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September 18, 2014

Touring San Francisco’s Cathedrals: An Enlightening Experience

You can see the architecture of the world in the churches of San Francisco. Architectural styles including Richardson Romanesque, Gothic, Hispanic-Mexican, Baroque, Neoclassical and American Gothic Revival are all on display when you take a walking tour of the city’s notable houses of worship.

With more than 70 sacred places scattered throughout San Francisco, it’s not hard to find a specific church, temple, or synagogue of any faith with architecture to rival that of Europe and Asia. "It’s refreshing to see these beautiful works of Americana remain intact; each one has a special story to tell its visitors on how it shaped the City," says Mark Gordon, historian and former San Francisco tour guide.

At Fillmore and Jackson streets, one can visit the Calvary Presbyterian Church. Founded on July 23, 1854, it is San Francisco’s only church to be dismantled stone by stone, and re-assembled in another location. At one time the church was located on Union Square, but had to make way for construction of the St. Francis Hotel. By popular demand, every stone, brick, and wooden pew from the old building was marked and transferred to the new-old church at its present location. As one of the few non-residential buildings to survive the 1906 earthquake and fire, Calvary was also a temporary home to Old Presbyterian and St. Luke’s Episcopal churches, Temple Emanu-El, and even the Superior Court. Its main building reveals Roman and Italian Renaissance architecture in its rounded arches over the tall columns and with its tall arched windows and colored glass, Calvary has a medieval appearance. The Mannerist-Baroque effects on the outside make it look like a public library or bank.

For those wanting to attend a service with traditional gospel flavor, look no further than Glide Memorial Methodist Church. Located in the heart of the City’s Tenderloin district at Ellis and Mason streets, Glide Memorial was built and dedicated in 1931 in honor of Elizabeth Glide, a conservative woman with fundamentalist beliefs whose dream was to have a church constructed "to minister to the unmet needs of the core city." The church’s founder, Reverend Cecil Williams, was among the first clergymen in the nation to support (and preside over weddings for) same-sex couples. Glide’s design combines modern, Georgian, and North Italian Romanesque look. The Georgian bank-like pillars, tall colored glass windows and elaborate canvas canopies make it appropriate in the Nob Hill neighborhood.

Cathedral tours are not just educational but enlightening. Old St. Mary’s (California and Grant streets) is located on the outskirts of the financial district in Chinatown and is one of San Francisco’s best-loved ecclesiastical landmarks. Known as the tranquil grandmother of the city’s churches, it is San Francisco’s first cathedral and was dedicated at the midnight mass on Christmas 1854. White marble is used in abundance around the high altar and the granite used in the foundation was shipped from China. With many materials from foreign countries, the building reflects the diverse population it serves today. This Gothic Revival building, with its rib-vaulted ceiling and tall, slender pillars is well used by business people, tourists and the Chinese community. An inscription on the four-faced clock tower - "Son, observe the time and fly from evil," was meant to influence the young people in the rowdy 1850s. Old St. Mary’s design displays American Gothic Revival from the 1840s and 1850s at its best. The use of excellent materials and expert construction throughout proved valuable as the church shell survived the 1906 earthquake and fire. 

At Post and Mason streets is the First Congregational Church, with an edifice as described by the old San Francisco Bulletin as "rivaling the best in America...walls of red brick with ornaments of artificial stone...surmounted by a spire rising 225 feet from the sidewalk." San Francisco’s first and only city chaplain, Rev. Timothy Dwight Hunt, founded the church in 1849. It had the largest congregation of any Protestant church in the City until the 1906 earthquake destroyed it. After six years of services in a basement, the Reid brothers designed a new structure in Beaux-Arts Roman. The Post Street side has four large Corinthian pillars in terra cotta, set in front of deep arched windows. Its Baroque-like facade makes it appear as a bank.

