The Unitarian Church of Palo Alto, 1905-1909

Here are documents that tell the story of the early years of the old Unitarian Church of Palo Alto.

The Women’s Alliance (1906)

Branch Alliance of the Unitarian Church, 25 members.
Pres., Mrs. Agnes B. Kitchen, 912 Cowper St., Palo Alto.
Vice-Pres., Mrs. Isabel Butler, 853 Middlefield Rd., Palo Alto.
Sec., Mrs. Isabelle Wocker, 853 Middlefield Rd., Palo Alto.
Treas., Mrs. Emily S. Karns, P. O. Box 148, Palo Alto.
Ch. Cheerful Letter, Mrs. Jessie B. Palmer, 765 Channing Ave., Palo Alto.
Includes all the women’s organizations of the church.
Committees: Hospitality, House, Decoration, Entertainment, Work.
Meetings second and fourth Tuesdays at 2 P.M.
Money raised, $205.15. Disbursed: $8.35 to National Alliance; $150 for church lot; $6 for hymn books; $25.98 for materials. Organized October 21, 1905.

— Manual, 1906, National Alliance of Unitarian and Other Liberal Christian Woman (New York, Knickerbocker Press, 1906), p. 168.

The New Church Building (1907)

The most important event in the department of church extension during the past month was the dedication of the new church-building at Palo Alto. This occurred on Sunday morning, March 24th. It was a home affair, simple, but very interesting to the faithful Unitarians who have worked so hard and sacrificed so much to bring the enterprise to a successful termination. The erection of this church was made possible by the generosity of Mrs. Frances A. Hackley, of Tarrytown, N. Y., who has done so much for the Unitarian cause in this department. The members of the church entered into the work with a determination to make the new church-building not only useful but beautiful and convenient. The interior of the new church is all that could be desired; the exterior will not show its merit until the vines grow over it, as the vines are an essential part of the plan. The services in dedication were well attended.

— The Pacific Unitarian, vol. 15, no. 6, April, 1907 (San Francisco: Pacific Unitarian Conference), p. 165.


Above: The old Unitarian church, designed by Bernard Maybeck (from The Pacific Unitarian, May, 1907, p. 206)

The Palo Alto Church (1907)

Work on the new building of the Unitarian church at the corner of Channing Avenue and Cowper Street was practically completed this week, and the congregation is expecting to hold its first service there on the Sunday before Easter, March 24th. That first service, to be held at the regular church hour, 11 o’clock in the morning, will be the service of dedication. Rev. George W. Stone, Field Secretary of the American Unitarian Association, who was acting minister of the church from its organization about a year and a half ago, until the coming of the present minister, will preach the sermon.

The new church, which has attracted considerable attention during its construction, is somewhat unusual in design. It is the work of Mr. B. R. Maybeck, of the firm of Maybeck & White, who has erected several of the buildings connected with the University of California and other semi-public structures in Berkeley. The church in Palo Alto is noteworthy in the use of rough, less expensive forms of material for a permanent building, designed to have all the atmosphere of a church. The only materials used in the interior finish are redwood boards and battens, common redwood shakes, rough heavy timbers, which rather more than carry the weight of the roof, and cement plaster like that used for the outside of buildings, forming a deep chancel arch as high as the roof. The timbers, whose rough surfaces have been left unplaned, are stained with an old-fashioned logwood dye, such as our grandmothers used in their dye-pots, giving a deep color, almost black. The shakes were dipped in an acid solution before they were put on the ceiling, and have turned gray, not unlike the stone-gray of the cement. The surfaced redwood of the walls and pews is being finished by a Japanese painter who understands the treatment of this fickle wood, and it will take on a soft gray color to harmonize with the shakes and plaster.

The windows of the church, which are set high, will have small leaded panes of a light amber tone, and the lanterns for illumination at night will give as nearly as possible the same light. The color scheme is completed by the hangings and upholstering in the chancel, a soft plush velour, rose pink in shade. The pulpit and a high hooded chair are to be covered with this material, and a curtain will hang behind the chair across the whole width of the chancel and down the sides to the arch. It is intended later to cover the rail of the choir loft, and the swinging doors from the vestibule to the church with the same material.

The aisles of the church are along the sides, the pews running solid through between two rows of posts, which form the main support of the building. From these posts and from the posts set in the side walls run heavy beams clear to the roof tree. The roof spaces between the beams are covered with shakes down to the walls, where the boards and battens begin. The chancel arch is the denominating feature of the interior. It is, as already stated, as high as the roof, and is massive like the rest of the structure. The pulpit stands directly under the center of the arch, three or four steps higher than the lower level of the church floor.

