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Noteworthy churches in Sacramento’s central city

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Sacramento is home to a wealth of stunning structures. Some of the most impressive architecture can be found in the city’s houses of worship. With the help of local architects, The Sacramento Press identified some of the most significant examples in the central city.

Saxon Sigerson, principal at Sigerson Architects, and Peter Saucerman, partner and planning principal at Dreyfuss & Blackford Architects, are both members of the American Institute of Architects. Together, they identified 10 churches in Sacramento that deserve your attention.

According to Sigerson and Saucerman, the majority of the churches in Sacramento were built in traditional styles, many using basilica and cruciform designs. A basilica is an aisled building with a large, raised nave that often has a multi-domed roof, while a cruciform can embody the same style, but always with a cross-shaped floor plan.

Architecturally significant churches have a “richness in massing as well as detailing, with complicated and well-composed forms,” Sigerson said. He added that the use of light and windows is also important, as they can be used to highlight or dramatize architecture within a structure.

The most significant are those “places that make you want to be near them, that make you curious to see what’s inside,” Sigerson said.

Saucerman shared his knowledge of the history of Sacramento’s churches. He noted that fire destroyed many structures over the years, a fact he attributed to the use of candles.

“You’ll notice the oldest church isn’t made of wood,” Saucerman said.

St. John’s Lutheran is an example of American Gothic architecture.

St. John’s Lutheran, at 1701 L St., celebrates its 100th year at this location in 2012, said Angela Nickerson, special assistant for worship and discipleship at the church.

Nickerson said the style of the church is American Gothic, a popular style for churches more than 100 years ago.

The entrance to St. John’s is especially welcoming.

The steps at St. John’s make a welcoming and engaging entrance, Sigerson said, while Saucerman noted the stone exterior of the basilica-style church as particularly well done.

“One thing that is important is the approach, and it has one of the most eventful approaches,” Sigerson said. “That may have been the strategy – to raise it up above the busy street.”

First Baptist Church has been a staple on L Street for more than 80 years.

Just blocks from St. John’s is First Baptist Church, at 2324 L St., built in 1929.

“It’s one of the most successful for exterior composition,” Sigerson said. “It makes me want to understand it more. The tower at the center of the building is a really nice anchor.”

Intricate details create an interesting entrance at First Baptist.

Among the unique features at First Baptist are the loggia – the open corridors formed by the columns, Sigerson said. Saucerman added that the style is reminiscent of the Pantheon , a circular temple built in ancient Rome.

The St. Francis is a Catholic church on 26th Street.

St. Francis of Assisi, at 1066 26th St., is strongest on its interior, Sigerson said.

“It has a beautiful quality of light,” he said of the structure that was built in 1908. “The richness and layering of details inside is stupendous.”

The details on the arches, the column capitals and bases are beautifully done, and the altar is particularly lovely, Sigerson added.

Ornate details can be found outside, as well as inside.

Saucerman added that it is a church that really reaches out to the community, hosting numerous concerts. He agreed that the inside of the church is most impressive, with great frescoes and classic interiors.

Holy Ascension church is similar to those found in Moscow’s Red Square.

Holy Ascension is a Russian Orthodox Church at 714 13th St. that was built in 1952. It’s nestled among homes in a quiet neighborhood. The golden domes on the roof appear to be some kind of adaptation of traditional Russian churches, Saucerman said.

“It’s very small and wonderfully done, in a more suburban setting,” Sigerson said.

The onion domes of Holy Ascension church.

The domes – called “onion-top domes” – are typical of architecture that can be seen in Moscow’s Red Square, Sigerson added.

Westminster was modeled after the Hagia Sophia, which has been remodeled in present-day Istanbul.

Westminster Presbyterian Church, at 1300 N St., is a concrete building erected in 1927. It was modeled after the Hagia Sophia in ancient Constantinople and is an example of Byzantine architecture, said Renee Schuner, office administrator at Westminster.

“One of my favorite parts is a little courtyard,” Saucerman said. “You open an iron gate, and you’d swear you were in Granada, Spain. The Moorish details are quite charming.”

The courtyard at Westminster Presbyterian church was influenced by world cultures.

Moorish architecture is characterized by horseshoe-shaped arches. The decorative details are borrowed from patterns found around the world, Sigerson said.

The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament is grand in size and importance.

The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament at 1017 11th St. is hard to miss between its sprawling entryway and high-rising towers. It is the penultimate existing church in downtown Sacramento, according to Saucerman. 

It was built in 1889. $34 million was spent renovating and updating it in 2003. The bulk of the renovation included a raised and flood-protected foundation, reconstruction of several domes and retrofitting of the towers for earthquakes.

