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Found: R.M. Schindler's hidden church

L.A.'s prototypical Modernist architect designed Bethlehem Baptist Church on the corner of Compton Avenue and 49th Street -- a now-derelict architectural jewel.

June 02, 2013|By Susan Brenneman

Rudolph Schindler is L.A.'s prototypical Modernist architect. His house on King's Road (the MAK Center now) is a public monument. Design magazines gush over Schindler restorations. Curbed LA, online, tracks the Schindler real estate market. And the great architect's fans follow his trail from the Hollyhock House (he supervised its creation for Frank Lloyd Wright) to the Bubeshko Apartments in Silver Lake to the Wolfe House on Catalina Island (before it was demolished), like pilgrims following the stations of the cross. But there is a local Schindler they might very well have missed: Bethlehem Baptist Church on the corner of Compton Avenue and 49th Street.

In April, photographer Camilo Vergara came across it while he was shooting in the neighborhood. It was a mystery, an apparently abandoned church in a part of town where churches endure, and a derelict architectural jewel — all horizontal lines and careful massing, wrapped around an overgrown patio — surrounded by vernacular structures. What was its story?

A few hours later, at the opening of "Overdrive," the Getty Center's review of L.A. architecture from 1940 to 1990, Vergara could hardly believe his eyes. When he went in search of his photographs in the exhibition (a series of pictures, taken over 20 years, of a church at 7316 South Broadway), hanging next to them was a sketch by Schindler of the church Vergara had seen in ruins earlier in the day.

A Google search revealed a structure in limbo.

In 2009, Bethlehem Baptist was declared a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument by the City Council, sponsored by Council member Jan Perry. That designation means the church, which was commissioned by an African American congregation in 1944, cannot be altered or torn down without a great deal of official scrutiny. The owner of record, an individual, never responded when the city moved to make it a landmark. The church has been boarded up for about a decade, guesses Ken Bernstein, manager of L.A.'s Office of Historic Resources.

Bethlehem Baptist is hardly hidden. It's mentioned in the architecture books. It's been standing in plain sight for nearly 70 years. But it is out of context. According to the Heritage Commission, it is Schindler's only church and "the lone example of Modernist architecture to cross Los Angeles economic and racial boundaries in the era of Jim Crow housing covenants."

For now Schindler's church has been saved, but it's yet to be redeemed.

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