On each side of the chancel is a room, the larger one in the tower on Cowper Street being a parlor, and the smaller, on the other side, a study for the minister. The parlor is very high and is finished similarly to the church. The building is set very close to the street, its front steps coming almost to the sidewalk on Channing Avenue, and the tower lying only a few feet from Cowper Street. This position was made necessary by the size of the lot, but after construction had begun the congregation bought an additional fifty feet on Channing Avenue, making a frontage of 125 feet, and 100 feet on Cowper Street. This gives room for enlargement and development. The church with the gradual slope of its roof, and the three dormers on each side, is low in effect. The tower at the rear, however, breaks the skyline with its turrets. The vestibule at the front has a lower, flat roof, whose beams project beyond the wall, and with cross-lattice work form support for vines. It is planned to have the whole church overrun with vines, for like all such buildings, it is not complete without the setting which only time and the growth of shrubs and vines can give. — Palo Alto Times, March 17th.

— The Pacific Unitarian, vol. 15, no. 6, April, 1907 (San Francisco: Pacific Unitarian Conference), p. 187.


Above: The old Unitarian church, designed by Bernard Maybeck (from The Pacific Unitarian, May, 1907, p. 207)

Historic Pipes in Organ (1907)

An interesting discovery was made yesterday by Mr. Felix Schoenstein, the expert from San Francisco who has just begun to set up the new organ in the Unitarian Church. In unpacking the instrument he found that two of the smaller wooden pipes were of different material and workmanship from the others, and that one of them was covered on two sides with handwriting, so faint as to be almost undecipherable. He at once concluded that when the organ was built (some two or three decades ago) these pipes had been taken from a still older organ—a practice not at all uncommon, since the wooden pipes, like violins, gain in sweetness and resonance with age. Careful examination of the inscriptions proved that he was right, and that at least one of the pipes (the C pipe) has seen nearly two centuries of melodious service.

On one side of this pipe is written in a bold old-fashioned hand, with many flourishes to the capitals, this legend: “Put up by Gilbert & Woodbridge, Organders to His Honor.” On the other, in finer writing, with many of the words very difficult to read, were these: “Put up in So. Reading, April, 1832,” and “This pipe was made by Snetzed (?) in London about 100 years ago and has been made to sound by Handel and was heard by George Washington when commander of the American army at Cambridge.” Since these two last-quoted inscriptions are in obviously different handwritings, the date given in the one is of no value in fixing the “about a hundred years ago” of the other. If Handel ever made it sound, however, the pipe must have been constructed at least as early as the middle of the eighteenth century, for Handel died in London in 1759. This would make the pipe at least one hundred and fifty years old. If, as seems reasonable, the two writings were put on at the same time, but by different bands, the pipe would be near two hundred years old. From the quaint wording of the inscription first quoted, it is likely that it was written by the earliest workmen on it, somewhere in old London. The use of the title “His Honor” would indicate that it was not by Gilbert & Woodbridge, at least, set up in a church.

It is likely that the pipe was made for an organ used first in London, where Handel, who in spite of his blindness continued to play almost up till his death, may have accompanied one of his own oratorios on it. Before the American revolution the organ (and this pipe with it) must have been shipped to Cambridge in Massachusetts, perhaps in the same way that the organ which now contains the pipe was shipped across the continent—as a gift from an old church to a pioneer. In Cambridge it must have been placed in Christ Church, in front of which, under an elm tree, standing to this day, Washington took command of the Continental army on July 2, 1775, and where he worshiped until in the succeeding spring he had forced the evacuation of Boston. It is doubtful, moreover, if an organ would have been desired or tolerated in the Puritan Cambridge of that day, in any other meeting-house save the Episcopalian Christ Church.

This old London organ must have been torn out to make room for a new one some time in the early decades of the nineteenth century, and one, or, possibly, two, of its pipes have strayed into an instrument for a church in South Reading, a small community not far from Cambridge. How these ever got into the organ at Scituate, Massachusetts, which is now being set up in Palo Alto, there is nothing to indicate.

Mr. Schoenstein expects to have the organ in place before the end of the week, and it will probably be used for the first time at the morning service next Sunday. A few minor repairs will have to be made, as the result of the long journey, but on the whole very little damage was done. The instrument, as has been found in preparing for installation, was extremely well built in the first place, and shows its honest quality now.

