Blessed Buildings – Hollywood’s Historic First Presbyterian Church

Founder of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, Rev. Dr. Henry A. Newell

For this installment of Blessed Buildings, we feature one of Hollywood’s most notable historic churches – the First Presbyterian @ 1760 North Gower Street. The Presbyterians were Hollywood pioneers, coming here the same year Hollywood gained it’s brief cityhood in 1903. In September of that year, the Rev. Dr. Henry A. Newell called the faithful to join him to meet in the still unfinished Masonic Hall on Highland Avenue. By December, they had officially organized with a total of 23 congregants. It was said that Dr. Newell made over 1,500 house calls, wearing out a buggy in the process, in the search for new parishioners. His efforts were a success and soon the flock was looking towards building a church structure of their own.

A grainy view of the original structure. It is easy to see why it was called the Presbyterian “Storm Cellar.” Note that the ground floor was used when the full church was built in 1910.

The Presbyterians purchased a large plot of land at the corner of Gower and Carlos Streets just below Franklin for $3,000 and built, at a cost of $15,000, a low slung, one-story plus basement structure that was so low-slung in appearance it was soon dubbed the “Presbyterian Storm Shelter.” This was always intended as a temporary structure until the funds could be found to complete the full church. And the funds were found. On November 6, 1909, the cornerstone was laid for a beautiful Gothic church structure designed by the noted Los Angeles firm of Eisen & Son, which was completed the following year.

Eisen & Son’s charming design for the original church as completed in 1910. See the windows of the “Storm Cellar” below.

By the dawn of the 1920’s, the congregation had grown to such an extent that plans were put in place for a new and grander structure to accommodate the rapidly growing flock. To design the new church there was really no question as to who it should be – Henry M. “H.M.” Patterson was virtually the “in house” architect when it came to Presbyterian churches in Southern California. A church member himself, Patterson would design literally dozens of Presbyterian churches from Lomita to Hemet beginning with one in his former home of Butte, Montana up until his death in 1928. For the Hollywood church, Patterson took his cue from Eisen & Son’s original and carried on with the Gothic theme faced in red brick and artificial stone except on a much grander scale. The grand new church would have seating for 1,592 spread out through the bowl-floored auditorium, choir loft, mezzanine and balcony. Pews and other interior details were finished in Philippine mahogany and an art stone known as Zenitherm for a handsome effect. The main church auditorium was to be only part of a complex that included Sunday School, study and lecture rooms, church offices and a cafeteria. The most dramatic element was to be an imposing 150-foot high Tower-steeple that would house a $25,000 set of bell chimes. Like a Hollywood super-production, costs on the church continued to rise from its original $150,000 in 1922 to more than $450,000 in 1924. But the cost was justified in the look of the beautiful new structure.

Crowds gather for services, August 1964. (via Robert J. Boser/Wikipedia

Dedicated on November 16, 1924, the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood immediately became one of the area’s most notable landmarks and one of its most popular churches with attendees coming not just from Hollywood but surrounding communities as well. In fact, by the 1960’s the church had grown to become the largest Presbyterian church in the world with a congregation exceeding 8,000 with nationally/internationally known pastors at its head. One of the best known, Dr. Lloyd Ogilvie, left the church in 1995 to become Chaplain of the United States Senate. Ogilvie was the second former pastor from Hollywood Presbyterian to be accorded the honor, the first being Dr. Richard C. Halverson. The church was also renowned for its missionary work

Scene during services in August 1964. (via Robert J. Boser/Wikipedia

Although the days of overflow crowds at the church has passed, at least at the present time, the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood remains one of Hollywood’s most visible, beautiful and historic landmarks. And for me it was a great thrill to discover that the original church structure, Eisen & Son’s charming Gothic edifice from 1910, still exists today! It was not demolished to make way for the new church, but rather, was sensitively blended by H.M. Patterson into the new structure as an annex and has been used for many years as a gymnasium. Correct me if I’m wrong (and I’m sure you will!) but this would make it the oldest extant church structure still standing in Hollywood – a real treasure of more than a century ago, even predating the arrival of the movies.

