Thursday, July 7, 2011

First Unitarian Church of Oakland

Located at the corner of 14th Street and Castro, just outside of downtown Oakland. California Historical Site plaque number 896 is located on the front of the building.

While not the oldest or longest-serving church in Oakland, the First Unitarian Church is an important site in downtown Oakland and has served as a cultural and religious landmark for over one hundred years. Designed in 1889 by Walter J. Matthews, and constructed between 1890 and '91, the church incorporates several design features that, at the time of its construction, marked it as radically different from other churches found across the Bay Area. The Romanesque architecture, seen in the arched portals and windows in the church, as well as the masonry walls, were dramatically different from the Gothic wood frame construction that had dominated California churches up to this point. The church also incorporated stained glass windows designed by Goodhue in Boston and had, at the time of construction, the widest arching spans above the nave west of the Mississippi. Aside from the stained glass, all of the materials used in the construction of the church are from California, including the marble pillars at the front of the sanctuary. Measuring 12 feet high and two and a half feet in diameter, they are thought to be the largest single pieces of marble ever quarried in California. The general contractor for the building, Peter Remillard, was an Oakland resident and supplied every brick used in the building's construction. His name can still be seen stamped on some of the bricks. As the owner of the only brick manufacturing plant in Alameda County, and others in San Francisco and Marin County, it was said that he had built San Francisco twice, once before the 1906 earthquake and once again after.

The history of the congregation dates to 1869 when Rev. Laurentine Hamilton, a Presbyterian minister, was convicted of heresy for his liberal religious views. He led his re-formed congregation as the Hamilton Free Church until his death in 1882. As a side note, this is the same guy that Mt. Hamilton outside of San Jose is named after. In 1886 the church was reorganized yet again and was recognized as the First Unitarian Church. Shortly after this, the church had the distinction of accepting Eliza Tupper Wilkes, the first woman to serve a church in the East Bay, to join in the ministry of the congregation.

The church is worth a visit in person to look at the stained glass and the stonework. Since it is still an active church that serves the local community the building is open and you can go inside and look around, but please try to respect when services are being offered.

Getting There By Bike...

The First Unitarian Church of Oakland is located on the quiet side of downtown Oakland. The two cross streets, 14th and Castro, are both fairly low traffic, but note that Castro involves some off- and on-ramps for the highway. When I rode by there was also some broken glass in the streets, so ride carefully. If you want to park your bike and take a look around I recommend a strong lock. It's not a bad neighborhood, but why take risks? If you're in the mood to explore, Preservation Park is just around the corner, as are the Pardee House and a handful of other privately owned historic homes.

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