From South Los Angeles to West Hollywood: James Garrott, Rudolph Schindler and the Bethlehem Baptist Church

steve wallet architect Bethlehem Baptist Church  2015-5-18How did Schindler get hired to design the Bethlehem Baptist Church? The Afro-American Baptist congregation from South Los Angeles was not a part of his usual crowd of political activists, artists and bohemians. Schindler was not widely known and had never built a church. In 1944, in racially separated Los Angeles, it is puzzling.

In my recent research I have come across information that points to a link between Schindler and the Bethlehem Baptist congregation. In the Architecture and Design Collection at UCSB there are drawings of an earlier design for the church. They were prepared by another architect, James Garrott. Garrott’s drawings are dated May 22, 1944. Three months later, on August 31, 1944, Schindler and the church officials signed a contract for a new design. What happened in between?

Thanks

Many thanks to Wesley Henderson, architect AIA for his article and additional information on Garrott, and for his encouragement.

Thanks to Linda Cabrera, graduate of the Book Arts program at UCSB and neighbor of the Bethlehem Baptist Church, for her long-time interest in the Church and for first bringing James Garrott’s drawings to my attention.

Thanks to Jocelyn Gibbs, curator and to the A&D Collection at UCSB for providing access to Schindler’s and Garrott’s drawings and documents for the Bethlehem Baptist Church.

Thanks to Emily Ain for her information about and picture of her father Gregory Ain.

Thanks to Anthony Denzer for information about Gregory Ain.

Thanks to Robert Mace for drawing my attention to Ester McCoy’s unpublished article and notes on the Bethlehem Baptist Church.

Thanks to James B. Guthrie, AIA for his comments on my ideas as they developed into this article, and his help with documents at the Architecture & Design Collection.

And special thanks to Lisa Rini for her patience and support.

james garrott architect negro who's who in CA 1948James Garrott, architect AIA

James Homer Garrott was born in Montgomery, Alabama on June 19, 1897. His father James Henry Garrott was a builder. He helped build buildings at the Tuskegee Institute. Garrott’s family moved to Los Angeles in 1903. James Homer graduated from Los Angeles Polytechnic High School in 1917. His first documented job was with architect George P Telling in Pasadena, from 1924 to 1926. His next job was with Cavagliere Construction Company in Los Angeles, from 1926 to 1928. He passed the California architectural licensing exam in 1929 and opened his own office.

His most important early building is the Golden State Mutual Insurance Building, headquarters for the Afro-American owned Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company. [1] The building was designed and built with all Afro-American labor. As is typical of his earlier work, the building was designed in a historically based style, in this case Mission-Revival.[2] It is a mile from the Bethlehem Baptist Church.

Like most architects, he had very little work during World War II. During the War he worked at Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica. In 1945 he enrolled in the architecture program at USC. At that time the school had changed from its previous classically oriented Ecole des Beaux-Arts curriculum to a focus on modern architecture.

He restarted his office in 1946, after World War II building restrictions were lifted. His post-war work reflected his change from historically based styles to modernism. He was accepted as the second Afro-American member of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 1946.[3]

He was politically active as a member of the NAACP, the Urban League[4] and (probably after 1945) as a member of an informal group of progressively-minded designers that included Richard Neutra, Garrett Eckbo and Julius Shulman.

In a 1954 interview[5], Garrott’s resume included 750 homes in four housing projects, numerous schools, 4 medical buildings, 3 municipal buildings and over 25 churches.

Garrott’s best known later, modern building is the Westchester Municipal Building, 1960 built for the City of Los Angeles. He died in 1991. [6]

James Garrott Bethlehem Baptist Church front elevation 1944-5-22Garrott’s design for the Bethlehem Baptist Church

James Garrott Bethlehem Baptist Church title block 1944-5-22Garrott’s May 22, 1944 drawings show a traditional church design.[7] The worship space is rectangular with a raised pulpit and choir area opposite the front doors facing Compton Avenue. The plaster sanctuary ceiling is flat below a curved roof of bow-string trusses. A gabled parapet hides the curved roof. In the center of the front is a set of three tall windows topped with ornamental arches. A tower marks the corner of Compton Avenue and 49th St. Materials are simple, stucco and composition roofing. There are few decorative details – it is a modest building.

