Notes Fade at Sad Requiem for Church

Times Staff Writer

For 30 minutes on Wednesday there was order amid the sonic chaos of chattering jackhammers, rap-blasting boom boxes and braying lunatics.

Then the last of the monthly lunch-hour organ concerts at the First German United Methodist Church in downtown Los Angeles ended, and the din of a growing city came crashing back in.

The concerts, held for the past six years, were created to provide a few moments of repose “in the middle of all this hectic life,” said Siegfried Eisenmann, pastor of the little church that has stood near 5th and Olive since 1910.


Each Sunday about 60 or 70 parishioners of German ancestry attend the services, Sunday school and confirmation classes at the church, all of which are conducted in German. Another 60 or 70 people, not necessarily Methodist or Teutonic, have been dropping by the church once a month for the classical concerts. “It’s more or less a second congregation we serve with a ministry of music,” Eisenmann said.

But the church, a box no taller than five stories at the top of its eaves, is radically out of scale among the big new buildings, and also apparently out of step with what the city wants to do with downtown L. A. Within a few months the cranes and dump trucks so audibly omnipresent throughout the downtown area are going to make the church disappear, and a 52-story office building, linked to the new library tower, will rise from the dust.

High-Decibel Mayhem

So on Wednesday, an overflow crowd of more than 300 retirees and young businesswomen, accountants on their lunch hours and elderly ladies in their Sunday finest--in addition to such distinguished visitors as the consul general of the Federal Republic of West Germany and the director of the Frankfurt Bible Society--filled the old pews and choir loft for a final taste of music in the midst of the ongoing high-decibel mayhem.

“It kind of hits you in the heart,” David Sargeant, a free-lance television producer, said of the impending destruction as he awaited his first (and last) concert at the church.

Parishioners tried to have the building preserved as a historical landmark, but “it doesn’t meet the standards,” Eisenmann said. So like it or not--and they mainly don’t--the 100 or so folk in Eisenmann’s flock will move to a temporary home in Eagle Rock until a permanent location for their parish is found.

“According to what we were told by City Hall, churches don’t belong here because people don’t live here,” George Goesele said. But Goesele, who was baptized at the church--which his grandfather helped build for a wage of "$2 a day for a 10-hour day"--thinks that attitude overlooks a need for spiritual sanctuary that “goes back to the beginning of civilization.”

“Every town in Europe has a church in the middle of town, downtown, where people can go for respite and peace,” he said.

“I think they should take the building and move it to another place downtown,” said a young West German tourist, his gaze climbing past the stained-glass windows and simple white brick walls to the towering eaves.

Solid Brick and Granite

“Impossible. It is solid brick and granite,” Fred Sack, chairman of the church’s administrative board, later explained.

So instead, they’ll put the pews, the windows and the pipe organ in storage until a new home is found.

The pipe organ, built in 1897, “has peculiarities you have to work around, like a cranky old man,” said organist Paul Woodring, 30. Rats have chewed through the leather straps and wiring, requiring several major overhauls, and some of the organ’s 1,000 pipes don’t work.

“But it has some sounds you don’t hear any more,” he said. “Very romantic . . . lush, smooth sounds.”

In its anachronistic setting, Woodring’s recital of Bach, Brahms and Cesar Franck came across as a sort of uplifting Requiem for the past. The high notes seemed to soar into the peeling paint of the eaves. The bass notes throbbed from the thick pipes of green patinized brass, through the dark oak pews and up the spine.

After lots of applause, the doors opened and the sounds of the city rushed in. Within minutes of the concert, a skip loader toppled a concrete wall inches from the church, and the crescendo blended into the cacophony of shrieking brakes and horn blasts.

“Yah, downtown has changed,” Ester Goesele, 86, said as she stood on the granite steps of the church she joined 64 years ago, soon after arriving in America from Bitterfeld, Germany, at age 19. “I don’t know if for better. . . . It seems they’re just smothering our little church, these skyscrapers.”

Her friend Emma Erhardt, 83, gave a slight smile, sort of a spiritual shrug. “Nothing is forever,” she said.