Why artists want to preserve church tied to L.A.'s Chicano movement
Sitting quietly on a side street in Lincoln Heights, in a residential neighborhood sandwiched between the 5 Freeway and the hills of Montecito Heights, is L.A.'s oldest continuously used Episcopal church.
Since 1886, the landmark Church of the Epiphany has stood at the corner of Sichel and Altura streets. It has been through religious services and weddings, community meetings and events, and a period of great transformation in the middle of the 20th century, when Lincoln Heights evolved from white professional enclave into an important Mexican immigrant community.
In fact, in the latter half of the 20th century it became an important center of local Chicano history. Farm labor leader Cesar Chavez gave talks at the church. Eastside organizers for Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign gathered in its halls, as did the activists who helped plan the 1968 East L.A. high school walkouts and the 1970 Chicano Moratorium anti-Vietnam War protest where former L.A. Times reporter and columnist Ruben Salazar was killed by Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies.
The church still serves as an important community site, offering SAT tutoring, a food bank and important health services, as well as summer arts programs and dance classes.
Epiphany has been there and done that. But like any building that is more than a century old, she is showing signs of her age: there are no heating or cooling systems, the stained glass and the historic pipe organ are in dire need of repair, and the building is in need of a good seismic upgrade.
To help support this important architectural and political landmark, a group of Angelenos in the arts has come together to stage a benefit auction in support of the Epiphany Conservation Trust, which is managing the building’s conservation work, already underway.
Emi Fontana, the director of the arts nonprofit West of Rome, and Rita Gonzalez, a contemporary art curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), have gathered works by roughly three dozen high-profile artists for a benefit auction on Aug. 23 that will raise funds for restoration expenses.
“It’s a glorious place,” says Gonzalez, who, like Fontana, is donating her time to the effort. “The first time I saw the church I was like, ‘I can’t believe I’ve never been in here before!’ It’s a hidden architectural gem, plus it has the whole history of the Chicano movement. This is a really important place.”
For the auction, Gonzalez and Fontana have curated a selection of works by figures such as artist Barbara Kruger, known for her bold, black-and-white graphic works (she did the big elevator inside LACMA’s BCAM building); Fritz Haeg, who recently covered empty patches of Los Angeles in wildflowers; and Sister Corita Kent, a nun devoted to social justice causes who was also a remarkable silk-screen artist.
This is the second benefit auction to be held in support of Epiphany. The first was held in 2011 and was organized by artist Sharon Lockhart and curator Alma Ruiz of the Museum of Contemporary Art. It netted roughly $50,000.
The value of the art being presented at this month’s benefit is estimated at $100,000. If the auction goes well, the money raised could go a considerable way in covering the $1.2 million still needed to complete work on the building.
The restoration is being done by L.A. architecture firm Escher GuneWardena, which has also done work on Pacific Palisades’ Eames House, as well as the Chemosphere, the spaceship home designed by architect John Lautner in 1960.
“We usually do midcentury buildings,” says Frank Escher, one of the firm’s founders. “But this building has such an amazing and beautiful history. It’s an extraordinary piece of architecture and it’s practically in its original condition.”
Certainly, it’s a minor miracle that Epiphany wasn’t gutted at some point in its long life to make way for late 20th-century design nightmares such as drop ceilings and wood paneling. But more significantly the church represents an interesting period in Southern California history.
Its original hall was built in the 1880s, when rural Los Angeles was experiencing the building boom that would help make it into a city. The “‘Queen City’ of California,” the Los Angeles Times reported in September 1888, “is at present time building more costly and handsome edifices than any two or other cities in the State, including San Francisco.” This involved constructing railroad depots, splendid hotels, homes big and small, post office buildings and a spectacular courthouse in the Romanesque style. (Don’t we all wish that latter building still existed?)
Amid this real estate frenzy, L.A. was also putting up lots of churches. The Church of the Epiphany was designed by architect Ernest Coxhead as a vaguely Romanesque, peaked-roof structure with stone walls. (He also designed the lovely Church of the Angels in Pasadena.)
In 1913, with the community around it growing by leaps and bounds, a much larger sanctuary by Arthur Benton was added. This new addition was a mash-up of styles. The exterior design bears the imprint of California’s Mission-style architecture, dressed up with a few Romanesque lines. The simple wood interiors are done in the Gothic style — and represent the church’s most graceful piece of design.
With the addition of Benson’s structure, Coxhead’s original 1880s church was transformed into the Parish Hall, which has been used for meetings and events ever since. This was the space that would come to serve Chicano activists so well by the time the 1960s rolled around. At one point, Epiphany even housed the printing press for La Raza, the movement’s newspaper.
The Parish Hall has already been revamped with the assistance of the 2011 auction, as well as a $50,000 planning grant from the Getty Foundation and funds from the diocese, among other sources. Father Tom Carey, who serves as the church’s vicar, says this single change has already made a world of difference.
“If you could have seen that space before!” he exclaims. “There was a hole in the kitchen roof. The bathroom looked like a swamp. It is now so clean and the lines are so beautiful. It is restored to its original sanctity.”
The hall will take on new life as an impromptu art gallery later this month when benefit curators Fontana and Gonzalez gather all of the donated artworks from the auction and hang them there for public display.
The last auction was held at a gallery in Culver City, says Gonzalez. “But we decided we wanted to have a show and auction at the church itself. It’s such a special space. We want people to see it.”
Carey says the cause couldn’t be more important.
“The reason it’s important to restore the church is because it’s part of a living history,” he says. “The reason landmarks are important is because they remind us of who we are. They remind us of people in this country who demanded their rights. It reminds us of who we are as a nation.”
The benefit auction for the Church of the Epiphany begins Saturday, Aug. 9, and runs through Saturday, Aug. 23. Works can be previewed and bids can be placed at the auction website Paddle8. On Saturday, Aug. 16, the art will be put on view from 5-7pm at Epiphany’s Parish Hall, 2808 Altura St., Lincoln Heights, epiphany.ladiocese.org and epiphanyconservationtrust.org.
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