All of the five sheets of drawings have a signature box signed by the pastor CJ Hall indicating his approval of the design. These blueprints were in Schindler’s Bethlehem Church file. Schindler knew about Garrott’s design as did his draftsperson, and later influential historian of California modern architecture, Ester McCoy.[8]

Garrott and the Church

Ester McCoy, in an unpublished article, wrote that the congregation had started saving for a new building before the existing church burned down in 1943.[9] They hired Garrott to design a new church for them. He worked at least through May 22, 1944, the date of his drawings in the UCSB files.

These drawings are a progress set, a partially finished set of construction drawings. They are complete enough for a contractor to prepare an estimate of the construction costs, yet they are not finished. Information that is missing includes most construction details, structural details, interior finishes, specifications and roof truss drawings. A progress estimate tells the architect and client if the design is approximately within the budget.

After these drawings were issued, Garrott parted with the congregation. Ester McCoy suggests two reasons why the congregation changed their architect: symbolism and cost.[10] Rev. CC Brooks explained that ”Some of the congregation had the idea that the church should reach toward the future as well as the past.” Regarding building costs during the War, Mrs. Fetche, president of the choir, said “…we started in 1943 when prices were sky high.”

Of the two reasons, I think that cost was the more important in leading the congregation to Schindler. I don’t think that Garrott left because his design didn’t “reach toward the future”. Garrott’s design was approved by church officials not once but twice. Garrott couldn’t start construction drawings without an approved design-the first approval. The second approval occurred when the pastor signed the progress plans. If his design had been the major issue, Garrott wouldn’t have been authorized to start construction drawings and we wouldn’t have the construction drawing progress set.

What happened? I think that the progress estimate for Garrott’s simple design came in too high. Garrott parted ways with the congregation because he could not give them what they wanted and stay within their budget. The “sky high prices” forced them to leave Garrott, an architect they knew and who had ties to their community, and hire a barely known architect who had never built a church, but who could build within tight budgets.

Budget

There are many indications that the congregation’s budget was very, very small.

.Schindler’s contract had a very unusual, and very large, 30 day cash payment discount.[11] He agreed to discount his fee by 20% on any invoices that were paid in cash and within 30 days. I’ve never seen this kind of provision in an architect’s contract. To me it shows that Schindler was eager to take on the job even with the church’s limited budget and that Schindler had concerns about the congregation’s assets and credit.

.In his project description, Schindler mentions that “The pastor, who has to earn a living elsewhere, does not reside on the premises.”[12] The congregation couldn’t afford a full-time pastor.

.There is a steady reduction in the scope of Schindler’s design, from the initial drawings, through the development of the design, the construction drawings and the built church. Changes both large and small, they are cost savings rather than esthetic changes. They include:

.Elimination of the classroom

.Large reduction in the size of the roof terrace

.Elimination of the loudspeakers in the tower

.Replacement of glass block by glass in some windows and in the tower

.Elimination of Schindler’s designs for the pews and pulpit furniture

Schindler and Cost

Schindler’s clients, as Judith Scheine put it, often had more taste than money.[13] Schindler responded throughout his career by developing cheaper methods of construction. His early Kings Road House, 1923 and How House, 1925 used concrete extensively. The Elliot House, 1930 and the Oliver House, 1933 marked his move to cheaper all-wood construction. In houses like the Kaun Beach House, 1934-35 Schindler experimented with building materials, innovative construction methods and efficient, open designs that gave his clients more from their tiny budgets. He developed the Schindler Frame, introduced in 1945 shortly after he finished the church, to increase his design flexibility and further reduce cost. He was, as Adolph Tischler told me, “very sympathetic to a low budget”.

Garrott to Schindler

Timing

Garrott’s drawings are dated May 22, 1944. I estimate that sending out blueprints, preparation of a progress estimate by a contractor, review of the estimate by the church officials and by Garrott, and meetings of the officials with Garrott would have taken from 1.5 to 2 months. That leaves a month or so for the officials to find Schindler, interview him, review his contract and sign it on August 31, 1944. This is a lot to do in a short time.

To make it more difficult, I think Garrott’s departure made it harder for the congregation to find a new architect. Their break with Garrott was a difficult story to tell, at least in a way that didn’t make one or both of the parties look bad. It could appear that Garrott wasn’t up to the task. Or that the congregation had an unrealistic budget and wouldn’t listen to reason. They wouldn’t want to broadcast it around, but how do you find an architect when you don’t want to tell anyone you are looking for one?

