A Proposal to Retrofit the Historic First Baptist Church of Oakland

Philip F. Meads, Jr.

January 18, 1997

April 22, 1997


The First Baptist Church building was built in 1903. At that time the location was near the edge of the City of Oakland. The octagonal masonry church with sandstone exterior appears to be based on the design of the ancient cathedral of Charlemagne in Aachen, Germany, built in the 8th century according to the design personally put forward by Charlemagne. The church was heavily damaged in the great 1906 earthquake and was reconstructed under the direction of Miss Julia Morgan, who was already under contract to design the interior of the auditorium. In the intervening years, the growth of the City placed the church in the downtown area, and the church became a well-recognized landmark in the City. Although escaping serious damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the church, by law, must be strengthened against future large earthquakes. To that end, the Church hired Prof. R. Gary Black and associates to do very innovative design work that has yielded a detailed plan to protect the church, meet the requirements of the City, and yet have minimal impact on the architecture of either the Julia Morgan interior or the stone exterior. The methods developed are applicable to many other historic buildings, providing the means of preserving them at perhaps half the cost of conventional methods. The church now invites concerned individuals and foundations to support financially the execution of this work that will both preserve the beautiful work of Julia Morgan and demonstrate a new approach to earthquake retrofitting that can be applied to many other threatened buildings.

1. History of the First Baptist Church

Oakland was incorporated as a City May 25th, 1854, with a probable population of seven hundred and fifty. The First Baptist Church of Oakland was organized on December 7th, 1854. Its first house of worship, erected at the South East corner of Fifth and Jefferson Streets, was dedicated ten days later and was the first completed Protestant Church erected in Oakland. With a little crowding two hundred persons could be seated in the building, and it was often used for Town meetings, lectures, concerts, etc. The founding pastor, Rev. Mr. Willis, was City School Superintendent during his residence in Oakland.

The church outgrew the first building, and in the early part of 1868 a lot one hundred by two hundred feet was purchased at the South East corner of 14th and Brush Streets. Work upon the new house of worship was begun on July 9th, 1868 under the supervision of Benjamin Malson; the building was completed in March 1869 at a cost of $32,000.00 and was formally dedicated on the 30th of the same month. While the building was being constructed, N. J. Thompson (the First Deacon and one of the six organizers of the Church in 1854) was at work near the top of the steeple when the great earthquake of 1868 took place. Not realizing it was an earthquake that did the shaking, he threw his arms about the spire and shouted to the man below, "Hey, what are you doing down there? Stop that shaking!"

Dr. E. H. Gray, who served as pastor for six years from 1882, was one of the most distinguished ministers of his denomination. He was chaplain of the United States Senate during the twenty-ninth and thirtieth sessions of Congress. In that capacity he officiated at the funeral of Abraham Lincoln in the East room of the White house, where were gathered seven hundred distinguished mourners, and offered prayer and was in the great funeral procession which numbered forty thousand. The church at that time was carrying a mortgage of $10,000.00, a floating debt of $1,500.00, and was in great need of repairs. Dr. Gray went vigorously to work to clear up the debt and mostly through the generosity of Mrs. M. M. Gray, wife of Dr. Gray, Mrs. Matilda Brown, Mrs. Elishia Higgins, and Mr. Peder Sather, the entire debt was paid and nearly $4,000.00 was raised and expended upon repairs.

In 1902, the church was burned with all its contents, including the fine new Murray Harris organ. One of the halls in the Masonic Temple at 12th and Washington Streets was rented, and services held there until the chapel of the present building was ready for occupation.

During World War II, the church provided a special ministry to service men, providing sleeping quarters and breakfast for 50-75 men. Following the war, the Church resettled six refugee families from eastern Europe, a total of 28 persons and one family from China. Most of these had spent time in various internment camps. Jobs were found, furniture and household furnishings given, houses rented, transportation provided, but most of all, these new friends and future citizens were welcomed with warm Christian friendliness, a fitting example of practical Christian living and of a church meeting some of the pressing needs of the world. In later years, refugee families from Cuba, from Vietnam, and from Argentina were resettled, the Argentineans in cooperation with the Cathedral of St. Francis de Sales.

