Still teaching its lessons

October 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

Photograph of the Swedenborgian Church by Laurie Passey

The Swedenborgian Church in San Francisco is a National Historic Landmark.


My earliest memories of the Swedenborgian Church are from about 1957. I would have been three years old. I remember the welcoming fire behind the hearth and the home-like atmosphere of the sanctuary. And there were the welcoming people, too: Rev. Othmar Tobisch and Mrs. Tobisch, and Jane Sugden — “Miss Jane,” as we called her — who taught my sister Kathy and me to sing. I recall especially the sound and feel of the rush-bottomed chairs that my little backside swam around in.

Our father died in 1959, so most of our childhood memories of the church are connected with our mother, Phyllis Bosley. The church became our home away from home. Kathy and I were there four or five times every week for one reason or another: children’s choir practice, adult choir practice, Thursday night supper or to help Miss Jane with a project.

I don’t recall exactly when I became interested in the church building as a potent physical object, but I do remember why. Sitting at the back of the church waiting for a wedding to conclude so I could blow out the candles and sweep up the rice (Mr. Tobisch paid 75 cents per wedding), I picked up a copy of the little pamphlet written in 1945 on the 50th anniversary of the first service. It described historic features of the church, practically all of which — and this is what captured my complete attention — remained decades later exactly as they were described. It seemed incredible that a place might be so loved as to be left unmolested for so long.

Meanwhile, all around us the Victorian houses of the Western Addition and the Fillmore District were being demolished in great waves, thanks to “urban renewal.” And Geary Boulevard was being grotesquely widened to create a giant gash through neighborhoods of homes, displacing thousands of mostly African-American and Japanese-American families.

The preservation of the church, like its creation, is best ascribed to Rev. Joseph Worcester, its first pastor, who was appreciated during his lifetime by a diverse cross-section of creative and intellectual lights in San Francisco. Of this I knew nothing as a child, but I may have had some sense of it, or an instinct.

I had inherited my mother’s affinity for the artistic and the antique, which in 1960 had led her to buy a then unfashionable, dark Victorian house built in 1885, which retained its remarkably original living and dining rooms. It wasn’t for everyone. I remember one visitor calling the interior of our home “funereal.”

I loved the house, but when I was about 17 or 18, I began to sense a strong preference for the simplicity of the church sanctuary. My Sunday morning walk from home, on Sacramento near Cherry Street, would take me past later-era Craftsman townhouses along Clay and Washington Streets. I would dip down into Jackson Street, too, to see the fantastical Roos house or the beautifully restrained shingle-skinned houses of the early 20th century before climbing up to Lyon Street. No matter the route, there were urban houses and apartment blocks to admire, all from just after the turn of the last century — built, I realize now, just 10 or 15 years after our Victorian house. I could not understand why those who lived in these unique and beautiful homes did not seek out the nearby church, so clearly a spiritual companion piece of artistic beauty. Unlike the monotony — as I saw it then — of the Victorian rows, there was an aesthetic affinity among the turn-of-the-century buildings that spoke of kinship rather than sameness.

Photograph of the Swedenborgian Church in San Francisco by Laurie Passey

Photograph of the Swedenborgian Church in San Francisco by Laurie Passey

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw a surge in appreciation for the city’s architectural past. In 1974, Leslie Freudenheim’s book, Building With Nature, boldly identified Joseph Worcester as the pioneer and leading light of the American Arts and Crafts movement. Others had hinted at the possibility, but her conclusions were unequivocal.

I still attended church from time to time, but by then I was in college across the bay living in the William R. Thorsen house designed by architects Greene and Greene. I now know that my choice of student housing at Berkeley had everything to do with the love of architecture the church had ignited in me. And, with the publication of Building With Nature, I could see this inspiration in a nationally significant light.

