It’s so strange how you can pass by something a million times, and not really even notice it. Until it’s in danger of disappearing. The Fifth Church of Christ, Scientist, at the corner of Hollywood and La Brea, was built just after I was born. I’ve been driving by it or walking by it all my life. I remember thinking that it was kind of an unusual building, but I never stopped to take to take a closer look. It was always just part of the landscape.
So recently I did take a closer look, and I started to realize what a beautiful building it was. The site is no longer home to a Christian Science congregation. For the last few years it has housed Mosaic, a non-denominational Christian church. The current congregation recently renovated the building, and I’ll talk more about that later.
Actually, the first version of the church was built back in 1915, according to the Pacific Coast Architecture Database. Back then Christian Science was a growing denomination, and the original design stuck to a pretty traditional classical revival style. But in the 1950s the congregation must have decided they needed a different look, and they hired an architect named Howard G. Elwell.
Very little is known about Elwell. One source I found said that he was active in the LA area as early as 1916. I’ve searched the net, but there’s not much documentation of his work. I found a few photos of a movie theatre in Victorville. I found some images of a doctor’s office he may have designed, but the site is unknown. Apparently he also worked on some houses in Pasadena and San Marino.
But the guy definitely had talent. A walk around the church at Hollywood and La Brea shows that it was created by someone fluent in the modern style. Here are a couple photos of the building as it originally appeared.
It’s too bad they’re in black and white, because the color scheme was one of the unique aspects of the design. If I remember correctly, the curved section at the corner was clad in lavender tile, and the arched windows were painted a similar pastel shade. The effect was subtle and unobtrusive, which is maybe part of the reason it didn’t attract my attention.
Here’s how the church looks today.
The Mosaic congregation did a nice job of renovating the building. They didn’t touch the structure, but they completely rethought the textures and colors. Removing the tile cladding to reveal the brickwork gives the corner of the church a rustic look, and painting the arched windows grey creates a nice contrast. The building definitely has more of a presence than it did before.
But the structure still retains Elwell’s design, which is a unique and interesting adaptation of the modern style. The building has the dignity appropriate to a church, but without the rhetorical flourishes that make some other sacred structures look pompous. It occupies the site beautifully, with the curved wall at the corner giving way to symmetrical rows of arched windows on either side. And while some churches are basically a façade stuck on a box, Elwell thought about the whole structure, making sure that the rear of the building adheres to the same pattern of curved surfaces and strong verticals.
Now here’s the bad news. This building will probably be gone in a year or so. Developers want to build a project called Horizon Hollywood, which will consist of 400 residential units with retail and restaurants on the ground floor. Some people think the renderings look pretty nice. Honestly, to me the project looks like another set of generic mixed-use towers. But here’s a link to a write-up at Building Los Angeles. You can judge for yourself.
Personally I’d rather have the church. But I don’t think there’s much chance of saving it. The building has not been designated as a historic landmark. And I don’t see any way it could be incorporated into the high-rise project.
But they won’t start construction on the Horizon Hollywood for a while, so if you’re interested in architecture you might want to take a trip over there. It’s a striking example of mid-century modern, and one of the few known buildings by Howard G. Elwell.
The larger concern is that it seems like historic buildings are once again being threatened by the current development boom. We’ve already lost the Morgan, Walls and Clements building on La Brea near Melrose. This one is probably a goner. And there’s talk of demolishing the Pacific Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. For a while it seemed like LA was getting better at preserving the past. But these days I get the feeling that money is more important than history.
[For an an update on the status of the Mosaic Church, click here.]
The two black and white photos above come from the Security Pacific National Bank Collection of the Los Angeles Public Library’s photo archive. No photographer is credited.