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Downtown's Churches: First Methodist Episcopal at 8th and Hope

By Eric Richardson
Published: Monday, July 07, 2008, at 09:20AM
First Methodist Episcopal Church California Historical Society: TICOR/Pierce [digarc.usc.edu]

The First Methodist Episcopal Church stood at the corner of 8th and Hope from 1923 to 1983.

Opened on July 8th, 1923, the First Methodist Episcopal Church at 813 S. Hope was the most expensive church constructed to date by the denomination. The structure, with a four-story Sunday school building and an auditorium that sat 3,000 visitors, cost $1 million. Acquiring the land added another $500,000 to the total. The church's organ was $50,000, while three mosaic glass panels by Tiffany cost $5,000 each.

Noteworthy as a place of worship in its early days, the church's later days were marked by a failed attempt to save what would now have been South Park's landmark structure.

When we announced our look back at Downtown churches, Rev. Sandie Richards of Downtown's currently-buildingless First United Methodist Church commented with a brief look at her congregation's history. The First Methodist Episcopal Church at 8th and Flower is part of that lineage, though that wasn't the reason for choosing it to kick off the series. Instead, I was first drawn to the building back in December, when I spotted it in an aerial that was part of the Julius Shulman photo exhibition.

When the Methodists opened their new structure at 8th and Hope in July of 1923, membership at the First Methodist Episcopal Church stood at 1,611. By 1925 that count had swelled to 3,500 members, and it later peaked around 6,000.

Services from the church were broadcast to the city by KHJ, a radio station owned by the Times. The auditorium's impressive acoustics made it the site for not only religious services, but fine arts performances as well.

The church flourished for half a century, and then hit on hard times. A 1982 story in the Times quoted the church's current minister as saying that membership had dropped from 6,000 to just 400 in the last decade. With the slashed numbers, the church could no longer afford the upkeep on its sixty year old building. It negotiated a sale with the Gas Company, headquartered next door. Part of the agreement was that the church would demolish the building before the sale would complete.

When word got out that the building was threatened, a member submitted an application to the city trying to get Historical Monument status for the structure. The L.A. Conservancy and the Community Redevelopment Agency were major proponents of saving the landmark, while the church opposed the designation and the trouble it would bring to the sale process. While Sam Hall Kaplan wrote several Times stories arguing for the building's salvation, the Times editorial board wrote a lukewarm piece in favor of saving the structure, but against giving it monument status.

On December 15, 1982, the City Council voted 10-2 against the application, sealing the structure's fate. The CRA continued to push plans that would preserve the building as a public use space by granting extra development rights to the rest of the block, but the Gas Company was uninterested. Demolition began in March of 1983.

At the time, the Gas Company was acquiring the entire block to build a massive new headquarters. The Church site was to be an important part of that. Instead, the company ended up doing nothing on the block and eventually building its new structure at 5th and Olive. The site of the 1923 church has sat as an empty parking lot ever since, and is now slated to eventually have a condo tower built on it.

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