England Comes To Pasadena
Visited: October 2017
It’s not often I mistake Southern California for the English countryside, but a few days ago while driving in the Pasadena, South Pasadena, Highland Park Triangle, for a brief moment I felt like I’d been transported to England. The beautiful Church of the Angels stands on a small hill on Avenue 64, and it is truly reminiscent of the gorgeous little churches you see dotting the back roads of Great Britain.
There’s a reason the church, set on three acres, reminded me of England since its looks are quite similar to Holmbury St Mary’s Church, near Dorking, Surrey, England (below). Church of the Angels is said to be the oldest church in Pasadena.
Francis E. Campbell-Johnston had the church constructed in memory of her husband, Alexander Robert Campbell-Johnston, who was a wealthy English landowner and diplomat. Alexander had bought 3,000 acres of land in this area in 1882. He died five years later. After his death, she hired architect Arthur Edmund Street, who was also British, and the son of the famous Victorian architect, George Street. According to the USC Digital Library (and Bill Smith), “He (Street) drew up plans and sent them to Ernest A. Coxhead, another British architect who was building quite a reputation in Central California. Exercising considerable artistic expression with Street’s plans, Coxhead created a masterpiece that remains nearly unchanged save for slight earthquake damage to the clock tower.” Coxhead designed more than a dozen churches throughout the Los Angeles area.
I learned on the website that the church is “is faced with sandstone that was hauled from quarries in the San Fernando Valley. The San Rafael Ranch, of which Garvanza was a part, supplied the red stone that was incorporated into the structure.”
I’ve lived around here for about 80% of my life, and I had never heard of the “San Rafael Ranch” or “Garvanza.” An inquiring mind needed to know, so I did a little digging (historic photos courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library, USC Digital Archives and Church of the Angels).
It seems, according to a story on a KCET website, that Garvanza was “the first town founded in Northeast Los Angeles” and was originally named Garbanzo, since it was “originally a part of the 36,000 acre Rancho San Rafael, known for its garbanzo bean fields.”
The church was constructed in order to serve the village of Garvanza and the surrounding area. According to a church handout, “it is an “architecturally unique structure and a physical link between the Arts and Crafts movement in the British Isles as well as an example of the earliest stirrings of the American Arts and Crafts movement.” After the cornerstone was laid on the day before Easter in 1889, Church of the Angels was consecrated on St. Michael’s and All Angels Day a little more than five months later. The original name was Mission of the Church of Angels, but the Episcopalian church’s name was later shortened to Church of the Angels.
Getting out of my car, I realized I wasn’t in England because it wasn’t raining, cars were driving on the correct side of the road and the temperature was hovering around 95 degrees. I attempted to stay in my British mindset by envisioning a large plate of fish and chips.
The first aspect of the building that immediately stands out is the 44-foot-high stone tower, which I was read was “characteristic of the 11th century and houses an eight-day Seth Thomas clock that denotes the hours by striking a bell suspended in the belfry.“ I assumed clocks like these inspired the Beatles to write Eight Days A Week, but I’ve been known to be wrong. The clock set Francis back $719.
The tower was damaged and lowered a tad after an earthquake in the early 1970s.
Back out in front, not surprisingly, there is a carved figure of an angel. The angel is carrying a cross across her back, which is part of a garden shaped like a sundial. It was so hot by now I felt like offering her a fan.
Before entering, I walked around he church. From the outside, I noticed the large memorial window that I was looking forward to seeing upon entering.
Located at the front of the Church of the Angels is a dinner bell that once summoned people for supper at the San Rafael Ranch. It literally weighs a ton.
I checked out the stained glass windows and a vaulted ceiling in the porch in front, a similar design to the redwood ceiling inside the church, which was too dark to photograph (at least for me).
I tried to enter the church through this beautiful door, which turned out not to be the entrance.
When I did enter, the first thing I saw was a baptistry font made of Mexican alabaster. It’s “carved from Italian marble, of a child angel kneeling at the base and holding a cross. The font was a gift from the workmen who built the church.” Nearby is a porcelain and mosaic memorial plaque. It is believed this was made in a workshop in England.
Looking down the nave, I could see that gorgeous, large memorial window. The interior walls are constructed of red pressed brick. I was surprised because the church looks much smaller inside than it does from the outside.
As I walked toward the window, I saw an old buddy of mine, St. Michael the Archangel, who I met briefly a few times in 2010 (see story here). The carved figure of Michael was carved by renowned English sculptor, W.R. Ingram, in Belgium. It’s carved from one solid piece of a 400-year-old Bog oak tree, which obviously didn’t bog him down.
On the left is the pulpit made from English oak and has a Portland stone base. I wondered if that stone came from Portland, Oregon, or Portland, Maine, and it turned out to be from the Isle of Portland in the English Channel. It was installed on the 40th anniversary of the Church of the Angels.
Oh, and that window! Called “one of the finest examples of stained glass in America,” the Victorian memorial window takes up the entire area behind the altar, and on this sunny day it provided quite a dramatic backdrop.
The pipe organ has an interesting aspect to it. This is a Frank Roosevelt (no, not Franklin) Organ … Opus #433 … which was built in 1889 at the Roosevelt Organ Works in New York City. Since it was built in New York and shipped to Pasadena, this might be one of the first examples of an organ transplant.
From the church website, “American pipe organs in the 19th century were strongly influenced by the work of two brothers, Frank and Hilborne Roosevelt (Hilborne shown below). As a boy, Hilborne became interested both in organs and in the relatively new science of electricity. These interests and his ambition to become an organ builder were frowned upon by his family. He was the first cousin of the future president, Theodore Roosevelt.
“Despite family objections, Hilborne constructed an organ for the New York Industrial Fair in 1869. When the organ won a gold medal, he overcame family opposition and was soon on his way to Europe to study at the organ shops of the master organ builders there.
“When he returned to America he opened the Roosevelt Organ Works completing his Opus 1 for the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in New York City in 1873. He built a large organ for the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. This organ is believed to have been the first American organ to include electric action. Although Hilborne died in 1886 at the age of 36, his brother Frank oversaw the construction of another 178 organs. All told, the Roosevelt firm built 536 organs in the roughly 20 years they were in business, 1875-1895.” (photo below from internet) The choir stalls incorporate wood from two 100-year-old trees that once stood at the Mission San Gabriel, which just happened to be the first mission on my quest to visit all 21 (seven to go).
Obviously a church this beautiful is a great place for weddings and even as a movie and a television shooting location. Many a TV show and movie has shot scenes here, like this funeral scene from Heathers.
The south transept windows were very red, which I learned were “graduated red hues to suggest either sunrise or sunset,” while the other window was feeling a little blue about all the attention I gave to the red ones.
As I walked away, I took one last glance at this beautiful, old church. If you’re ever in this neck of the woods, take a little detour and spend a half hour or so admiring the beautiful Church of the Angels, which celebrates its 128th birthday in 2017. I think it will be a worthwhile diversion for you. As for me, it was yet another example of one of those unexpected treasures lurking right here in my own backyard.