La Verne Church of the Brethren: A Guide to Its Art and Architecture.
The information below comes from La Verne Church of the Brethren: A Guide to Its Art and Architecture, written by Barbara Smythe with photography by Elaine Zukle.
In the Beginning
“A pile of rocks ceases to be a rock pile when somebody
contemplates it with the idea of a cathedral in mind.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Flight to Arras, 1942
Roberth H. Orr, a Los Angeles architect of many years’ experience with church architecture, entered into a contract with the La Verne Church of the Brethren (LVCOB) Church Council on April 18, 1928 to design a new house of worship for the growing Brethren congregation in La Verne. Later, Orr would also design the administrative building completed in 1952 and the Fellowship Hall completed in 1957. Previous to his association with LVCOB, Orr had designed Pomona’s Pilgrim Congregational Church (1911) in Gothic revival style and the Wilshire Boulevard Christian Church (1922-23) in the Northern Italian Renaissance revival style.
Style of Architecture
Architectural historians Gebhard and Winter described the La Verne church as “flamboyant Gothic with suggestion of the Moderne.” The Chairman of the Building Council at the time called it “Romanesque.”
An Unexpected Challenge
Work began on the foundation of the new Church of the Brethren on October 1, 1929, after the Valencia crop was picked. The church was fortunate in having the Hanawalt families in the church. They were involved in the cement business and construction. Harvey M. Hanawalt was contracted to start the construction even though financing was not complete.
Many members depended on income from their citrus groves, or were otherwise involved in the industry. They did not believe the crash of the stock market that month would seriously threaten the orange industry. Unfortunately, the price of oranges began to drop, from $3.40 to a low of $.50 per box. By the end of the year, it was difficult to get any commitments for the budget.
After weighing all the possibilities, the congregation voted to change the articles of incorporation, and allow the trustees to borrow $41,000. It was an agonizing decision to assume that debt, and it was hard to pay off. Church organizations and groups undertook projects to raise funds. The women’s groups served countless dinners with the donated proceeds going toward the building expenses. Miriam Hanawalt was one of the many who sold tiny bags of cement, about the size of a tea bag, for $1.00. This money also went towards the new church building. It would be thirteen years and many forms of fundraising before the debt would be paid off. A celebration was held on the first Sunday of December 1943, when the bonds of indebtedness were ceremoniously burned.
The Use of Symbols in the Church’s Architecture
There are four principal symbols found throughout the fabric of the church:
- Reversed S (yin-yang symbol)
- Leaves and Vines (both Grape and Acanthus)
What is generally known about these four principal decorations and symbols:
By far the most prevalent symbol in the church, found on the walls, furniture, windows, woodwork, and fixtures, is the quatrefoil composed of four half circles forming what looks like a representation of a flower with four petals or a leaf with four leaflets. The quatrefoil is traditionally used as a symbol of the four Evangelists—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
In the center of many of these quatrefoils is, what appears to be, the Greek cross with arms of equal length. The cross has been used by Christians since its beginning as a reminder of the torturous way Christ was put to death. A cross with arms of equal length is also used to represent the union of divinity (the vertical line), and the world (the horizontal line). Just what these symbols meant to the builders and decorators of the church, if anything special, is not clear.
Circles remind us of wholeness and unity, inclusion and infinity. The unending circle reflects the nature of eternity. Christian hope is predicated on being resurrected into heaven to live forever. The figure of a circle reminds us to reach out to others that we may all be eternally united in Christ.
Reversed S (Yin-Yang Symbol)
The most perplexing imagery on the tower is found in five squares near the top. Each square contains a circle; inside each circle is a large reversed S which to the ecumenical eye bears a strong resemblance to the yin-yang symbol in Chinese philosophy. In Chinese culture, this symbol represents the dichotomy of opposites—complementary rather than opposing, existing in a circle of unity and inclusion. All forces in nature can be seen as having yin and yang states, such as male and female, light and dark, fire and water. The two forces are in constant movement rather than held in absolute stasis. The yin-yang symbol represents a unity of opposites, a concept embraced by the La Verne Church of the Brethren. The symbol is found bordering the top of the tower and also the exterior roof-line of Fellowship Hall.
Vine and Leaf Pattern (both Grape and Acanthus)
On the tower’s east face one finds a curving and spiraling vine and leaf pattern which is repeated in stucco and in iron throughout the church building. Some of these leaves are clearly grape leaves which sometimes are found with grape clusters.
Grapes symbolize wine, an important product of Judea and Palestine. In the books of the prophets, the grape vine served as a symbol of Israel. It was also a symbol of blessing and fertility: “Israel will grow as the vine” (Hosea 14:8); “Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine” (Psalm 128:3). Christ described himself as the true vine and his father as the vinedresser (John 15:1-2).
Other leaves found on the tower and throughout the sanctuary look more like acanthus leaves, a common plant of the Mediterranean. Its stylized leaves form the characteristic decoration on Corinthian and Composite capitals. Some say the acanthus, one of the oldest flowers in the Mediterranean area, represents long life.