“It’s a real landmark,” Saucerman said. “After the Capitol building, it is perhaps the most easily and readily recognizable structure in Sacramento.”

These domes are examples of the Cathedral’s mission-style details.

The cathedral, which is located only blocks from the Capitol, is a European-style church that was built with California materials, Saucerman said.

“Instead of stone, you have brick covered in stucco, smoothed and marked with artificial joints made to look like stone,” he added.

Trinity Episcopal is another downtown cathedral.

Trinity Episcopal Cathedral is also located downtown. It neighbors the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, standing down the road at 2620 Capitol Ave. It was built 40 years earlier, in 1849.

It has a straight gable roof, which is a roof made up of steeply angled sides that meet at the top in the shape of the letter A, Sigerman said. The difference between a gable roof and an A-frame is that the sides of an A-frame roof reach the floor, Sigerman added.

Trinity’s windows can be appreciated from outside of the church.

“It’s quite elegant," Saucerman said. “(It has) simplicity, it’s humble, well-proportioned, lasting and pleasing to the eye.”

Trinity Episcopal was designed by Earl Barnett of Dean and Dean Associates Architects, Saucerman said. Barnett became what Saucerman called a "church guru" and worked on many of the area’s churches. He traveled the world to visit churches of all denominations, Saucerman said.

Bethany Presbyterian Church is also the design of a world traveler, Earl Barnett.

Bethany Presbyterian Church is located one and a half miles south of downtown at 5625 24th St., but was also designed by Earl Barnett of Dean and Dean Associates Architects. It was constructed in 1957.

Like Trinity, it has a gable roof, Sigerson said. However, it also features a pediment, a front triangular piece that juts out of the front of the roof, and a tower, Sigerson added.

Bethany’s tower is impressive.

The church also proudly displays nearly every kind of brick masonry pattern imaginable, Saucerman said.

“It has amazing brickwork. It was a real tour de force of the bricklayer’s craft at that time," Saucerman said.

The First United Methodist Church is an example of zero setback architecture.

In Milan, Italy, there is a cathedral called St. Ambrose that has close resemblance to the First United Methodist Church located in Midtown at 2100 J St. This is because the Midtown church was inspired by St. Ambrose, the church’s historian, Joan Haug, said.

The main details that the First United Methodist Church shares with St. Ambrose are the three arches, three windows and three doors that make up the entryway, Haug added.

“It is reminiscent of Italian Renaissance architecture in its arches and the multiples of three,” Haug said.

The church aims to be very welcoming, Haug said. It accomplishes that through its zero setback architecture, Saucerman added.

A building has zero setback when it is built zero feet away from where the public right of way ends, Sigerson said. In this case, the church is built zero feet away from the back of the sidewalk, Sigerson said.

First United Methodist sports a minimal stoop with only five steps and lacks any separation between its entrance and the street, Haug said. This provides churchgoers with easy access to the church’s door.

Historic stained glass at First United Methodist Church.

The church, which was constructed in 1925, also features stained glass windows, Haug said. They depict different aspects of nature and God, she added.

“The main and biggest stained glass window illustrates the empty tomb of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday,” Haug said.

The current First United Methodist Church is not the congregation’s original place of worship, Haug said. The first location was on 7th and L streets and was built in 1849 during the Gold Rush, she added.

“We still have notebooks that document parishioners who wrote messages along the lines of ‘Gone to the mines. May be back,’ ” Haug said.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church may be one of the oldest functioning churches in Sacramento.

Only blocks away from First United Methodist Church stands another Midtown church that has even older history: St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. The building is located at 1430 J St. and is celebrating its centennial birthday, having been built in 1912.

"It is one of the oldest – it may be the oldest – operating churches in town," Saucerman said.

It is made of stone walls that are designed to resemble flying buttresses, but are not actually structurally purposeful, Saucerman said. These details qualify the church as having Gothic construction, he added.

An example of the vibrant and intricate Tiffany-made stained glass windows at St. Paul’s.

It features “Tiffany-made glass windows that are completely priceless," Saucerman said. He estimated that the church houses millions of dollars’ worth of stained glass.

Tiffany is a company world renowned for its stained glass, Saucerman added.

“Of all the makers of stained glass, Tiffany is the one synonymous with art and elegance,” he said.

During the Sacramento Convention Center expansion in the 1990s, all of the church’s windows were removed out of concern for negative effects the nearby construction, such as flying rocks and concrete, might have had on them, Saucerman said. He explained that since the windows were in storage anyway, the church had them completely refurbished by the company that succeeded Tiffany in the Midwest. The process took two years, he added.

Did your favorite church make our list? Please share in the comments below. 

This article was co-written by Sara Islas.

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