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Historic Black Church Dreams of Resurrecting Itself

With help of a Getty grant, Second Baptist takes steps to restore its landmark building. It must raise millions for a new roof, other repairs.


This church has seen so much.

It's seen the days of segregation, when a light-skinned church member posed as a white man to buy the site for the church--and the black architect who built it was forbidden to live in the white neighborhoods where his celebrity homes made him famous.

It's seen the Great Migration from the South, when African Americans from Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas packed the pews in such numbers that the second-story balcony had to be refitted to seat everybody.

It's seen the heyday of Central Avenue, when the music of Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong floated out of jazz clubs. And it's seen the civil rights movement, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. electrified the congregation with his calls for equality.

This is the Second Baptist Church. Today, its moments of glory are captured in fading photographs, yellowing newspaper clippings and fragile journals that span 116 years and three centuries.

These precious fragments of time were imperiled last year when heavy rains seeped into the basement archives.

If this church is to see another century, it needs a new roof. It needs to replace the jury-rigged electrical wiring, and archaic plumbing is bleeding the church's budget with shockingly high utility bills.

The congregation took the first steps toward seeking relief for the historical landmark with a $75,000 gift from the Getty Grant Program, which distributed $1.4 million to the church and 20 other local projects chosen last year.

The deadline for the 2001 grant cycle is Aug. 20. (Guidelines and applications are available at Phone: [310] 440-7320.)

The Second Baptist Church will still have to raise money to restore the building. The $75,000 grant does not pay for restoration, but for an analysis of the needed conservation work.

"What has been done here has been done with love and care," said David Crippens, chairman of the board of trustees at the church. "We intend to be here another 116 years."

The Getty project does award a limited number of grants of up to $250,000 for work on historic structures. Even if they do not cover costs, Getty grants confer a legitimacy that can make them powerful fund-raising catalysts.

The cost of work on the Second Baptist Church is estimated at $2.3 million to $4.9 million, depending how extensive it is. Some needs are immediate: The wood framing of the stained glass windows is rotting and some earthquake retrofitting is necessary. And then there's the wiring and plumbing.

Pastor William Epps walks through the church, pointing out a row of pews that should be taken out for wheelchair access, a place where seniors could use an elevator. The sky-blue ceiling needs to be repainted, removing the lead paint, and some gold-leaf detailing needs retouching.

The Second Baptist Church has learned to get by on its own since its founding in 1885 by the Rev. S.C. Pierce on Requina Street in downtown Los Angeles.

In 1944, the Rev. J. Raymond Henderson asked the congregation--many of them low-paid domestics and laborers--to contribute $55 each to pay off the mortgage. The congregation--photographs show white-haired church matrons still wearing old-fashioned, high-necked shirtwaists--raised $83,000, enough to cancel the debt and pay for a new community center.

In 1954, the congregation raised $1,500 for the printing of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund briefs filed before the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case.

Looming large over the church is the remarkable, even improbable, spirit of its architect, Paul Williams. A year old when the church was founded, he was orphaned three years later, and when he declared his ambitions in high school, a skeptical teacher asked if he had ever heard of a black architect.

Williams' most visible reply to that question is the spidery Space Age theme restaurant that crouches over Los Angeles International Airport like a flying saucer from the Jetsons.

Even as Williams was helping imagine into existence the emblematic Los Angeles of the future, he remained outspoken about his social status, noting that early in his practice, when clients met him and "discovered they were dealing with a Negro, I could see many of them freeze. Their interest in discussing plans waned instantly."

But not for long. For decades he was a sort of architect to the stars, designing the Palm Springs home of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, the bachelor digs of Frank Sinatra and the nouveau riche palaces of Anthony Quinn, Danny Thomas and numerous others.

Sometimes, Williams said, he dreamed of living in one of his sumptuous creations. But though he could afford such a home, he wrote in a 1937 magazine article, "this evening . . . I returned to my own small, inexpensive home . . . in a comparatively undesirable section of Los Angeles. I must always live in that locality, or in another like it, because . . . I am a Negro."

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