Opinion: This is Where We Live

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Making a Better Broth

By Hunter Fuentes and Jon Stordahl 

We all know the old expression that “too many cooks spoil the broth.” That came to mind on a recent visit to the Neighborhood Congregational Church compound. There is great architecture here, and clearly more than one cook in the kitchen. Sadly, the resulting “broth” may be in peril. 

Aubrey St. Clair Trolley Tour participants take a peek inside the Neighborhood Congregational Church’s Parish Hall. Photo/Hunter Fuentes

This year’s Heritage Month Trolley Tour focused on the work of Aubrey St. Clair and one of the tour stops was the Neighborhood Congregational Church. The church started in the 1940s as a small group of faithful clustered around a dynamic young cleric named Dr. Philip Gregory. Church services were first held in the Art Gallery until sufficient money could be raised to build a permanent home. In 1949, Dr. Gregory commissioned Aubrey St. Clair to design a significant complex on Glenneyre at St. Anns for his growing flock. St. Clair drew plans for a large, two-story structure that included a spacious parish hall with a unique beamed ceiling, a wood-paneled library centered on a fireplace, Sunday School classrooms, a full-sized kitchen, offices and storage space. This building is very English in both appearance and ambience. The South Coast News reported that the cornerstone was laid on Sunday, Aug. 13, 1950. The parish hall served as both a social gathering place and the primary worship space for the next dozen years. 

During our research of the property, we visited the site and toured the parish hall. Church staff surprised us with the original blueprints of the complex, drawn in St. Clair’s distinctive hand. Imagine our surprise when we unrolled the yellowed sheets and saw that the plans were more expansive than previously thought. St. Clair had included a proposed church building to be added later. The church was to sit opposite the parish hall, separated by a small cloister. Like the parish hall, this would have been a very English structure, looking more suited to the coast of Cornwall than California. It was, however, never built and that’s a shame.

By 1961, the congregation had raised sufficient funds to add the missing church building. St. Clair was in the final year of his long, illustrious career. His proposed design for the church structure was still there, the plans drawn up years earlier and the blueprints in the hands of the church leadership. Instead, the well-known architectural firm Blurock Partnership was retained to design a more modern structure that now sits on the corner of the property. This building has a beauty of its own but is clearly the work of another cook. It seems out-of-place next to the parish hall. 

So what happened? We initially suspected that the decision not to build the St. Clair design was because Reverend Gregory was no longer the rector. By 1959, he was serving as the interim pastor at Hollywood Congregational Church. However, we located a July 9, 1962 Orange County Register article that included a photo of Reverend Gregory at the groundbreaking ceremony for the new church building, indicating tacit support for the new design. The 1950s were a time of great change in cultural tastes, including architecture. Perhaps the St. Clair design was far too traditional for contemporary sensibilities. Something very similar happened to St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on Park Avenue. In that particular case, the original church was torn down, and the current A-frame 1958 contemporary structure was erected in its place. 

Both the St. Clair and the Blurock structures are at risk of demolition. The leadership of the Neighborhood Congregational Church is exploring the opportunity of constructing much needed housing on the large, but under-utilized property. While this possibility is in the very earliest phase of discussion, one idea worth exploring is to save the upper floor of the parish hall and incorporate it into the future design as a community room or the worship space the church has indicated it would like. That could be a win-win for preservation and affordable housing. It would require compromise and collaboration. 

One of France’s most important churches is the Cathedral at Chartres. Built upon the ruins of several earlier iterations, construction on the current church began in the mid-1100s and was completed in the mid-1200s. Its most striking feature is the asymmetry of its two towers. The south tower, completed around 1150, is the more austere of the two. The spire on the north tower, designed by architect Jean Texier, was added in the 1500s and is a far more ornate example of Flamboyant Gothic. The cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage site. In that case, several cooks made a tasty broth. Maybe we can do the same.

Hunter Fuentes is a Laguna Beach resident and founder of Historic Laguna (historiclaguna.com). Jon Stordahl has lived in Laguna for over 20 years. He is a retired history teacher and member of the Laguna Beach Heritage Committee. You can reach Hunter and Jon at [email protected] and [email protected].

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