The old Palo Alto Unitarian Church was designed by Unitarian architect Bernard Maybeck in 1906;
he his firm also designed the old Unitarian church building in Berkeley (now owned, and treated somewhat disrespectfully, by the University of California), and he most famously designed the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Berkeley. The first set of drawings for the Palo Alto church building was destroyed in a fire that followed the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Maybeck made another set of drawings, and the main church building was completed 1907; due to the rise in construction costs following the earthquake, the social hall was not completed until 1913.
“A prominent architect, Mr. B[ernard] R[alph] Maybeck… was hired. The new building was dedicated on March 24, 1907…. The design of the building was unusual. It used rough, less expensive forms of material, redwood board and battens, common redwood shakes, rough, heavy timbers which more than caqrried the weight of the roof and cement plaster like that use for outside work, forming a deep chancel arch as high as the roof. The timbers, whose rough serfaces were left unplaned, were stained with an old-fashioned logwood dye… giving a deep color, almost black. The shakes were dipped in a solution before they were put on the ceiling, and were turned gray, not unlike the stone-gray of the cement. The windows of the church, which were set high, had small leaded panes of a light amber tone, and the lanterns for illumination at night gave as nearly as possible the same light. The pulpit and the high-hooded chair were covered with a soft plush velour, rose-pink in shade, and curtains hung behind it across the whole width of the chancel and down the sides to the arch. The Bible-rest on the pulpit, the work of a member of the congregation, was a brilliant glass mosaic. The arch, high and massive, directly under which the pulpit stood, was the dominating feature of the interior….”1
The exterior of this building can be seen in the Andover Harvard Library collection of Postcards of Unitarian and Universalist Church Buildings; scroll down to the sixth listing, and click on the small image.
The building was not fondly remembered by Alfred Niles, who wrote, “In 1927 when the writer came to Palo Alto, the old Unitarian church at Cowper St. and Channing Avenue was still functioning, but rather feebly…. Another thing which I think was an important obstacle to recovery was the quality of the pews in the old building. They were the most uncomfortable ones I have ever encountered.” When the congregation finally dissolved (in 1934), ownership of the building reverted to the American Unitarian Association, who sold it to a “fundamentalist group.”2
The old building passed through the hands of other owners. The Palo Alto Art Club purchased it in 1952, renovated the old church at 855 Cowper St., and remained there until 1965.3. Sometime following their departure, the building was demolished.
For researchers who wish to know more about this building, the Bernard Maybeck Collection at the University of California contains the following:
Manuscript Box/Folder: 20 | 206, Drawings Oversize Folder: FF 234, Photographs Box/Folder: 31 | 283
ARCH 1956-1 Unitarian Church 1906-1907
Repository: Environmental Design Archives
Collaborator/Role: White, M.H., (architect)
Palo Alto, CA
1 “History of the Palo Alto Unitarian Church, 1895 to 1928,” Donna Lee, c. 1991, pp. [3-5].
2 “The Early Years of the Palo Alto Unitarian Society,” Alfred S. Niles, n.d. (c. 1960?), p. 1.
3 “History,” Pacific Art League Web site, http://palpa.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=22&Itemid=34 , accessed 19 May 2010.