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California

Crystal Cathedral, the original evangelical megachurch, has a conversion to Catholicism

On Wednesday, the former Crystal Cathedral, a Southern California landmark that has long stood at the intersection of kitsch and postmodernism just three miles from Disneyland, was officially rededicated by the most unlikely of saviors: the Catholic Church.

When the soaring Philip Johnson-designed megachurch opened in 1980, the Crystal Cathedral was, strictly speaking, neither crystal (the structure is composed of more than 10,000 rectangular panels of glass) nor a cathedral (it housed a televangelist, not a Catholic bishop).

That televangelist — late pastor Robert Schuller — once called the compound a “22-acre shopping center for God.”

Though born on an Iowa farm, Schuller was a California clergyman through and through, with an early understanding of the importance of television and off-street parishioner parking for the purposes of ecclesiastical growth.

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Dispatched west to the burgeoning suburbs of Orange County with orders to build a new congregation from scratch in 1955, Schuller met his parishioners where they were — in their parked Chevys, Fords and Pontiacs. He preached from atop the tar papered roof of the snack bar at a rented drive-in movie theater. The fledgling church advertised with the slogan “Come as you are, pray in the family car.”

Drive-in church
In June 1957, the Rev. Robert Schuller held his Garden Grove Community Church service at the Orange Drive-In. The church had no permanent building and rented the drive-in each Sunday.
(Los Angeles Times)

Orange County still had orange groves in 1955, but the suburbs of postwar Southern California were fruitful and multiplied. And Schuller’s success exploded with them.

Television was a natural fit for a pastor fluent in spectacle and the mythology of self, and in 1970, Schuller took his sermons wide with his “Hour of Power” show. By the 1980s, it was the most-watched weekly religious program in living rooms across America.

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Forget fire and brimstone, this was a gospel of optimism — or “possibility thinking” — that could later be repackaged into bestselling books. At the peak of his reach, Schuller would preach weekly to as many as 20 million viewers in nearly 180 countries.

Schuller was undoubtedly a visionary and an empire builder, but his ascent was also perfectly timed to coincide with larger societal shifts for Californians in the latter half of the 20th century.

He began his car culture-centric drive-in sermons in the fledgling Southern California suburbs during the same year Disneyland opened its doors and Ray Kroc launched his first McDonald’s restaurant. The Crystal Cathedral building was completed in 1980, the year Rick Warren started Saddleback Church in southern Orange County. There are now more megachurches in California than in any other state, with the majority of those congregations lodged in the suburbs between Los Angeles and San Diego.

Schuller retired in 2006, and his ministry, like many things near and far from God, ended in all of the usual ways. There was the overly aggressive expansion, the aging congregation, a botched line of succession and all of the money owed to creditors. Crystal Cathedral Ministries filed for bankruptcy in 2010. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange bought the property, which also includes structures designed by Richard Neutra and Richard Meier, two years later.

Schuller died in 2015 at age 88. But his grand creation, now renamed Christ Cathedral, seems to still have an uncanny ability to reflect the changing tides of Southern California. After a two-year, $72.3-million renovation, the cathedral was officially dedicated as the new seat of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange at a ceremony attended by thousands Wednesday. The interior looks quite different from the backdrop Americans once saw on their television screens. But Orange County itself looks radically different from the image of affluent homogeneity that long dominated public consciousness.

The county has been majority minority for more than a decade, with large immigrant populations from heavily Catholic countries. That same demographic shift has helped fuel the growth of the diocese, which broke off from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 1976. The Diocese of Orange is now home to 1.3 million Catholics, making it the 10th largest in the country.

Starting this weekend, the Christ Cathedral Parish will celebrate Mass in four languages every Sunday: English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Mandarin.

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A folk art trash palace in the shadow of Hearst Castle

Once upon a time, the California coast was a place where one could live strangely and cheaply, out on the fringes.

There were wild, sacred landscapes, like something out of a Robinson Jeffers poem. Rugged places that still had room for restless eccentrics and searchers and cranks.

In 1919, newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst inherited acres upon acres of the most beautiful land California had to offer and began to build one of the great palaces of our time. But this is definitely not a story about William Randolph Hearst, or his castle.