Finding Schindler

Until definitive documentation is found, we won’t know for sure how Schindler connected with the Bethlehem Baptist congregation. But one path seems highly likely.

At this time, and throughout Schindler’s life, he was NOT famous or even that well-known.[14] He was a radical ”niche” architect known to a small circle. He had never built a church. He wasn’t the most likely choice for the Bethlehem congregation to replace Garrott.

Perhaps someone who knew the Schindlers and the Bethlehem congregation was the link. Pauline and Rudolph used their West Hollywood, Kings Road house as a salon, hosting parties and performances. They were attended by political and social radicals, artists and performers. A wide range of people, including Afro-Americans, attended. It could have been a congregation member or an Afro-American activist or performer who knew about the congregation that put them together. It might have been “Abe”, an African-American carpenter who worked with Schindler.[15] These are possibilities, but I don’t think any of them are likely. Outside of the church officials, few people would have known the congregation was looking for a new architect.

Garrott directly to Schindler

This could be possible, except that we have no evidence that they ever met. Wesley Henderson had interviews with and about Garrott. Schindler’s name never came up.

But there is someone whose name did come up a lot in Henderson’s interviews, someone who can connect Garrott to Schindler – Gregory Ain.[16]

Gregory Ain at Schindler's Southhall Studio approx 1940Gregory Ain

Gregory Ain, 1908-1988, was a modern architect who practiced mostly in the Los Angeles area. He is best known for his well-designed, well-built single homes and housing projects for lower- and middle-income residents.

You can read more about Ain in Ester McCoy’s Second Generation and Anthony Denzer’s Gregory Ain: The Modern Home as Social Commentary.

What is of interest here is that he was good friends with both Garrott and Schindler.

steve wallet architect ain garrott office bldg 1949Garrott and Ain

Garrott and Ain were life-long friends, both personally and professionally. [17] They partnered together on jobs as Ain & Garrott or Garrott & Ain, depending on who brought the client in. Starting in 1939 they shared an office in the Granada Building. In 1946 Ain, along with Afro-American architect Paul Williams, sponsored Garrott’s application for membership in the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Architects. In 1949 Ain and Garrott built the small, modern Ain & Garrott office building in the Silverlake area of Los Angeles.[18]

Ain and Schindler

Early in his career, McCoy does not give a date, Ain worked for Schindler for a few weeks. Although it was not a long period, Ester McCoy described it as “Of considerable importance in Ain’s development…”. About his time working for Schindler, Ain said “…whenever I would drop into his office he would put me to work for a few days. He didn’t really need me, he just made work for me.” [19] Early Ain projects such as the Edwards House, 1936, the Ernst House, 1937, and the Daniel House, 1939 show Schindler’s influence. In an undated, unpublished interview with McCoy, Ain talks about Schindler’s work and ideas with great understanding and appreciation.[20] They were life-long friends.[21]

Garrott to Ain to Schindler

I think Ain brought the Bethlehem congregation and Schindler together. This fits all the facts and explains some mysteries surrounding this story-such as the short time between Garrot’s drawings and Schindler’s hiring, and why there is no record of how Schindler got the job. To be fair, I need to point out that there is no mention of the Bethlehem Church in Ain’s archives.[22]

Garrott knew Ain, and Ain knew Schindler. This is a chain of personal and professional friends. Through their own experience they all understood the difficulties of satisfying clients. They knew how quickly your relationship with them can change, through no fault of your own. And they could be trusted to keep the sensitive story of Garrott’s loss of the Church project confidential.

Ain was busy at this time working with the Eames’ on their plywood chair designs.[23] He didn’t need more work. He would have understood the congregation’s severe budget limits-his friend Garrott would have told him. The Church job wouldn’t have looked that good to Ain. But Schindler wasn’t busy, and he wasn’t put off by a small budget.

Ain knew Schindler well, he knew Schindler’s abilities to work with small budgets. He understood this in a way that those less familiar with Schindler’s work would not. Schindler was known by some, his clients and friends, for his skill with low-cost building. But to the broader public he presented himself as a talented designer who made wonderful buildings, not as the master of cheap.

Schindler was hired very shortly after Garrott’s progress estimate drawings were finished. Finding an unknown architect outside your community can take time, but with a few conversations between friends – Garrott to Ain and Ain to Schindler, it could have happened quickly.