Truly a miracle! Eisen & Son’s 1910 church still exists today 102 years after it was built. (via Google Earth)

The First Presbyterian stands as one of Hollywood’s most important and historic ecclesiastical structures, but it is also an excellent example of the work of the very talented, but little remembered today, H.M. Patterson. Patterson has the unique distinction of having left a notable mark on two communities – Los Angeles (and environs) and Butte, Montana. Born in Ohio in 1862, Patterson came to Butte, Montana in 1881 at the peak of its fame as copper & silver bonanza town. Opening an architectural practice in the still wild and woolly frontier town, Patterson rose to become its most preeminent architect, bringing a sense of respectability and permanence to the town through a series of beautiful and carefully designed structures that ranged from the William Andrews Clark Jr. mansion to the First Presbyterian Church to the Mantle Block/Liberty Theater. At the turn of the Twentieth Century, Patterson relocated to Los Angeles where he would again rise to prominence becoming president of the South California chapter of the A.I.A., designing dozens of buildings throughout the Southland over the next quarter century. While Patterson is correctly remembered mostly as a church architect, he also designed many other structures including the Hotel Snow at 605 South Flower Street, schools, apartments, theaters and fine residences including one, the Rev. A.G. Fessenden Residence, that’s currently for sale. Although his church designs were mostly for the Presbyterians, Patterson did work for a variety of denominations from Jewish to Lutheran to Methodist to Episcopal. One of his best regarded works remains the beautiful edifice he designed for the First Congregational Church of Long Beach, which was completed in 1914. Patterson died on October 20, 1928 from complications resulting from a recent surgery. I thought you might enjoy a small sample of some of the work of H.M. Patterson.

When it was completed in 1892, the Mantle Block/Liberty Theater was one of Butte, Montana’s most impressive buildings. I love the details including the band of bulls eye windows running along the top of the facade.

The First Presbyterian Church of Butte, Montana (1896) may have been the very first church structure designed by Patterson. Certainly one of his earliest. It’s a theater now. (photo by DSchmitz via Google Earth)

The Hotel Snow was completed in 1910. It was later renamed The Southland. The interesting penthouse corner was a sun parlor.

First Congregational Church of Long Beach (1914) along with the Immanuel Presbyterian on Wilshire, is perhaps Patterson’s most celebrated church design.

The J.B. Merrill Residence (1908) on Mt. Washington proved Patterson could hold his own with the Bentons, The Heinemans and, dare I say it, the Greenes.

The spectacular Immanuel Presbyterian Church (1928) @ 3300 Wilshire Boulevard, which he designed in association with C.F. Skilling, was one of Patterson’s last and greatest designs.

The Grand View Presbyterian Church @ 1449 West Adams Boulevard.

Japanese Union Church (1923)

First Presbyterian Church of Monrovia (1920)

One of H.M. Patterson’s earliest L.A. commissions was for the Rev. Alvah Grant Fessenden, pastor of the Grand View Presbyterian Church, which was also designed by Patterson. Located at 1051 North Avenue 64 in Highland Park and completed in 1905, the Fessenden House is currently for sale for $788, 500. More pictures of this beautiful house here.

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2 Responses to Blessed Buildings – Hollywood’s Historic First Presbyterian Church

  1. Dee says:

    I love the post. A lot of older apartment buildings in Chicago’s residential neighborhoods look just like the Mantle Block/Liberty Theater in Butte, MT, especially the windows and round “hanging tower” (or whatever it’s called in architect design) feature on the corner. I wonder if there’s a connection to Patterson or if it was a common design for the era.

    • TJ says:

      H.M. Patterson was strongly influenced by H.H. Richardson and his “Richardsonian Romanesque” style of architecture. I know HHR designed at least a few buildings in Chicago, so the similarity is likely more than just coincidence.

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