Our story starts nearly a decade later and eight miles down the road from San Simeon, with a trash collector who was once hired to haul materials up to the Hearst Castle construction site.

Back when all of this was still woods, Art Beal purchased an acre and a half of pine-covered Cambria hillside for $500. It was 1928, and he began by building a one-room shack with his own two hands. And then he just kept building.

For the next 50 years, Beal constructed Nitt Witt Ridge, a home built almost entirely of found objects and trash. It was a monument to the heights of human ingenuity, or to the depths of folly, depending on whom you asked.

Beal liked to say that he had one rule, and the rule was that you never pay for anything except cement.

Nitt Witt Ridge, above Cambria, in 1999.
Nitt Witt Ridge, above Cambria, in 1999.
(Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times)
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Hearst’s castle incorporated the highest traditions of Western art and architecture, and the grandest materials that money could buy. Beal’s castle was a hallucinatory, improbable cascade of car bumpers, endless Busch beer cans, plaster of Paris archways embedded with abalone shells and dolls, rusted car wheels and driftwood.

The decades Beal spent as a garbage collector allowed him to salvage an endless supply of materials for his pentimento pastiche of a living space, which grew like a vine up into the steep hillside — eventually, there were eight or nine levels, each with a room or so apiece. The famous junk house became the focus of adoration and hatred from the surrounding community.

By the 1970s, Cambria was beginning to take on the polished sheen of a quaint vacation town. Nice, new homes were rising around Beal, bringing the kind of neighbors who would publicly call for the “monstrosity” to be bulldozed out of sight.

“They’re all Johnny-come-latelys,” Beal — by then a crotchety town character — would be known to loudly declare, often while shirtless. (This was when he still wore pants; eventually, there would just be an ever-present ratty blue bathrobe, even for wandering down Main Street.)

Art Beal
An undated photo of Art Beal in front of Nitt Witt Ridge.
(Seymour Rosen / © SPACES)

But along with the angry neighbors, the ’70s also brought a different kind of attention: Art people started to take notice and began to celebrate Nitt Witt Ridge as an ingenious, wholly untrained folk art environment.

The late Seymour Rosen, a folk art champion who played an integral role in the preservation of the Watts Towers and Leonard Knight’s Salvation Mountain, was instrumental in getting California State Historical Landmark status for the home. Rosen also founded the nonprofit organization Saving and Preserving Arts and Cultural Environments, or SPACES.

Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers is by far the most famous example of a folk art environment in the state, but California is home to numerous idiosyncratic personal worlds, like the aforementioned Salvation Mountain, Nitt Witt Ridge, Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village in Simi Valley and Baldassare Forestiere in Fresno.

“I think there are some people that just feel compelled. They feel driven to create,” Ann Gappmayer, the archivist at SPACES, said.

In 1973, a then 77-year-old Beal told a Times reporter that he would “never” be finished with the house. “Time means nothing to me,” Beal said, tugging on his pointed beard. “The tide comes and goes. Time never returns. I’ll worry about time when I’m in the marble orchard.”

Beal died at a Morro Bay nursing home in 1992 at the age of 96.

“The neighbors have complained about that place for years. I think when he passed over, they were all going, ‘Yippee, now someone will come and tear it down,’ ” Melody Coe, a curator with the Cambria Historical Society, said. “But they didn’t.” Instead, a local plumber and his wife bought the crumbling fantasyland in 1999. It’s not exactly inhabitable, but they gave tours, billing it as the “anti-Hearst Castle.” The residential zoning designation kept them from making it into a gallery or even selling T-shirts outside.

The ramshackle castoff castle went back on the market last year, where it has sat since, with a recent drastic reduction in price. No one seems to know what will become of the place — or whether it’s art or an eyesore. Coe, who personally believes that Nitt Witt Ridge is art, said that the house has been a frequent topic of conversation in town, and plenty of people would still love to see it torn down.

“It probably has to do with a basic aspect of folk art,” Kathe Tanner, a member of the Cambria Historical Society, told The Times back in 2002, describing the everlasting neighborhood controversy over the place. “It would be wonderful to drive somewhere and look at it, but people don’t really want to see it at 7:30 a.m. each day when they get up to get their newspaper.”

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