the Courthouse.

Today, pretty much nothing is left of the church, the old high school, the courthouse, New High Street or even Pound Cake Hill and at the southeast corner of Temple and Spring Streets stands the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Courts Building. Or is there?…

(via Google Earth)

Well, there appears to be at least one remnant from old St. Athanasius that survives to this day and it’s a good one too. One the proudest elements in the otherwise modest old structure had been its bell, which had come all the way “around the Horn” by sailing ship in the 1860’s or 1850’s. (Sources differ) and which called the faithful to services each Sunday from 1865 to Christmas 1883. When the church moved to its new location on Olive Street, the old bell was given to another congregation, the Church of the Epiphany in Lincoln Heights. Completed in 1886 and located at 2808 Altura Street, the Church of the Epiphany is today the oldest Episcopal church structure in Los Angeles having outlived two St. Paul Cathedrals. The historic church was originally designed by famed church architect Ernest Coxhead and then later, in 1913, expanded and reworked by another great architect, Arthur B. Benton.

The Church of the Epiphany as designed by Ernest Coxhead. A very quaint country church and in 1886 it was indeed “in the country.”

In 1913, the brilliant Arthur B. Benton did a major expansion to the church. You can see Coxhead’s original on the left.

A vintage view of the interior of the Church of the Epiphany. It is said that the stained glass window was executed by Tiffany Studios and using the same kiln as that which forged the Liberty Bell. Other stained glass was created by the nearby Judson Studios.

And today.

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5 Responses to Blessed Buildings – The Little Church at the Base of Pound Cake Hill

  1. Another fantastic post Steve!

  2. 4lahope says:

    It was a sad day when St Paul’s Cathedral was demolished.

  3. An exceptional post, Steve. Thanks.

  4. Pingback: Religion as Architecture Part 2 | thesquareplaza

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