by Frank Dunnigan
Numerous San Francisco houses of worship have been lost to fire throughout the 20th century. In addition, declining membership numbers have also brought about many closures and conversions to new uses. Repurposed buildings are now being reconfigured in a wide variety of ways, though there have also been some complete tear-downs and replacement structures built over the years.
In addition to those listed below, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese closed many churches in the early 1990s, including Sacred Heart Church at Fell & Fillmore (now a roller skating rink within the old building), St. Brigid’s at Van Ness & Broadway (now a branch of Academy of Art College), St. Joseph’s at 10th & Howard Streets (now a private, non-profit, arts-society club) St. Edward’s on California Street near Laurel Village (demolished and replaced with condominiums before the turn of the millennium), Holy Cross at Eddy between Scott & Divisadero (partial condo conversion and partial repurposing as Macang Buddhist Monastery). Read more about this particular site in a 2017 article by Woody LaBounty.
The following are few of the notable houses of worship across the City that have either disappeared or been transformed into new uses.
BETH-ISRAEL SYNAGOGUE and PIKE MEMORIAL MASONIC TEMPLE
These two structures, long-time neighbors on Geary in the Western Addition, are completely separate and distinct, but share an evolving history of varying uses through most of the 20th century. Beth-Israel Synagogue (left-side of this image, with an address of 1839 Geary) was the third local home to an early Jewish congregation, and construction was nearly complete in April of 1906. Badly damaged by the earthquake, it was soon repaired and had a large membership for well over 50 years. The Albert Pike Memorial Temple (right, located at 1859 Geary) was built by a Masonic lodge in 1905 and also suffered extensive damage in 1906. It was also rebuilt and had a solid membership until the 1960s.
Beth-Israel merged with Temple Judea on Brotherhood Way and relocated to that facility in 1969. The old synagogue remained vacant but in 1986, it was converted into a spectacular art gallery known as Duquette Pavilion of St. Francis. Sadly, it was destroyed in an accidental electrical fire early in 1989.
The Pike Memorial Masonic Temple was vacant during much of the 1960s, and by the 1970s, it was leased to Jim Jones and the People’s Temple which used the site for several years before the tragedy in Jonestown, Guyana in November 1978. The site remained largely disused after that, and in October of 1989 it was irreparably damaged by the Loma Prieta earthquake and was soon torn down.
These two sites are currently home to a branch of the US Postal Service.
SECOND CHURCH OF CHRIST, SCIENTIST
The Second Church of Christ Scientist facing Dolores Park was built in 1915. Its once-large congregation worshipped under a massive dome, but over time, the congregation dwindled and the structure suffered from significant deferred maintenance. The membership relocated, and the building was condemned in 2006 and appeared to be headed for the wrecking ball until an investor purchased it and completed a thorough rehab, converting it into four multi-story townhomes averaging 5,000 square feet each. Read more about it in this article.
THIRD CHURCH OF CHRIST, SCIENTIST
The church, built in 1915 at 1250 Haight Street, opposite Buena Vista Park, was home to one of several Christian Science congregations in San Francisco in the early 20th century. After the membership dispersed through attrition, the building was acquired by a non-profit group and its historic façade was preserved, with 40 affordable housing rental units for seniors, built within the building’s shell, and opening in 2010.
FOURTH CHURCH OF CHRIST, SCIENTIST
Located at 300 Funston Avenue, corner of Clement Street, and built in 1923, the Classical Revival style building was designed by noted San Francisco architect Carl Werner. Due to the dwindling size of its congregation and the increased cost of maintaining such a large building, it was sold in 2009 to the Internet Archive.
METROPOLITAN COMMUNITY CHURCH
Metropolitan Community Church (built as Stewart Memorial Presbyterian Church at 1074 Guerrero in 1902), is shown here after an arson fire on July 27, 1973. The church was home to a largely gay congregation at the time and this was the fourth arson fire nationwide to strike Metropolitan Community Churches. The location sat vacant until housing was built in the 2000s.