At Berkeley I majored in art history, taking every architectural history course offered. I was haunted by the photo of the church under construction that appeared in Freudenheim’s book, and I wanted — needed, really — to know more about the characters in her narrative. To further my education, I began to organize architectural walking tours in Berkeley to benefit the University Art Museum, now the Berkeley Art Museum, and learned about Bernard Maybeck, Ernest Coxhead, Willis Polk, A.C. Schweinfurth and a raft of others.

In 1990, I was fortunate to be offered a job at the Gamble House, the Greene and Greene masterpiece in Pasadena. While it meant leaving the Bay Area, I would be able to do what I loved. In 1993, a professor at Occidental College, Dr. Robert Winter, asked me to “write about something you’re onto in Northern California.” With youthful hubris and naivete, I volunteered to write about the Swedenborgian Church.

I became convinced that when the church was designed in 1894, Schweinfurth, not Maybeck, had been the lead designer in architect A. Page Brown’s office, following the departure of Willis Polk from that post. After writing 20 years ago with enthusiasm that Schweinfurth should be given design credit for the church, I have since come to the inescapable conclusion that I was wrong.

I conclude this not because I have found new evidence, but because I find the existing evidence revealing in a way that I did not appreciate 20 years ago. I still believe that A. Page Brown was probably too immersed in other, bigger projects — the Ferry Building, for instance — to pay much attention to the little church project. But I also appreciate that he could have given potent direction to his staff, who then used their own gifts to make the church the best it could be. I now feel that we can see signs of Brown’s distinctive hand. We can also sense Maybeck’s involvement, and have it from many sources that he was indeed involved. And I remain convinced that Schweinfurth had a hand in the church.

Photograph of the Swedenborgian Church in San Francisco by Laurie Passey

Photograph of the Swedenborgian Church in San Francisco by Laurie Passey

And there is Bruce Porter’s role to take into account. Like the others, he was a busy and very young man compared to Worcester, but not too busy to be sure that he made his own mark on the church. He contributed the stained glass windows and the Westminster-glass lancet window in the tower. Porter also supplied Joseph Worcester with a sketch of an Italian church near Verona that inspired the design of the exterior of the church.

The 80 rush-bottomed maple chairs are the work of Alexander Forbes, who explained to Worcester that he had lost his religion but was moved by the significance of the project to make the chairs for less than it cost to create them. We do not know who designed them, but Worcester doubtless hovered over the details. The chairs would famously become the prototype for all Mission furniture.

William Keith’s mural paintings, the last of which was given in tribute to Brown after his untimely passing, give tremendous artistic depth to the interior — the kind one can expect from a mature man close to Worcester’s age.

In the end, however, none of this involvement and energy amounts to what Joseph Worcester himself brought to the design and building of the church. It was Worcester who kept Psalm 127 — “Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it” — uppermost in his consciousness throughout the planning, funding, designing, constructing, decorating, landscaping and furnishing the church. And it was Worcester who gently persuaded the talented and artistic team to follow his unorthodox architectural concepts.

Those who knew Worcester might recognize his nurturing, self-effacing character when he remarked to a reporter from the Examiner: “I could have done nothing without the architect.” But one might also recognize vision and determination when he added: “But he was very patient with my suggestions.”

Worcester revealed his certainty of how the church should be built when he said: “Sometimes he [Brown] said that some idea of mine was not good architecture. I answered him that I cared nothing for the canons of architecture; the building must teach its lessons.” This was a man alive to all of the possibilities of what he was doing.

The church’s lessons are taught even today through the devoted preservation of its of lack of pretense; its simple and natural beauty; the intimate, sheltered garden; the natural, unadorned building materials and furnishings and through Swedenborgian theology envisioned by Worcester.

Joseph Worcester was not only an architect of buildings, but of people — not least the circle he drew to him to create this unique and remarkable place of timelessness and spirit.

Edward R. “Ted” Bosley is director of the Gamble House in Pasadena, another icon of the Arts & Crafts Movement.

Photograph of the Swedenborgian Church in San Francisco by Laurie Pessey

Photograph of the Swedenborgian Church in San Francisco by Laurie Passey


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