Photos by Brian Addison. Above: St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in DTLB.
Churches, despite their historical nature of censoring, have been one of the largest employers of artists and architects—not just because they believed some of these creatively inclined men and women were touched by the Gods, but also because churches themselves were to be thought of as direct extensions of the deities themselves.
The Catholic Church has been one of the world’s largest employers of architects, having garnered work from everyone from Richard Meier to Rafael Moneo to Trey Trahan. Denmark’s Church of the Holy Cross brought on KHR Architects. Guðjón Samúelsson’s masterpiece in Iceland, the Church of Hallgrímur. Finland’s Chapel of St. Lawerence brought on Avanto Architects for its chapel in the snow.
And let us not forget the ancient temples, long removed from their architects but still providing the world with utter wonder: Wat Rong Khun in Thailand, Paro Taktsang (The Tiger’s Nest Monastery) in Bhutan, the Golden Temple in Punjab…
Despite one’s faith or lack thereof, these pieces of creation connect us all through the thread of human imagination and talent—and Long Beach is home to some captivating houses of worship.
St. Anthony Catholic Church (600 Olive Ave)
Nestled on the eastern edge of DTLB, St. Anthony is the Mother Church of Long Beach for Catholics, being the first Catholic house of worship to be built in the city when it broke ground in September of 1902. (The first religious structure in Long Beach was the Methodist Tabernacle of 1885.)
Five years later, its school would be built and each would become an epicenter for Catholics throughout Long Beach. According to historian Louise Ivers, the church was designed in the popular “Mission mode, which was loosely based on the Spanish missions of California. St. Anthony’s was constructed with a wood frame and clapboard siding, however, which was unusual for buildings of this type which generally had stucco walls. A curved and stepped parapet at the top of the structure held a bell pulled by a rope, which is still extant.”
Second Samoan Congregational Church (655 Cedar Ave.)
Originally the Second of Church of Christ, this historical landmark in DTLB is a dedication to the Renaissance Revival style complete with a Roman Temple facade and large dome.
This church was designed by Pasadena-based artist and architect Elmer Gray, the man behind the famed Huntington Art Gallery and the Wattles Mansion. Gray’s philosophy was fascinating: he believed his creations were at one with the “natural climate” surrounding it—but in all honesty, it is clear that his style looks to supersede its surroundings while simultaneously blending in with them. By today’s standards, this church, now surrounded by human structures, still stands as a testament to a long-lost style of architecture.
First Congregational Church UCC (241 Cedar Ave)
Built in 1914, this prime example of Italian Romanesque architecture has always stood out for me with its tower. Yes, there are a plethora of other features: the red brick, the terra cotta details that include massive rosettas…
But the tower is one of the most shining examples of details that would eventually usher in modernism: straight white lines act as the precursor to the modernists obsession with latitude and—if one to were to remove the ornate details of the arches and roof—would be a prime example of minimalism. Of course, there is nothing minimalist nor really modern about the building as a whole but it offers some spectacular beauty either way.
Temple Israel (269 Loma Ave)
Hidden in Belmont Heights, this Jewish temple is not only one of the most unique houses of worship but flat-out one of the most unique buildings period in the entirety of Long Beach.
Originally built in 1945, you can see that its overall mid-century modern style was also catering to some Googie elements. In 2010, adaptive reuse master JR van Dijs was brought on to bring the building back up to its full potential and glamour—and that he did. He noted that primary project elements “included a custom-fabricated ceiling in the temple sanctuary, retention of an original mosaic mural and mid-century roof details on the building exterior, and the reframing and integration of original stained-glass windows in communal interior spaces. ”
Perhaps, more than the architecture of the Grace Methodist Church at 3rd and Junipero—a wonderful mix of mid-century modern trying to interpret Italian Romanesque style with its brick and arches—I should end on the purpose of a church.
You see, this church is a church of many churches. It hosts LGBTQ Christians. It hosts weddings of various faiths. It hosts various cultures. I suppose the ultimate point of this particular church is that it is not a particular church—and for me, even as an atheist, that is quite powerful.