SIMPSON MEMORIAL METHODIST EPISCOPAL CHURCH
Located at Hayes & Buchanan and built in 1885, it survived the 1906 disaster, but was abandoned by its congregation prior to the 1940s. The large church building was then used as the Hayes Valley Recreation Center until the 1960s when it was demolished for a corner playground. The property now features a small, recently-added low-rise building for indoor recreation at the rear of the property.
ST. ANTHONY OF PADUA CHURCH
Built in 1894 in a predominantly German section of the Mission District, St. Anthony’s was lost to fire on June 30, 1975. A new, smaller church of a contemporary design replaced it a few years later, with the original masonry archway preserved at the entrance to the new building’s plaza area. See the church’s website for old and new photos of interior and exterior, plus news reports of the fire.
ST. CHARLES CHURCH
Built in 1888 as the first St. Charles Church on 18th Street in the Mission, the wooden building also housed a parish school beginning in 1895. When a new, larger St. Charles Church was built on Howard Street (now South Van Ness Avenue) in 1916, the parish school expanded into the entire building and continued in operation until it closed due to low enrollment in 2017. Today, the building continues its educational mission as home to San Francisco Islamic School and LaScuola International School. In 1981, the building was designated San Francisco Landmark #139.
Built in 1891 as a larger replacement for the original St. Mary’s on California Street and Grant Avenue, the red-brick cathedral served the community for 71 years until an arson fire destroyed the structure in September of 1962. A new structure of a modern design and with increased seating for 2,400 persons was built nearby at the corner of Geary and Gough, and was dedicated in May of 1971. This site at 1001 Van Ness was home to a new office building housing KRON-TV for several decades, but that structure was vacated and subsequently demolished in 2019 to make room for a new 14-story assisted-living facility that is under construction in 2021.
ST. PAULUS EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN CHURCH
Founded in 1867, the ornate structure at Gough & Eddy was the Church’s 3rd location for 101 years, from 1894-1995. It survived the 1906 earthquake and avoided being dynamited to limit the spread of fire when a nearby fire hydrant was found to be working, thus sparing the church. It survived a serious steeple fire in 1940 and was repaired. Disaster struck again in November of 1995 when the iconic structure succumbed to fire in a massive five-alarm blaze. The church temporarily shifted its operations to a nearby site that was formerly home to its school, and it later moved to a variety of other temporary quarters. A permanent new home was secured when a developer began construction on a multi-unit residential structure at the long-vacant 999 Eddy Street site, with a smaller-sized church space contained within the new building. Dedication of the new housing/church facility is expected in 2021.
The towering onion domes of San Francisco’s oldest Jewish house of worship made Temple Emanu-El a clear landmark on the City’s horizon from the time of construction in the mid-1860s. Seriously damaged in 1906, the synagogue was repaired (though minus its distinctive “lantern” towers and onion domes) by 1907 and continued to serve the congregation for another 18 years until the present temple at Arguello Boulevard and Lake Street was dedicated in 1925. The 450 Sutter Medico-Dental building opened at this location in 1929.
TRINITY METHODIST CHURCH
Replacing an older wooden structure in the era between the two World Wars, the tan brick Trinity Methodist Church at the intersection of 16th, Noe, and Market Streets once had a large following in Eureka Valley, when it was mostly a Scandinavian neighborhood. By the late 1970s with a dwindling congregation, the church opened its basement-level auditorium for use by the Eureka Theater. Sadly, the building was lost to an arson fire in 1981, and the site remained a vacant lot and later a community garden. After 32 years, a non-descript condo building was erected at this location in 2013.
VOICE OF PENTECOST CHURCH
The building at 1970 Ocean Avenue housed the El Rey Theater, which opened in 1931. After shutting down in 1977 the structure was then home to Voice of Pentecost Church for the next 30+ years. Financial difficulties within the church organization brought about a foreclosure sale in 2015. The building became San Francisco Landmark #274 in 2017 in an effort to preserve it. By the summer of 2019, plans called for a restoration of the theater and the commercial spaces, plus the addition of 42 condominiums, with underground parking at the site, though those plans have since been withdrawn.