The Old Cathedral of the Holy Virgin
(Formerly St. Stephan’s Episcopal Church)
Illustrations by Kit Haskell
The pad Cathedral of the Holy Virgin is an active, though currently small, Russian Orthodox community. The building, erected in 1875 for a then burgeoning Western Addition, was known as St. Stephan’s Episcopal Church.
Designed by architects Wright and Sanders, the Episcopal community, headed by Reverend Lion, purchased the site at 864 Fulton and, the next year, erected the towered structure attached to the rear of the present church as their temporary chapel. Families of the original congregation, such as the Chalmers, Woosters, Menzies, Quakenbushes, and the Jonathan Hinkels (of the well known contractor-builder family) donated the individual stained glass panels on either side of the nave.
In 1930, a large Russian Orthodox community, which fled Russia via China during the 1917–1919 Bolshevik Revolution and later settled in the northwestern area of the Western Addition, purchased St. Stephan’s. There was a time in 1950s when services at the little cathedral were so packed that it was hard to move. But since 1961, when the congregation built the new, multi-domed Holy Virgin Cathedral at 6210 Geary, the number of parishioners attending the Fulton Street church, now headed by the Very Reverend Archimandrite Anastassy, has plummeted to fewer than twenty families.
Designated City Landmark No. 28 by the Board of Supervisors in 1969, its formal title is the Old Cathedral of the Holy Virgin, Joy of All Who Sorrow, Russian Orthodox Church Abroad.
The signal Gothic features of 864 Fulton’s vertically arranged exterior include steeply pitched rooflines, sharply peaked window forms, and tall, narrow stained glass panels. Current symbols of its Eastern Orthodox community are the gilded crosses surmounting the front facing gable and the portico’s icon which replaced the old St. Stephan’s marker. The church’s plaster façade, applied in the 1930s, covers original wood cladding and vertical panels in the Stick style.
Aside from the removal of its pews, the handsome redwood interior is largely intact. Reflecting Russian Orthodox tastes, it is far more ornate than that of its Episcopal predecessor. In front of the altar is an elaborate screen, or iconostasis, crafted to complement the church’s Gothic character. Above icon-filled lower walls, tall stained glass double windows in rows of six colorfully illuminate the nave. The floor is oak while the arched beams overhead are redwood. In his monograph of the architect, John Wright (1830–1915): Grandfather if West Coast Architecture, Norman J. Ronneberg wrote, “The vaulted redwood ceiling of St. Stephan’s is evocative of a sailing ship’s wooden hull, with exposed ribs and trusses swelling to the roof line.” Founding members of the Russian church brought the large chandelier hanging near the altar with them when they emigrated from the Chinese city of Harbin in the 1920s.
Architect John Wright was born in Scotland. He immigrated to Canada in his teens, studied, and first practiced before forming a partnership with George Sanders. In the 1860s, the firm relocated to the Bay Area and designed over 100 buildings, the bulk of which were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire. Among the survivors, in addition to 864 Fulton, are the San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo, the State Mental Hospital at Napa, the Berkeley School for the Deaf, and St.James Episcopal Church in Oakland.
Adapted by JasonAllen-Roumanfrom “The Storied Houses of Alamo Square” by Joseph B. Pecora with updates from V. Abbot Rev. James Corazza
— taken from the Victorian Alliance‘s “The Storied Houses of Alamo Square 2015 House Tour” catalog