Quake Safety Laws Dooming Churches to Wrecking Ball
Leslie Woodbury took her camera to church one August Sunday.
She wanted to photograph every inch of it: the vaulted cathedral ceiling with its hand-stenciled trim in rust and aqua; the majestic stained-glass window that depicts Christ rising above his disciples on a purple cloud; the intricate wood carving of the Last Supper, and the organ pipes that brought music into the chapel on her parents’ wedding day, as well as her own.
Woodbury took her camera because the brick walls of her church--Angelica Lutheran Church in Los Angeles’ Pico-Union district--may soon come tumbling down.
The church is in the throes of deciding how to cope with city earthquake safety laws, which deem its 63-year-old sanctuary to be unsafe. On Aug. 7, fearing the high cost of repairs, the members voted 2 to 1 to tear down their church, although they are currently seeking the opinion of a second structural engineer.
“It’s traumatic,” said Pastor Jay Lane. “We’ve gone through all the stages of grief that you deal with when a person dies--denial, anger, bargaining. . . . Nobody wanted to demolish the building, but we saw the writing on the wall.”
Throughout Los Angeles, sanctuaries are brushing up against the ordinance that requires all pre-1934 unreinforced masonry buildings to be shored up. City records show that 200 churches--along with 7,000 other buildings--have been cited for violations since the 1981 law went into effect.
A random check of more than a dozen of those houses of worship, most of which were cited in 1984 and 1985 and given three or four years to comply, shows a pattern of delays and extension requests. Of the 14 cases reviewed, only one church had completed the necessary repairs and had been certified as safe by city inspectors.
As the deadlines for compliance approach, local clergy members are dealing with questions perhaps better suited for corporate executives. Their discussions are of fund-raising campaigns, bids and contracts, interest rates, amortization and balloon payments.
Their decisions raise issues of safety versus aesthetics, and whether there is any moral, historical or cultural imperative to preserve aging religious buildings. They raise delicate spiritual issues as well, forcing the congregation to weigh what is most important: maintaining a house of worship, or worshiping itself.
At Angelica Lutheran Church, one structural engineer has advised the congregation that it could cost as much as $300,000 to reinforce the building, and that even at that high price, the necessary steel beams and supports would ruin the beautiful interior of the sanctuary. A second engineer has said the work can be done less intrusively, and for less money, but many are still doubtful the building can be saved.
“If we can get the money to do these things, that’s fine,” declared Gladys Hallberg, a longtime member whose late husband worked Saturdays in the church to hand-carve the lectern and redecorate the altar. “But if we can’t we’re just going to have to face it. “
A few blocks away, Welsh Presbyterian Church on 12th Street at Valencia Street is being torn apart as contractors work to strengthen it. The church, a former synagogue in which the Jewish symbols are still intact, is a historic landmark. Its members felt that it was important to preserve it as a center of Welsh life in Los Angeles. “So far we have raised about $100,000,” said Pastor Elizabeth Steele, “and the cost of the work keeps going up.”
In Hollywood, the church President Reagan once attended is slated for demolition. Pastor Benjamin Moore said the congregation simply cannot afford to save the 900-seat sanctuary at Hollywood-Beverly Christian Church, which sustained considerable damage during the Oct. 1, 1987, temblor. “It has served its purpose,” Moore said.
Not far from there, on Sunset Boulevard, Bethany Lutheran Church has been off limits to its members since last spring, when city earthquake safety inspectors ordered the building vacated. The sanctuary is locked, and church officials are negotiating for $250,000 in loans to make the necessary repairs--loans that Pastor Dennis Gano is not quite sure how the 40-member congregation will repay.
“My gut feeling tells me (to) hang in there and get the work done and pray and trust the Lord is going to provide,” Gano said.
In Boyle Heights, controversy rages over the fate of the Breed Street Synagogue, the oldest functioning synagogue in Los Angeles. While rabbis there have filed for a demolition permit, the city--at the request of the Southern California Jewish Historical Society--has declared the imposing brick building a historic landmark, thus sparing it from destruction for at least a year. “The society really wants to save the synagogue,” said Barbara Kamilar, spokeswoman for the Jewish Federation Council. “But right at the moment, there’s no movement.”
In San Pedro, Apostolic Church is going to be razed, First Church of Christ, Scientist, has been sold to a man who hopes to convert it to offices, and First Baptist Church was saved from the wrecking ball by a preservation-minded developer who came in at the 11th hour to persuade the congregation to renovate it rather than knock it down. The developer’s six-month battle--which included an appearance before the Los Angeles City Council in an attempt to declare the building a landmark--became a local cause celebre.
While some other cities, notably Long Beach, also have earthquake safety laws, the major push has been in Los Angeles. That will change within the next 18 months, however, as a new state law requires other cities to adopt similar programs by Jan. 1, 1990.
In Los Angeles, some congregations would have been forced to comply much sooner but they have obtained postponements by certifying that their buildings are used fewer than 20 hours a week. Under city regulations, this places them in a medium-risk, rather than high-risk, category, making them less of a priority for reinforcement.
Religious leaders and city officials say the Roman Catholic churches are in the best position to comply with the ordinance, because they can rely on the financial resources of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Three of the 14 cases The Times examined involved Roman Catholic churches: St. Vibiana’s Cathedral, Sacred Heart Church and Immaculate Conception Church.
Repairs Under Way
A spokesman for the diocese said 20 of its Los Angeles facilities--the majority of them churches--have been cited for earthquake problems. Of those, he said, six have completed repairs, four are under construction and the diocese is seeking bids for work on another four. Diocese officials, however, declined to be interviewed about the repairs.
For others, especially inner-city churches with dwindling congregations, the law “has been traumatic,” said Steele of Welsh Presbyterian Church. “The deadlines are very hard on people, because there’s always the concern that if we don’t make the deadline the building is going to be shut down from under us.”
City officials said they know that the ordinance is a hardship for many religious groups. But, they said, it places no more of a burden on religious institutions than it does on the owners and occupants of the other buildings that have been cited, particularly apartment house tenants, who are displaced during renovations or when a building is torn down.
“I know a place of worship is very important,” said Ernest Herrera, chief building inspector for the city’s earthquake safety division. “But if I was going to give you a choice and take your place of worship, where you go one or two hours a week, or if I would say I was going to take your low-income housing, I’m sure that you’d say, ‘Take my church away, I’ll worship at home or I’ll worship somewhere else. . . . ' It’s not any more important or less important.”
Nevertheless, churches do face special difficulties.
The doctrine of separation of church and state prevents them from qualifying for low-interest government loans that might otherwise be available, particularly for historic buildings.
In addition, their ornamental architecture poses a challenge for engineers and contractors. According to Melvyn Green, the structural engineer whose company is renovating Welsh Presbyterian Church and several others in Southern California, churches are often more difficult and expensive to reinforce than other buildings because of their high ceilings and open sanctuaries, which lack interior walls that would otherwise brace a building and provide support during an earthquake.
And if a sanctuary has been declared a landmark, Green said, there is an additional layer of regulation that requires the preservation of the building’s “historic fabric.” In the case of the Welsh church, Green said he took special care not to destroy stenciling which, unlike woodwork, cannot be replicated.
While “the goal is to protect life,” Green said, he believes that preservation of churches is important. “Churches are very vital because they are the continuity for a community. . . . People drive by and say, ‘This is where Mom and Dad got married.’ ”