Real estate law makes it nearly impossible for a seller to change their mind once a sales contract is signed and the parties enter into escrow. New rules, even for existing tenants, need to be put forth in writing prior to sale, otherwise all bets are off. Mix that up with questionable conduct on behalf of the selling party and the result is the sad demise of the First Baptist Church overlooking Oakwood Park in Venice, which is now on its way to becoming a single-family compound.
The First Baptist Church is one of the oldest African American religious congregations in the United States, founded in Petersburg, Virginia, in 1774. The Coastal California congregation began as the Second Baptist Church of Santa Monica. The inaugural service was the third Sunday of July in 1910, with the Rev. R. S. Kelsey as pastor. In February 1911, the congregation purchased property in Venice at 5th and San Juan.
There was a barn on the property. It was cleaned and refurbished by the congregation and flourished into the spiritual home of the area’s growing black population. The church on San Juan was paid in full the next year and incorporation papers for the church were filed with the State of California. By 1923 the growing congregation needed a larger church and property was purchased at 688 Westminster Ave. Construction of the new building began in 1927.
Mrs. Abbott Kinney, wife of the founder of Venice, donated the lumber for framing, the Harvey Brothers donated foundation materials, rock and sand and all donations were hauled by the Tabor Brothers Trucking. The new church was dedicated on June 10, 1928, with the Rev. J. W. Jordan officiating. A parsonage was purchased in 1940, and in 1955 long-term pastor the Rev. E. L. Holmes was called to serve. The lots across the street from the 1928 church were purchased and in October 1966, construction of a larger church and educational building was begun at 685 Westminster. Dedication services were held in March, 1968. The 1928 building was given to a Los Angeles congregation, and the lot used for parking.
The First Baptist Church was a neighborhood focal point for the African American community. Sunday was an all-day event for with Sunday school, worship at 11:00 AM, lunch and dinner, then the evening services at 6:00 PM.
Flash forward to February 2017 when the church sold for $6.3 million to a private holding company. Then, the Venice Neighborhood Council backed the new owner’s plan to remodel the church and turn it into to a single-family home designed by Venice-based DU Architects.
The applicant for the project is identified in planning documents as Jay Penske, the media mogul and owner of Variety, Deadline, and a number of other entertainment-focused publications. Penske and his wife, former model Elaine Irwin, plan to live on the property.
These plans put the First Baptist Church attendees into a panic. “I don’t know why they want to take away something that’s on sacred ground. I don’t know why they want to destroy something that God has planted here,” observed Ronnie Brock, who grew up in the church. “You don’t destroy what God has put in place.”
But, obviously someone with the authority of church had to sell the building. Apparently, it was the church’s pastor, Horace Allen, who sold the church out from under his congregation. (Allen has since moved his assembly to Westchester, where he still serves as pastor for an organization of nearly the same name: First Baptist Church of Venice Worship Center.)
Not that the transaction can be unwound, but the congregation is asking if Rev. Allen had the authority to sell the First Baptist Church. A lawsuit filed in December 2015, days after Allen held a church meeting to approve selling both the structure and the land. It is alleged that that meeting was both unofficial and impromptu and did not allow the church membership to vote on the transaction.
Plaintiffs Herman Clay, a trustee and deacon, and Sharon Moore-Chappell, a staff minister, accuse Allen of obtaining loans using the equity of the church property, and then spending the proceeds for his own personal expenses. They claim that $3.5 million of the church’s money is still unaccounted for. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rafael A. Ongkeko noted gaps in the church’s financial records and that without having all of the receipts, he couldn’t be confident that Allen had not stolen money from the church.
Now, the goals of the congregation are to raise awareness about the church’s history and significance, and to nominate it as a Historic-Cultural monument, with the hope that it would delay—and maybe even halt—its demolition. But, as the nomination is about the congregation and its cultural significance, and not necessarily the building itself, the honor will more likely be a sign or a plaque.
“When we think about the loss of our legacy, we think about the loss of our history, we think of what it is we don’t see anymore,” Brock recalled. “And if you don’t see it anymore, you soon forget that it was even there.”