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Los Angeles in Buildings: the Angelus Temple

The phenomenon of the megachurch, though now associated with the geographical and cultural flatlands of suburban and exurban “middle America,” began in no less coastal and cosmopolitan a city than Los Angeles. Standing at the corner of Glendale Boulevard and Park Avenue in the currently fashionable neighborhood of Echo Park, right across the street from the recently rehabilitated Echo Park Lake, the Angelus Temple comes with not just greater architectural interest than its big-box descendants, but a compelling personality behind it as well. The newly built – and, for the time, extravagantly scaled – house of worship opened its doors on New Year’s Day 1923, owing to the tireless efforts of rural Ontario-born celebrity preacher Aimee Semple McPherson, not just a towering figure in the history of Pentecostal evangelism, but one of the most unlikely urbanists in the history of Los Angeles.

Some might regard the Los Angeles of the 1920s, and even more so the Los Angeles of the 1910s in which McPherson first arrived, as decidedly pre-cosmopolitan. Though booming, the city still had a great deal of growing and diversifying to do, and a considerable segment of its population then consisted of recent arrivals from elsewhere in the country – from that vast, staid “middle America” especially – and invalids in search of cures, climatic, spiritual, or otherwise, for whatever ailed them. McPherson knew what it meant to hope against hope for recovery: she’d lost her first husband, an Irish Pentecostal missionary, to disease on an evangelistic tour of China, and when their only daughter Roberta later fell ill in New Rochelle, McPherson claimed to have received a vision of the California dream, “a little home in Los Angeles,” as she prayed by her bedside.

Roberta returned to health, and the two, along with McPherson’s mother and business manager Minnie, soon moved into that envisioned little home in Los Angeles, or something close enough to it. Having picked up on the East Coast where her late husband left off to become increasingly well known as a traveling evangelist in her own right, Sister Aimee (as her followers knew her) found herself working under an expanded mandate from above on the West: not just to find a house for herself, but to “build a house unto the Lord” unlike any other in this city unlike any other. She delivered the first of the ecstatic sermons that made her famous in Los Angeles in rented spaces around the city, soon filling even the Temple Auditorium (later known as the Philharmonic Auditorium) across from Pershing Square, but in time she became enough of a phenomenon to need a permanent space of her own.

Read the whole thing at KCET, and see the previous installments of Los Angeles in Buildings here.