A few weeks ago I was moseying around the Silver Lake Farmers Market when I noticed that the doors of the old Bethany Presbyterian Church were open and so I temporarily set aside any cravings I might’ve had for pupusas, empanadas, or banchan and instead made a beeline for the temple. After all, as Jesus told the devil, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
It turned out that there was an estate sale taking place, or as the owner of the church wrote on an estate sales website, “the mother of all estate sales” — an interesting turn of phrase, first popularised as it was by Saddam Hussein when he described the Gulf War as “أُمّ المَعَارِك” (literally: “mother of battles”). Whether it lived up to the hyperbole, I cannot say, as it was my first estate sale — but having passed by several times since it seems to have become a rather semi-permanent affair, occurring seemingly every weekend.
If you’re in the market for incredibly heavy-looking furniture; chandeliers; paintings; or giant, Chinese stone lions — look no further. If, on the other hand, you’re simply a fan of churches who would rather be rid of such clutter then should poke around the church, as I did.
The fairly modest Romanesque-style church at 1629 Griffith Park Boulevard was designed by architect Scott Quintin in 1930. It was built at a cost of $75,000 (roughly $1.15 million, adjusted for inflation) from 1931 to 1932. It was known as Bethany Presbyterian Church — after the purported hometown of Simon the Leper, Lazarus, Martha, and Mary of Bethany. As racist housing covenants remained in place until 1948, the congregation, like the neighborhood itself, was for years exclusively white.
After the landmark United States Supreme Court case, Shelley v. Kraemer, Silver Lake was no longer off-limits to non-whites and in the following decade, the neighborhood emerged as a hotbed of Asian-American modernism, with architects including Eugene Choy, David Hyun, Gilbert Leong, Hai Chuen Tan designing neighborhood homes not just for Asian-American clients like Jack C. Lee, but in the case of Hyun and Leong, for their own families as well. Bethany Presbyterian Church membership was extended to Asian Americans, including Delbert E. Wong, who was the first Chinese American judge in the continental US and who chaired the National Conference of Christians and Jews‘ Asian Pacific American Focus Program.
In 1965, actors Beulah Quo, Guy Lee, James Hong, June Kim, Makoto “Mako” Iwamatsu, Pat Li, Rae Creevey, Soon-Tek Oh, and Yet Lock founded the East-West Players (EWP) theater company. Their first home, thanks in part to Wong’s efforts, was Bethany Presbyterian Church. In 1972, EWP moved to East Hollywood, where they remained until 1998 when they settled into another church and their current home, Union Church.
In 1980, the congregation was dwindling until it merged with a Korean congregation to form Bethany United Presbyterian Church. It some point it was completely Korean and transformed into 필그림 교회. Even Korean Christians weren’t enough and church services ended in the mid-2000s, around which time it was purchased by Dana Hollister. In 2008, she announced her intention to transform the abandoned church into a boutique hotel.
Hollister is a locally well-known bar and restaurant owner whose properties have included, at various points, Bordello/One-Eyed Gypsy (closed), Alexander’s Brite Spot (sold), Cliff’s Edge, Villians Tavern (closed), 4100 Bar, the Canfield-Moreno Estate, and Sunset Pacific Motel — a long-vacant eyesore better known by its nickname, the “Bates Motel.” As unlikely as it sounds, Hollister supposedly began amassing her fortune by making and selling decorative pillows. She then parlayed that into Odalisque, an interior design company whose client list, according to a very web 1.0 site, “read like a Hollywood Who’s Who list. Tom Petty, Madonna, Tim Burton, Sylvestor [sic] Stallone, Carla Gugino, John Malkovitch [sic], Patricia Arquette, Rosetta Getty, Nicholas Cage, Rick Ruben [sic], Anthony Keidis [sic], and Peter Guber were all regular patrons.”
Hollister was also, until recently, the would-be owner of the former Earle C. Anthony Estate — a sprawling 1920s property I can see from my shower window. I can’t say that I paid much attention to the legal battle which occurred surrounding it but to summarize as best I can, it was for many years home to a convent of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Pop singer Katy Perry attempted to purchase it in 2015 but the Sisters planned on selling it to Hollister. According to a judge, however, the actual owner was the Los Angeles Archdiocese. One of the nun’s begged Perry not to purchase the convent and then died in court. The judge, however, ruled that Hollister had “acted with malice, oppression or fraud” in the dispute and the jury decided that Hollister should pay over $15 million in damages — after which Hollister declared bankruptcy. She’s since sold several of her properties (the owners of Ostrich Farm recently bought Alexander’s Brite Spot) and now rumor has it the church is next.
Adaptive reuse has been a savior for many churches and it would be nice to see Bethany Presbyterian resurrected… like Lazarus. A few years ago, the former St. Ann’s Melchite Church on Hoover Street was converted into residences. Around the same time, the Church of Christ in the York Valley section of Northeast Los Angeles became a live music venue, the Church on York, although it was shut down by intolerant, joy-hating NIMBYs and NIMPS.
NIMBYS and NIMPS struck, too, Silver Lake’s church in 2013, when The Original Interactive Horror Theatre Company used the church to stage Tom Chaits‘s Delusion: Masque of Mortality. The previous year the same company had enjoyed a successful run in West Adams. Silver Lake, however, is not South Los Angeles — nor is it even the Silver Lake of the 1960s which welcomed the nation’s first Asian American theater company. The horror theater company, who billed their programming as “a live action first-person horror experience” soon encountered something much more terrifying than actors portraying mad doctors — namely those colic-stricken urban rubes who continuously, deafeningly, and ironically shriek about any noise that reminds them that they live in the nation’s most densely-populated urban area and not Wyoming. The performance was predictably and prematurely shut down.
The Silver Lake Chorus performed in the church in 2015. Somehow the sky managed not to fall although I cannot say how many conniption fits were thrown. The occasional performance aside, the church sits decidedly underutilized. It’s still a handsome building — despite some cracks, peeling paint, rotting wood, rust, and other signs of age — with lots of potential as a cultural space, hotel, or something other than semi-permanent estate sale site. The abandoned playground is as creepy as all abandoned playgrounds but would make, in my opinion, a fantastic beer garden and the thought of a conversion along the lines of Downtown‘s Redbird or Glasgow‘s Òran Mór would be fantastic. I’d drink to that!