For thirty years, the church has had very close relations with the Cathedral of St. Francis de Sales, holding regular joint celebrations, working together on community projects, such as the operation of the Neighborhood Center, and participating for ten years in a joint Baptist-Catholic Sunday School. For a number of months after the Loma Prieta Earthquake, our church served as the cathedral for the Diocese of Oakland.

2. The Oakland Landmark

The present building is a particularly noteworthy and locally rare example of the Romanesque Revival architecture style and is one of only two remaining such sandstone buildings in the City of Oakland, a third having been lost as the result of the Loma Prieta Earthquake. "The building is notable for its impressive character of permanence and stability, expressed in its simple but handsome stonework and its massing of geometric forms punctured by deep-cut window and door openings. The grey sandstone exterior is Oakland's most conspicuous unaltered example of this surface material. The distinctive design and monumental quality of the building and its location on Telegraph Avenue, a major thoroughfare, makes the structure an especially conspicuous and familiar element in Oakland. It appears eligible for individual listing on the National Register of Historic Places."(1)

3. The Julia Morgan Auditorium

The beautiful interior is one of the very first works of the famous architect, Julia Morgan, who grew up in the First Baptist Church. Renowned for its marvelous acoustics, it contains one of the finest pipe organs in the United States.

The Morgan family home lay one block from the previous location of the First Baptist Church at 14th and Brush. Although born Episcopalian, Julia Morgan became a regular pupil and later teacher in the First Baptist Church Sunday School. Following graduation from the engineering school of the University of California, she learned architecture in Paris at the École des Beaux Arts. Upon her return to the Bay Area, she started her personal practice in San Francisco just before the 14th and Brush church burned to the ground. As she was well known to the trustees of the Church, she was hired in January, 1906 to design the auditorium of the church. The auditorium had been put off until adequate money could be raised to build a beautiful and fitting auditorium. Miss Morgan had already designed the bell tower and the library at Mills College, a local school for girls. Her plans for the auditorium had been approved by the trustees of the church and were to be presented to the membership for approval on April 18, 1906, a meeting that never occurred because of the occurrence of the great earthquake on that day. Following the earthquake, the trustees again showed their faith in Miss Morgan by hiring her to direct the reconstruction of the heavily damaged new church. As was characteristic of her practice, she was fully involved in all aspects of the work, climbing all over the structure to make sure that tradesmen did their work correctly. She even saw to it that the baptistry was properly painted and with the right color.

During the two decades following the earthquake, the beautiful stained glass windows were installed as memorials. Those in the towers and the periphery design of the main windows were done by the California Art Glass Company of San Francisco, under the direction of William Schroeder, who was trained in Hamburg, Germany.

Shortly before the church at 14th and Brush burned to the ground, the Murray Harris organ company of Los Angeles had installed a magnificent pipe organ. The trustees called upon that company to build the new organ in the new church. Mr. Andrew Carnegie contributed $2,500 toward the organ. The Murray Harris company had built a number of notable organs, including the Wanamaker organ of Philadelphia, which is the largest operating pipe organ in the world. He had built the organ in the Memorial Church at Stanford University. The resulting organ at the First Baptist Church is recognized as one of the finest in the United States. It has been most recently maintained and upgraded by Mr. Charles McManus of the McManus organ company of Kansas. Mr. McManus was a relative of active members of the Church at the time and installed a new state trumpet stop in memory of his deceased wife.

4. The Church's Role in the Neighborhood

The church has been active in work in the City throughout its 144 year history. For the last fifteen years, the church has provided refuge for young intercity youths of the City through its Samaritan Neighborhood Center. Initially providing access to the church gym, the Center expanded to providing tutoring, recreation trips, and, most recently, computer classes. The program provides recreational opportunities for these children of great need, provides help in learning, and groups to discuss common problems. Hundreds have been sent to Summer camp, and two have even become counselors at Summer camp. Young people are rewarded for staying in school and trying. This program has been recognized by the FBI as one of a very few that really work. In 1996, this program was adopted by the Samaritan's Purse and renamed "The Samaritan Neighborhood Center". As a result of this, substantial financial assistance has come from local foundations, the Soda Foundation as well as from the Samaritan's Purse. There are now upwards of 130 young people who think of First Baptist as their home away from home.

