Hollywood Tale Concludes for Country Church

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With its white clapboards and shingled steeple, the Country Church of Hollywood is a valentine to the simply rural, in many ways at odds with the place it is named after.

Yet listen to Martha Hogg, a.k.a. Peachy Applewhite, tell its story, and you realize there is perhaps nowhere better suited to this house of worship than Hollywood.

Instead of an altar, the church has a stage from which Hogg's father broadcast his services across the country in the 1930s.

The church's design and its services were re-creations of another time and place.

The 1934 building was constructed to look like one of the Southern churches Pastor William Bennett Hogg tended on his pre-World War I circuit.

The opening part of the Sunday broadcast was always a skit, in which Martha and other family members became characters from Pastor Hogg's Tennessee past. (Miss Peachy was a schoolteacher.)

But like all Hollywood stories, this one is coming to an end.

After more than six decades of homespun, nondenominational ministry on and off the airwaves, the church is for sale. The final service was held last month. Hogg and her sister Milly Rocque are packing up the contents of their father's library.

"We were not going to live forever. We felt it should not go on unless the family . . . had some part of it," said Hogg, whose entire adult life has been entwined with the church.

She was its first secretary, played the organ and, with her sister, kept the church open long after the death of their parents.

With its closing, Hollywood activists worry that another landmark may be endangered.

"We are fearful for this little church," said Ruth Goulet, who lives next to the building, set on a sloping, three-quarter-acre lot in the 1700 block of North Argyle Avenue.

There is something of a pattern, Goulet and others warn, of buildings falling into disuse, only to be vandalized and eventually demolished, regardless of their historic value. By way of example, they point to a parking lot a few blocks away, where the Brown Derby restaurant stood until a few years ago.

For now, the church's future is a question mark.

The Nederlander companies, which own the Pantages Theatre around the corner on Hollywood Boulevard and have amassed a number of properties with development potential in the area, made an offer to buy the church but withdrew it late last week.

Stan Seiden, president of the companies' West coast operation, said the firm was initially interested in the church because it lies next to a Nederlander-owned parking lot on Argyle.

But after further study, he said, "we decided it really wasn't what we wanted. . . . It was a nice piece of property. But not at this time."

Anita Cabeen, the sisters' real estate agent, said the church, listed at $1 million, will remain on the market.

Named a city historic-cultural monument in 1992, the building has some protection. But ultimately the city cannot stop demolition of a monument, only delay it.

Preservationists say the site is valuable not only as a rare (for Los Angeles) and elegant interpretation of a Southern mountain church, but as a remnant of a pre-World War II radio ministry.

Even some of the landscaping is historic, according to architectural historian Portia Lee, who nominated the site for monument status. The church was built on a piece of the old A.G. Bartlett estate, known for its gardens, and some of the plantings remain from the Bartlett era.

There are other reminders of old Los Angeles in the garden. The terracing and steps were constructed with pieces of sidewalk from the old City Hall, which had been torn down at the time of the church's construction.

The paving was free to anyone who would haul it away, recalled Hogg. So her father put out a call on his broadcast for volunteers with trucks. The church was built in much the same way, by congregation volunteers.

"There were so many fine men who were unemployed because that was the Depression," Hogg said. "He called for them over the radio and they came."

By her recollection, the only person who got paid was the contractor.

William Hogg came to his radio ministry in a roundabout way. Before World War I, he was a Methodist circuit preacher, riding from one rural church to another in a horse-drawn buggy. He was a chaplain during the war, burying so many men that his daughter says he suffered a nervous breakdown and was sent home on a hospital ship.

After the war, he had churches in Arkansas and Texas, taking his wife and five children with him. While preaching in Florida, he caught the attention of a Chicago radio minister who brought him to Chicago and then sent him to Los Angeles in the early 1930s to open a tabernacle.

But it wasn't long before Parson Hogg was let go. "There he was, having brought his family out and without much money," Hogg recalled. "He was faced with a real problem."

So in 1933, he started his own daily radio broadcast on KFAC, calling himself Josiah Hopkins to distinguish his new show from his tabernacle programs. The station didn't charge him for air time, Hogg said, until donations started arriving in the mail.

He got two $1 contributions after the first program, and as the show gained a following, collected enough money to buy the land on Argyle.

The broadcasts were carried nationally by CBS until William Hogg's death in 1937, after prostate surgery. With guest ministers and the family's participation, his widow, Virginia (a.k.a. Sister Sarah Hopkins), continued the program for West Coast broadcast.

In the 1940s, the church was an important venue for country gospel, according to Lee, who said the Hoggs' emphasis on simple services and music appealed to migrants flooding into Los Angeles from the rural Midwest.

The radio programs ended when Virginia died in 1966. But the two sisters kept the church open, holding Sunday services even as the congregation aged and dwindled.

"We felt the responsibility to keep it going," Martha Hogg said.

Now, she added, "it's just beginning to dawn on me that it's closing. It's still not a reality. I feel the Lord has been directing us."

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