The organ is a gift to the Palo Alto church from the First Parish of Scituate, to which a new memorial organ has recently been given.

[Note: According to Donna Lee’s 1991 history of the old Unitarian Church of Palo Alto: “When the Palo Alto Church dissolved in 1934 and the property went to the American Unitarian Association, the organ was given to the Unitarian Church of Stockton, California.”]

— The Palo Alto Times, September 24th, 1907.


Above: The old Unitarian church, designed by Bernard Maybeck (from The Pacific Unitarian, May, 1907, p. 207)

Annual Meeting of the Palo Alto Church (1908)

The third annual supper and anniversary of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto was celebrated on the evening of Tuesday, November 10th. The church being as yet without a parish house, the supper was laid in Jordan’s Hall, its place of worship during most of the first two years of its existence. The large square room was decorated by the ladies of the Alliance with green boughs of pepper and eucalyptus, and the tables were set off with strands of green and with large bouquets of different colored chrysanthemums. On account of the size of the room, the tables were arranged in a different way from on previous occasions,— in a hollow square, the guests sitting on the outside only, all the serving being done from within. The effect was of a great round table. This permitted the scattering of the speakers throughout the company, and gave places of equal desirability to all. In the middle of the square stood a large vase filled with chrysanthemums of unusual size and beauty, as a kind of centerpiece.

Between fifty and sixty people sat down at seven o’clock to an excellent supper. At the conclusion of the feast, Professor Ewald Fluegel, President of the Board of Trustees, called the company to order and opened the speech-making with a brief account of the progress of the church, morally and materially, during the year. Professor Fluegel mentioned among the causes for congratulation the fact that no member of the congregation had died. He spoke with feeling of those absent, either through sickness or removal from town, and welcomed to the company newcomers and old friends returned. The toastmaster then introduced Mrs. E. S. Karns, President of the Women’s Alliance, who presented a report of a busy and profitable year. She announced that the Alliance has set aside $100 of its earnings towards a parish hall, to be built on the lot adjoining the church, and she closed with an appeal to the members to carry this important, project, which means so much for the life and prosperity of the church, to a speedy completion. Mrs. Karl G. Rendtorff, Superintendent of the Sunday-school, was next called upon, and read an unusually thoughtful paper on the principles on which a Unitarian Sunday-school should be conducted. She reported a school of thirty pupils and five teachers. Professor Jefferson Elmore then spoke for the Unitarian Club, the men’s organization connected with the church, formed during the past year. He made numerous reference to the various dinners and meetings. Mr. A. C. McLaughlin, Church Treasurer, having already presented his detailed report at the annual meeting on the preceding Sunday, confined himself to remarks pertaining to church finances in general and the trials of a treasurer in particular. The speech-making closed with a few words on the future of the church by the minister.

The tables were then cleared away and the company occupied itself with general conversation and dancing. A paper giving the greetings of the church to Professor E. W. Martin, formerly treasurer, temporarily removed to the University of Nevada, was signed by all present.

At the annual meeting of the church on Sunday, November 8th, two members of the Board of Trustees were chosen for terms of three years each — Mr. A. C. McLaughlin to succeed himself, and Professor Karl G. Rendtorff to succeed Professor E. W. Martin. The Board is now composed of the following-named members: Mr. J. S. Butler, Professor Ewald Fluegel, Professor H. D. Gray, Mrs. E. S. Karns, Mr. A. C. McLaughlin, Professor K. G. Rendtorff, and Mrs. George H. Rosebrook.

— The Pacific Unitarian (San Francisco: Pacific Unitarian Conference), vol. 17, no. 2, Dec., 1908 (San Francisco: Pacific Unitarian Conference), p. 50.


Each in His Own Tongue (1908)

[William H. Carruth published his best-known book of poetry, Each in His Own Tongue, in 1908, while a member of the Palo Alto Unitarian Church. This, the title poem from the book, shows something of the theology of a 1908 West Coast Unitarian.]

A fire-mist and a planet,
   A crystal and a cell,
A jelly-fish and a saurian,
   And caves where the cave-men dwell;
Then a sense of law and beauty
   And a face turned from the clod,—
Some call it Evolution,
   And others call it God.