Someone wanting to visit the world-famous "Gates of Paradise" in Florence, Italy, need go no further than Grace Cathedral atop Nob Hill (Taylor and California streets) and see an exact size replica of the famed Ghiberti Doors, which depict scenes from the Old Testament. Grace Cathedral is the third largest Episcopal cathedral in the United States and open to visitors from all over the world. What is most striking about the construction of Grace Cathedral is that it took 54 years to officially complete. The death of the first architect, World War I, the Depression and World War II all contributed to its delay. A $13.3 million expansion completed the vision of the second architect, Lewis Hobart. The project included the building of the Great Stairway to the Ghiberti Doors, a new Chapter House, courtyard with walkway and fountain and a parking garage. Grace Cathedral is surrounded by French influence; the twin towers, high roof, and curved top found in Notre Dame of Paris, and the magnificent glass Sainte-Chapelle in Paris are here as well. The altar is made of California granite and the tabletop is from redwood. Besides its famed Florentine doors, the cathedral is also well known for its several stained glass windows. The great rose window, Canticle to the Sun, was created by Gabriel Loire of Chartres and on the western side of the cathedral are windows by Charles Connick of Boston. Murals in the church painted by Polish-American artist John de Rosen honor Sir Francis Drake, Saint Francis de Assisi and various periods of San Francisco history.

The Holy Virgin Cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile at 6210 Geary St. resembles a five-domed church of czarist Russia. Its five onion-shaped domes with Eastern Orthodox crosses on their pinnacles glitter in the sky. The cathedral has three altars and its architecture is among the richest in San Francisco. The immaculate interior demonstrates Eastern opulence, including copious ornamentation. There are no pews or chairs, as the congregation stands or kneels during services. Balcony seating is available for the disabled and elderly.

A majority of the cathedrals in the City have moved from their former locations, and on several occasions. St. Francis Lutheran Church (152 Church St.), still worships in its original building, designed by its first pastor. Founded in 1903, the church escaped damage from the 1906 earthquake and fire. Its red brick structure is plain Gothic architectural with Romanesque qualities. The simply furnished white interior is highlighted with a sparkling gold and white altar. Its decorative tables and lancet windows give St. Francis a medieval authority to the portal and glass-filled pointed windows.

A short trip can be made to the Swedish countryside when visiting the Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem at Lyon and Washington streets. Also known as "one of the neatest little churches in the City," according to Sacred Places of San Francisco (Presidio Press), the quiet serenity inside offers a place for meditation and is a reminder of a country tradition modestly designed around the modern buildings around it. Some signs of Mission Revival architecture are present despite the heavy influence of Gothic Revival design. The red tile roof pays homage to California’s missions and the cross in the garden is from Mission San Miguel. The crude beams that hold the roof reveals the intricate workmanship and native materials used to create this warm pleasant church.

Although not all can be mentioned, a few other sacred places include: The Congregation Sherith Israel (2266 California St.), a temple in Romanesque style with a large central dome that once played host to a founding meeting for the United Nations; T’ien Hou Temple (125 Waverly Place), like most Chinese temples, located on the top floor of a building to be closer to heaven. This Chinese Renaissance temple is dedicated to T’ien Hou, Queen of the Heavens and Goddess of the Seven Seas; The Buddhist Church of San Francisco (Pine at Octavia streets), built in Roman Baroque style, revealing no sign of a Buddhist church except for its elaborate dome. Traditional Japanese materials are combined in a stage-like altar; St. Mary’s Cathedral (111 Gough St.), dedicated in 1971 spans two city blocks, the cathedral itself is 45,000 square feet and has more space set aside for social use than for worship; Mission Dolores (320 Dolores St.), the oldest building in the City still in daily use, heavy in Baroque emphasis and designated a Minor Basilica in 1955 by Pope Pius XII - the fourth such designation in the United States; The Vedanta Old Temple (2963 Webster St.), established in 1900 which serves the Indian community. The Vedanta Society is closely related with the Ramakrishna Order, one of the world’s oldest religions and most important religious institutions in India. Called one of the most unusual buildings in the City, many Indian traditions and styles are used on its roof, towers, and domes, making it appear as a small Taj Majal.

Visiting sacred places in San Francisco is an enlightening experience for everyone. Specialty and custom tours of cathedrals and other city sights are available. Check with individual institutions for details.

Photo by MomentsForZen / CC BY-NC-ND

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