Religious Sites Showcase L.A.’s Ethnic Diversity

Times Staff Writer

For nearly four years, architectural photographer Robert Berger drove all over Los Angeles, looking for historic houses of worship to capture on film. In all, Berger visited more than 300 churches, synagogues, temples and meditation centers -- all built before 1952.

As he sought steeples, crosses and domes in some neighborhoods that seemed as “foreign as distant lands,” the Los Angeles native, now 44, began to appreciate his city’s ethnic diversity as never before.

For example, he discovered that the former “Temple Sinai East” at 4th Street and New Hampshire Avenue is now Korean Philadelphia Presbyterian Church. Inside the sanctuary, a cross, Korean calligraphy of Bible verses, a menorah and a Star of David coexist, offering “striking evidence of the constantly changing demographics” of Los Angeles.


This month, 54 of the places of worship he photographed will appear in “Sacred Spaces: Historic Houses of Worship in the City of Angels,” published by Balcony Press with a text by architectural historian Alfred Willis.

Berger sought out sites with architectural or historic significance or buildings that are “just plain fun to look at.”

One of Berger’s favorites was Saint Sophia’s Cathedral, a Greek Orthodox church in the Byzantine Latino Quarter on South Normandie Avenue near Pico Boulevard.

What impressed him was the contrast between its austere exterior and its ornate interior of murals, chandeliers, 24-karat gold leaf and stained glass.

“You don’t expect this -- in the middle of the city,” he said. “You walk in the door and you’re in awe.”

Another find was Holy Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church on Micheltorena Street in Silver Lake, a small and simple structure with an elegant interior, built by Russian immigrants who came here in 1917 to flee the Bolshevik Revolution.


“Some of the icons were hand carried from Russia,” he said. “One of them was supposed to be a birthday gift for Czar Nicholas.”

Yet another find was the boarded up Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights, which opened in 1923 to accommodate a huge influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe.

Now, with the help of a $1-million state grant, the synagogue and school will be restored and find use as a community center for what is now a mainly Latino neighborhood.

Photographing the shul -- Congregation Talmud Torah of Los Angeles, which closed in 1995 -- was a challenge even for Berger, who has traveled all over world with his camera.

The neglected building contained dead rats and large amounts of pigeon droppings. “You got sick after being in there all day,” he said.

Berger does not consider himself religious. He was brought up Jewish and studied Hebrew at Temple Ner Tamid in Van Nuys, but he hadn’t been there since his bar mitzvah.


His lack of religious bent, he believes, was a plus, because he came to the project without bias.

Sometimes he needed other people to explain what he was shooting, such as when he was inside Koyasan Buddhist temples in Little Tokyo.

“I didn’t know what I was looking at,” he said. “There were so many beautiful little things.”

His search was not the only one. Another book with some similar themes, “Jewels in Our Crown: Churches of Los Angeles,” also appears this month.

Featuring 43 Christian churches and chapels, this book was self-published by Carolyn Ludwig, who teamed up with photographer Brianne Sanada and writer Sydney Swire. Proceeds from the book will go to the Good Shepherd Center for Homeless Women, where Ludwig volunteers. Her book will be available through the center and the Internet web site:

“It was a labor of love -- and not only loving the churches but loving Los Angeles and wanting us to appreciate what we have,” Ludwig said.


Berger cast a wider ecumenical net for his “Sacred Spaces” book.

“The world is here,” he said. “Every conceivable immigrant group has its own community-centered religion -- and there is staying power to it. I want to show that there is beauty in all religions. That’s the common ground.”

When he left UC Santa Cruz with a degree in environmental studies in 1982, Berger couldn’t find work. So he bought a plane ticket and started flying around the world, he said. He bought his first camera. He had so much fun, he wondered if he could make a living at photography.

After returning to California, he studied photography at Orange Coast College and worked for one year for his instructor. Then, he opened his own business, specializing in photos of architecture and interior design.

His interest in historic buildings was sparked by a visit to the Orpheum Theater in downtown Los Angeles in 1990.

As a child, Berger had worked at his father’s shoe store downtown, but he had not been inside any of the nearby historic theaters until his visit to the Orpheum. The site deeply impressed him. The upshot of that awakening was his 1996 book, “The Last Remaining Seats: Movie Palaces of Tinseltown,” a photo book on L.A.’s historic theaters, of which he was co-author with Anne Conser.

In April 1999, Berger began to look at religious structures because they can take a visitor back to the 19th and early 20th centuries in a city that tends to “tear down everything.”


In his introduction to the “Sacred Spaces” book, State Librarian Kevin Starr notes that places of worship and growth of cities have coincided since ancient times.

“Down through the millennia, this connection of the city to the shrine remained constant, whether we look to the ziggurats of Mesopotamia, the temple cities of Egypt, Acropolis-centered Athens, Pantheon-centered Rome, the cathedral-centered cities of medieval Europe or the splendid churches of the Baroque City,” Starr wrote.

In Los Angeles, “as it became Mexican, then American and once again Mexican, and a world city, the shrine persisted, flourished and diversified itself as the great religious traditions of the world arrived in the city.”

Although the book is done, Berger can’t help looking for steeples, crosses and domes.

Sometimes when he is driving with his wife, he notices a new one, and blurts out, “Where did that church come from? I never saw that before.” To which his wife, Gail, a nurse at Cedars Sinai Medical Center, retorts: “Don’t stop. No more books.”