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Celebrating an architectural gem

Chapel is 140 years old and going strong

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Posted: Thursday, June 21, 2012 3:29 pm

Steve Okonek is a connoisseur in his own right, but instead of appreciating music’s timbre, he examines a church’s timber. Instead of tuning into a melody’s brightness, he enjoys the warm light that streams through peaked stained glass windows that line the walls.

“It’s aged well,” said Okonek as he took in the sight of the Community United Methodist Church chapel that was built in 1872. This year, it’s turning a ripe, old 140.

Despite its age, the chapel has never had a tremendous face-lift, nor has it needed one. On the periphery, other buildings have been erected to accommodate CUMC’s growing congregation.

“It’s a beautiful space,” said the church’s pastor, Lisa Warner-Carey. “It’s a balance between holding tradition and meeting today’s needs.”

The chapel, with its high gables and steeple, however, remains largely true to what Nova Scotia-born architect Charles Geddes originally designed.

Okonek, a member of the church for nearly 20 years, points out that even the “bundling boards,” partitions that provide a physical barrier down the middle of the church to separate men and women, continue to stand. Just a week ago, the small Kimball reed organ that stood front and center in 1888 was returned to its rightful place after being restored.

Of course, there have been a few touch-ups here and there throughout the chapel’s history. While first drawing up plans for it in the Victorian Gothic Revival style, a chimney was cut out of the design in order to save $500. This turned out to be a savvy decision when severe damage from the 1906 earthquake had to be repaired at a cost of $575. The building may also have been re-oriented as a result, moving the entrance from the west to the south. Later, electric chandeliers replaced the oil lamps that once hung from the lofted, white ceiling.

Perhaps one of the most striking changes is the addition of the stained glass windows in 1978. They were crafted and installed by the late congregation member Robert Lawrence Fitzpatrick. Individual panes reflect a particular hymn — as well as a local detail.

In one, pumpkins sit at the foot of a church, paying homage to the Coastside’s proud tradition. Okonek’s favorite window features a lighthouse that looks uncannily similar to the one at Pigeon Point. Coincidence? Probably not. While visiting Pigeon Point Lighthouse, he observed that both the lighthouse and CUMC were constructed in the same year.

“I’m really proud that the people here wanted to keep this as a historical structure,” said Okonek, who kindled his passion for history and the arts just recently. During a visit to Yosemite Chapel, Okonek had an epiphany as he looked into the architecture’s history. “Holy cow!” he recalled thinking. “That’s the guy who designed my church!”

“That guy” turned out to be Charles Geddes, who became an acclaimed carpenter and architect behind dozens of noteworthy landmarks after he moved to San Francisco in 1848, a period that coincided with the onset of the Gold Rush. Okonek wanted to know more.

A technical writer and microbiologist by trade, Okonek and his wife, Bonnie, decided to enroll in art and architecture classes at local community colleges. “We just wanted to do something totally different,” he said.

During a class on California architecture a year ago, the teacher assigned a paper to write; naturally, Okonek dived into researching Geddes.

“Every stone I turned over led to many other stones,” he said. As he wandered through history section in the San Francisco Public Library and the California Historical Society’s archives, he realized many details of Geddes’s story would continue to be mysterious. That encouraged him to keep digging.

“I hope people will get an appreciation for what a gem this chapel is,” he said.

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