A haze on the far horizon,
   The infinite, tender sky,
The ripe, rich tint of the cornfields,
   And the wild geese sailing high;
And all over upland and lowland
   The charm of the golden-rod,—
Some of us call it Autumn,
   And others call it God.

Like tides on a crescent sea-beach,
   When the moon is new and thin,
Into our hearts high yearnings
   Come welling and surging in:
Come from the mystic ocean
   Whose rim no foot has trod,—
Some of us call it Longing,
   And others call it God.

A picker frozen on duty,
   A mother starved for her brood,
Socrates drinking the hemlock,
   And Jesus on the rood;
And millions who, humble and nameless,
   The straight, hard pathway plod,—
Some call it Consecration,
   And others call it God.

Each in His Own Tongue, and Other Poems (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1908), pp. 2-3.

Resignation of Rev. Sydney B. Snow (1909)

Rev. Sydney B. Snow presented his resignation yesterday as minister of the Unitarian church, the resignation to take effect June 1st. At a meeting of the congregation at the close of the morning service, the resignation was accepted, but with the deepest regret.

Mr. Snow and his family have greatly endeared themselves to every citizen of Palo Alto, and not only his own church people but the public in general will feel it a personal loss that Mr. Snow has found this move necessary. He and his family will leave soon after June 1st for their former home in Boston.

At the meeting yesterday committees were appointed to formulate resolutions for the church expressing regret at his resignation and to arrange a farewell supper for Mr. Snow.

Mr. Snow came to Palo Alto three years ago, immediately on graduation from Harvard Divinity School, and was most highly recommended to the church by Dr. S. A. Eliot, president of the American Unitarian Association. His pastorate here has been marked by unusual success. The church when he came had been organized but a year and was still without a building. It was largely through the efforts of Mr. Snow that the church has reached its present prosperous condition. Last year Mr. Snow was made secretary of the Unitarian Association of the Pacific Coast and has been closely identified with the work of this association. He is also secretary of the Palo Alto branch of the Civic League of Justice, secretary of the Palo Alto Organ Recital Association, and last year was president of the Social Dramatic Club of Palo Alto.

— The Palo Alto Times, April 12, 1909.

4 thoughts on “The Unitarian Church of Palo Alto, 1905-1909”

  1. The Unitarian church in Stockton still exists and built their current building in 1930 (it was remodeled in the early 1990s). I can find no mention on their website or elsewhere that they have an organ now.

    I noticed that the board of trustees had both men and women and the president was a man. I wonder how often the president of an Unitarian church board in those days was a woman. IIRC Stanford did not get a women student body president until the 1940s though always co-ed (and that was because she had been vice president and the president left to join the army).

  2. Erp, I looked through the Unitarian Yearbook for 1909, found here on Google Books. It lists 489 Unitarian congregations in that year. I count 29 board presidents with recognizably female names. They are distributed geographically as follows, listed east to west, north to south:

    Me. (1 women board president out of 26 congregations in the state);
    Mass. (7 out of 191);
    N.H. (1 out of 29);
    Vt. (1 out of 8);
    N.Y. (1 out of 26);
    Pa. (2 out of 15);
    Ohio (1 out of 6);
    Mich. (1 out of 16);
    Wis. (1 out of 9);
    Ill. (2 out of 24);
    Minn. (1 out of 13);
    N.D. (1 out of 1);
    S.D. (1 out of 2);
    Ia. (4 out of 14);
    Col. (2 out of 6);
    Cal. (2 out of 20 — Los Angeles, Santa Ana).

    Caveat emptor — I did not make a very careful count, and probably missed a couple. Also, I did not count women who were presidents of non-church Unitarian organizations (e.g., the Mission School in St. Louis).

    Note that there was a significant number of women who were liberal ministers in the Midwest in the late 1800s — the so-called “Prophetic Sisterhood” — which may help explain the high percentage of women in leadership in Iowa and the Dakotas. I will also note that I found few or no women board presidents in major metropolitan areas.

  3. So certainly not unknown though not usual. BTW I hadn’t realize Edith Mirrielees had been a Unitarian.

  4. I hadn’t realized about Mirrielees either. I think the demise of that old Unitarian Church of Palo Alto meant that some very interesting people drifted away from Unitarianism — Edith Mirrielees for one, but also Josephine and Frank Duveneck, Gertrude Rendtorff (later dean of girls at Monterey High, where she mobilized her students to sign a petition to make sure Japanese Americans who had been interned in WWII were welcomed back into the community), and others.

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