It could happen quickly and also quietly. Garrott, Ain and Schindler would have understood that replacing Garrott with Schindler would be a difficult story for them, as well as the congregation, to tell. It could appear that Garrott had to be “saved” by Schindler. Or that Schindler got the job because he could build cheaply, not for his design talent. Or that Austrian-American Schindler took the job from Afro-American Garrott. This could be why there is no record of how the congregation found Schindler. It would be best for all parties to put the congregation and Schindler together and not talk, or write, about Garrott.

 

The unusual path the church project traveled to Schindler affected his design. Because he knew why he was hired, cost and symbolism, Schindler felt a great freedom with the Bethlehem. His design has an exuberant energy, he is having great fun. His walls step like fish scales, worshippers walk on top of the building, the tower is topped by a monumental three-dimensional sculpture, the building is painted in mulberry and plum and rose…  His clients gave him the freedom to create something that “reached toward the future” in any way he wanted – as long as he stayed within their budget. He took full advantage of that opportunity, creating one of his landmark buildings.


[1] Wesley Howard Henderson, “James Homer Garrott”, African American Architects, A Biographical Dictionary, 1865-1945 (New York, Routledge, 2004) http://books.google.com/books?id=t8iTAgAAQBAJ&q=garrott#v=snippet&q=garrott&f=false (accessed may 11, 2014)

[2] “James H. Garrott”, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_H._Garrott, (accessed June 10, 2014)

[3] Wesley Howard Henderson, “James Homer Garrott”,

[4] Marguerite Cartwright, “California’s Contemporary Architect”, Pittsburgh Courier, November 27, 1954, 21, newspapers.com (accessed 5/13/2014)

[5] Marguerite Cartwright, “California’s Contemporary Architect”, 20.

[6] Wesley Howard Henderson, “James Homer Garrott”

[7] James Garrott, “Bethelhem Baptist Church drawings, sheets 1-5” May 22, 1944, Architecture and Design Collection, University of California at Santa Barbara.

[8] Ester McCoy, “Bethlehem Baptist Church Story”, undated and unpublished, box 24, folder 10, notes, http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/container/viewer/-Bethlehem-Baptist-Church-Story–343462  , (accessed 6/10/2014)

[9] Ester McCoy, “Bethlehem Baptist Church Story”, 1

[10] Ester McCoy, “Bethlehem Baptist Church Story”, 1 and 4

[11] Rudolph Schindler, “The Standard Form of Agreement between the Owner and Architect, Bethlehem Baptist Church”, August 31, 1944, Architecture and Design Collection, Art Design & Architecture Museum, University of California at Santa Barbara, 3.

[12] Rudolph Schindler, “Bethlehem Baptist Church” (project description), Architecture and Design Collection, Art Design & Architecture Museum ,University of California at Santa Barbara

[13] Judith Scheine, “RM SCHINDLER”(New York:Phaidon, 2001), 147.

[14]Ester McCoy, “Gregory Ain Interview regarding Schindler”, undated and unpublished, box 27, folder 42 , 1, http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/container/viewer/Notes-Gregory-Ain-Interview-regarding-Schindler-343677, (accessed 6/10/2014)

[15] Conversation with John Reed, architect at Bethlehem Baptist Church/Faith Build open house, April 12, 2014

[16] Wesley Howard Henderson, email, May 13, 2014

[17] “James H. Garrott”, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_H._Garrott, (accessed June 10, 2014)

[18]   Wesley Howard Henderson, email, May 10 & 13, 2014

[19] Ester McCoy, Second Generation (Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith, 1984), 87-88.

[20] Ester McCoy, “Gregory Ain Interview regarding Schindler”, undated and unpublished, box 27, folder 42 , http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/container/viewer/Notes-Gregory-Ain-Interview-regarding-Schindler-343677, (accessed 6/10/2014)

[21] Emily Ain, email, May 7, 2014

[22] Anthony Denzer, email, May 13, 2014

[23] Anthony Denzer, email, May 13, 2014

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3 thoughts on “From South Los Angeles to West Hollywood: James Garrott, Rudolph Schindler and the Bethlehem Baptist Church”

  1. Hello, Thank you for writing and sharing this story. Its so wonderfully written, and reads like a suspense story. To top it off, it’s about two of my favorite architects — Schindler & Ain.
    I especially loved the part where you reveal the possible link — Gregory Ain.
    I live at the Avenel Coops and wished that I had the opportunity of meeting him in person. I am going to share this great read on Facebook!
    Samantha

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