In addition, for over 30 years, the church has operated the oldest continually-running senior center in the city. It also provides major support to Project Safety Net, which distributes groceries to needy families in the area. We have housed other social agencies such as Habitat for Humanity and the Lao Family Center, which provides training for immigrants in English and other skills to successfully function in the United States.

Our location and building are ideal as a focus for community development and enrichment in an area badly needing such social services.

5. The Innovative Retrofit Design

In preparing to meet the requirements of the City, the Church approached Professor Gary Black of the University of California joint program in architecture and mechanical engineering. He was asked to help us find innovative ways to strengthen the building while being extremely sensitive to the architecture of the building and its interior acoustics and to do this at a minimum cost. To keep the cost down, the West wing was not included; it will be brought up only to the City's mandatory standards. We started with two graduate students, David Schnee, a licensed architect in the State of New York, and David Galbraith, an engineer. The first task was to carefully measure all parts of the Church and make drawings of the building, as the original drawings have never been found. A retrofit plan was developed and costed. In the second phase, Prof. Black was directly involved, and the plan was further developed. A third and final stage has now been completed. All aspects of the evolving design have matured, been checked with the well accepted computer program SAP (Structural Analysis Program) and have been reviewed by the City seismic engineers.

There are a number of ways to reinforce massive masonry walls, but most of these are incompatible with a historic building. External steel structures can do the job, but are ugly and expensive. An example of such a retrofit is visible from the church in the former Breuners building. Methods involving drilling vertical cores at intervals along the walls, filling them with reinforcing steel and epoxy under pressure have been successfully used in a number of buildings. However, in the case of the First Baptist Church, much of the top of the surface of the walls is not accessible without removing large portions of the slate roof. Moreover, the strength of the present foundation is not known and would require extensive and expensive testing. As part of her restoration of the building following the 1906 earthquake, Julia Morgan had installed numerous steel rods connecting arms of the massive steel trusses supporting the roof. The brick in the present walls is quite strong with regard to compressive loads. The weakness of a brick structure is its poor ability to resist tensile forces. We propose to extend the methods of Miss Morgan by placing steel saddles at the top of each end of every shear wall section. These would be connected to anchors at the ground by 1.25 inch diameter steel rods. The anchors would be steel helices, manufactured by the Chance Corporation, driven into the ground until the specified resistive torque is reached. This method provides for a secure and permanent anchor that does not involve the present foundation. The rods would be under tension, thereby providing the missing strength component of masonry walls. As is the case for the rods installed by Julia Morgan, the new rods would be visible but integrated so as not to detract from the overall design. We expect that a similar approach can be used in many buildings to provide the necessary strengthening at a fraction of the cost of other, more intrusive methods.

It is important for the various heavy sections of the building and towers to move as a unit during earth disturbances and not independently with differing frequencies as is the case now. (The relative motion of the towers and the octagonal auditorium structure was the cause of most of the damage suffered during the 1989 earthquake.) It is proposed to tie all portions of the building together with a series of reinforced concrete beams that are inexpensive to build. The set of such beams at the level of the roof will not be visible from either inside or outside. The other set will be around the periphery of the balcony, roughly at the midpoint of the walls. This set will not be visible from the outside, nor from the main floor and will not be intrusive from the balcony level because of the small cross section and their placement.


It is particularly the case in seismically active areas that historic masonry buildings have dismal futures. For many such buildings, the cost of adequately strengthening them against expected seismic events using conventional methods is infeasible. We have here new methods that show great promise in saving such buildings at an affordable cost. Executing this very innovative retrofit design will demonstrate an important advance in preserving historic buildings threatened by seismic events.

The interior, designed by Julia Morgan, with its extensive use of finely-crafted wood beams and Tudor-arched paneling, its enormous span of beautifully crafted-stained glass windows, and its renowned pipe organ must be preserved.

The anticipated cost of the retrofit or the auditorium portion of the church is $550,000 plus a 20% contingency. The work can be completed in one year once the funding is assured.

Return to the First Baptist Church's homepage


The picture of Julia Morgan was provided by Sara Holmes Boutelle from the special collection of the California Polytechnic State University Robert E. Kennedy library, and that of the interior of the auditorium comes from her book, Julia Morgan, Architect.


1. Historic Resources Inventory, Oakland Cultural Heritage Survey (1982)