All Saints’ Episcopal Church
All saints’ episcopal Church has had to reinvent itself both spiritually and socially several times since its inception in 1903. The theme of its evolution has been “its ever-growing embrace of diversity” and community—it was the first racially integrated parish in the Diocese and since the early 1970s was one of the first in the City to welcome openly gay and lesbian congregants.
Illustration by VASF member Kit Haskell
Over the past one hundred years the congregation and its activities have absorbed the dramatic cultural changes around them and have reflected the shifting demographics of the Haight and Cole Valley districts that were served by the church’s religious services as well as by its humanitarian outreach and facilities (7).
In fact, it was first established in 1903-04 as “All Saints’ Mission” by the Reverend Cecil Mortimer Marrack, and as the fourth Mission sponsored by St. Luke’s Parish on Van Ness and Clay Street. A building was erected on Masonic Avenue near Haight, at a total land and building cost of $9,000. Ninety-five communicants enrolled, with Mr. William Hayes immediately appointed to guide this fledging congregation as its head rector in March 1905. The lot on Masonic was then sold, and the building itself was moved to its present site at 1350 Waller Street in October of 1905.
The huge area encompassing the southwestern section of the Western Addition west of Divisadero Street, and stretching across the Panhandle all the way over Ashbury Heights to Sloat Boulevard, known as either the “Outside Lands” or the “Great Sand Bank,” began to develop quickly after Golden Gate Park was designed and opened. Within this expanse, the more fertile Pope Valley tract that was fed by natural springs later became the central portion of the Haight-Ashbury and part of the present Cole Valley districts. The establishment of a public transportation system transformed recreational pastimes and offered increased accessibility for new housing opportunities. This led to a building boom of Eastlake and Queen Anne style Victorians throughout the area, culminating in the 1890s. The All Saints’ Church was at the heart of this once bucolic and now burgeoning residential and commercial district (62–64).
During the heyday of the “hippie” era, under the “enthusiastic direction of Rector Leon Harris,” the church opened its doors to the “flower children,” allowing an “anarchic counter-culture collective” known as the Diggers (a communal family in which Bay Area-based actor Peter Coyote was then a dedicated member) to use the basement and kitchen as its headquarters for the distribution of free food and clothing and as a base for its political activism.
The parish tried offering various other types of social services such as a homeless shelter for men, a senior center, and a free nursery and also served as a spiritual haven for those suffering from the worst of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. As it had during the deprivations of WorldWar II and the post-war period. All Saints’ Episcopal Church suffered something of a decline after the “Summer of Love”—almost contemplating dissolution and closure at one point due to diminishing congregational membership and dwindling economic support (7–8)—but it has remained resilient, weathering tough times and resurgences alike, responding to and meeting the evolving needs of this bustling and vital neighborhood.
Instrumental in both the founding of the initial congregational group and the designing of the church’s building was Mr. Robert E. White. He was both a treasurer for the Mission and is listed on its legal documents as the architect of its first California Shingle Style edifice (450). According to a contemporary observer, “without the help of Mr. Robert E. White, the... building could never have been erected.... [He] concentrated his talents as an architect to the cause, lovingly supervised every detail of construction—often at the greatest personal inconvenience, but with never the slightest murmur of impatience.” He and his wife also donated funds for all of the fine woodwork in the chancel.
The original structure was long and narrow but composed only of the central portion of what is now the present building. In adapting the 1904 version to the new and broader site, it was widened on both sides by the addition of the two set back towers and with an equivalent expansion in width for the whole sanctuary. The inside has an elaborately trussed and beamed ceiling with a high, pointed elevation. These ceilings and the three-aisled arrangement of the pews are said to be the original configuration of that central segment of the building. The interior’s rich, deep-hued natural redwood finish is often found in small 19th century churches, especially in Episcopal sanctuaries such as those at St. Mary the Virgin on Union Street or at St. Stephens, Old Holy Virgin (now devoted to Russian Orthodox worship) on Fulton Street. The meeting rooms in the back were also added about the time that the building profile was expanded to fill the second, larger lot.
By the late 1940s, the deteriorating shingled exterior required major repair. In 1949, Father Harris pushed to install a modern product called Perma-Stone, an unattractive composite material that is made with artificially shaped and simulated flagstones. According to preservation-minded members of the congregation this would have been tantamount to an “aesthetic debacle.” Fortunately a less expensive alternative plan was espoused, which entailed removing the shingles, replacing window casings, adding some fencing, and facing the front with an innocuous (but leaky) layer of plain stucco. In a questionable but well-meaning move to attract more local attention, Harris also attached a large neon sign to the rectory (227–9), another ‘first’ among the city’s Christian institutions! During the 1960s faux Tudor timber trim was added to the stucco. For many years it was assumed that this was the church’s genuine earliest style and appearance, but this trim was later entirely stripped away from the façade in the last phase of the edifice’s architectural renovation.
In the years preceding 2003, with great effort and singular generosity, sufficient funds were raised to accomplish an extensive overhaul, designated to include appropriate handicapped access. Architect Lauren Mallas creatively brought forward a tall fronting wall, which meets the peaked roof-overhang of the entry porch, now accommodating a mechanical lift. New windows were designed evoking the Arts and Crafts-influenced style of the church’s early building. The outside was re-sheathed in light brown wood shingles “restoring the... spirit of [Robert E.] White’s original conception” (451). As a church structure, this building is rather modest and tiny in scale, but it fits admirably amongst the increasingly refurbished neighborhood flats and grand Victorian houses, still serving as an enduring beacon for its community.
Written and edited by Tamara Hill
1. Holben, Lawrence R., For All Saints, The First Hundred Years ofAll Saints’ Episcopal Church, San Francisco, Xlibris Corporation, www.xlibris.com, 2010, 14–15. Indicated quotes and page references are from this recent book on the church’s history.
— taken from the Victorian Alliance’s 2011 “Cole Valley House Tour” catalog