Landmark status for San Jose church is not that simple
Philip Garcia, a maintenance worker at Grace Baptist Church in San Jose, cleans the steps of the entrance. Photo by Jana Kadah.

Downtown San Jose’s nearly century-old Grace Baptist Church may receive historical landmark recognition, but not everyone in the church is onboard.

Grace Baptist, located at 484 E. San Fernando St., is one of the few religious centers still standing from the early 1900s—and its claims for landmark status have merit, historical landmark commissioners said at their Wednesday meeting.

The proposal to change it from structure of merit to landmark status stems from two church members, Bill Brooks and Penny Hogg, president of Grace Solutions, a nonprofit for the unhoused that operates within the church.

“It has been a part of local history for 108 years,” Hogg said. “In the 1960s when San Jose was suffering from urban blight and churches were leaving downtown for the suburbs, Grace decided to reaffirm that downtown San Jose is where it belongs… it still does.”

Hogg said the church houses the only remaining theater pipe organ from the San Jose silent movies era, which is 100 years old. The building was also designed by former San Jose architectural firm Binder & Curtis in the 1930s. The firm designed more than 20 iconic structures in the city, of which 12 are still standing, including the San Jose Civic Auditorium, the San Jose Water Company building and the San Jose Theater.

“William Bender is considered San Jose’s first major modern architect,” said Brooks, a longtime member of the church. “The church is a unique example of a 1930s re-envision Gothic Revival architecture and incorporates elements of California church architecture, including an influence of deco-styling—simplifying the traditional Gothic Lancet arch to a more streamlined shape.”

Members of the Historic Landmark Commission said it seems to fit the bill for landmark status and wondered why it hadn’t been already recognized as such.

“It’s extremely important to maintain the four churches that are left in downtown,” Historic Landmark Commissioner Anthony Raynsford said. “We’ve had many churches destroyed by fire, it’s been a real tragedy so what is surprising to me is that it’s not a landmark already.”

Landmark status questioned

But many from the church’s leadership do not want that status because it would get in the way of development plans to expand the church and build supportive housing on site. San Jose is one of the most expensive places to rent in the nation and has seen barriers to building more affordable housing amid a growing homelessness crisis.

Senior pastor Reverend George Oliver, who joined the church in March 2021, said while he supports preserving historical structures like Grace Baptist, the structure needs a lot of work and is not sustainable. Without financial support from the city, he said preserving it would hinder its operations.

He continued that it is also not what a majority of the church’s leadership wants. Two-thirds of the church’s development board voted in favor of development plans on March 13.

“It seems like an overreach from the commission if they approve it because our church democratically came to this decision,” Oliver said. “Bringing it to the commission was a rogue action by several people who didn’t like an outcome. And they took it into their own hands to speak on behalf of the entire congregation.”

But Jeanne Wardrip, a church member since 1954, said the vote was anything but democratic, and many in the congregation want to preserve the church’s original structure.

“We were only presented one plan and it was the plan that makes the most money,” Wardrip told San José Spotlight. “We aren’t against development. We would love to see low-income housing, but not at the expense of the entire church.”

The development plans are confidential and very preliminary, Oliver said. But what he could disclose is that it would be a multi-million-dollar deal with the potential to quadruple the amount of shelter beds and other supportive services for homeless residents, San Jose State University students and other community members who have looked at Grace Baptist Church as a sanctuary for decades.

“We don’t see this as a money making opportunity. This is an extension of our ministry,” Oliver said. “And this could be a blessing for the unhoused. For example, I would love to build a model where condos are rent to own for the working unhoused because they already have most of the legs to get to sustainability.”

Wardrip and other community members, however, said they were told this will be low-income student housing with a 10,000 square-foot theater for church operations.

“We have a lot of student housing already and they’re building more right now as we speak. I don’t think one more (housing facility) is gonna make a big difference,” church maintenance worker Philip Garcia told San José Spotlight. “But this church does make a big difference to the homeless and the needy community, and that is what Grace Baptist has always been about.”

Homeless advocates who work in the church worry the development may force them out and stop those essential services they have provided for years. The church is home to Grace Solutions which offers shelter beds, showers and other supportive services. It is also home to the Unhoused Response Group (URG), another homeless advocacy group that has done memorials and packs survival backpacks in the church.

The push for historical landmark preservation is in part an attempt to halt this specific development. Such status makes land sales lose value and development harder because of a number of restrictions.

Oliver maintained that despite some pushback from church leadership, homeless supportive services and the church services will not disappear with new development. However, development may go away if the church becomes a historical landmark.

“When I walk through those halls, I know that history is in them. I know its basement is where Cesar Chavez met to organize farmworkers for the strike,” Oliver said. “This place is historic. But this place is not that building. This place is the passion of people that have changed the arc of history in San Jose.”

The commission is set to vote on Grace Baptist Church’s status at the next meeting on May 4 at 6:30 p.m.

Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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