A group of congregants at the nearly century-old Grace Baptist Church in San Jose want to secure its status as a landmark, but the timeline is uncertain.
On Wednesday, the city’s Historic Landmark Commission deferred its decision to grant the church historic landmark candidacy until a more thorough assessment is completed. The commission had been set to make a decision this month after some members of the congregation requested the church apply to be a candidate for landmark status in April.
Grace Baptist Church, located at 484 E. San Fernando St., is one of the few religious centers still standing from the early 1900s. It 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 prolific former San Jose architectural firm Binder & Curtis in the 1930s, said congregation member Penny Hogg, who submitted the application.
But city officials want to fact check those claims and ensure the validity of the request. Right now the church is listed as a structure of merit—so it fits the bill for consideration. But it doesn’t necessarily indicate it has the legs to be a city landmark.
“There’s a lot of just contradictory information in the church’s detailed project report,” Commissioner Anthony Raynsford said, questioning the reference to being located in a historic district.
He noted the congregation names Binder & Curtis as the architect, but in the older documentation with the city, it says “unknown.”
“I understand that there are two opposing opinions within the congregation, but the group that is interested in preservation actually brought interesting facts to bear which contradict the detailed project report,” Raynsford said.
More time needed
The church’s pastor, Rev. George Oliver, said he was pleased with the commission’s decision to defer. He is part of the group opposing a historic landmark designation, which he claims will impair future development on the site.
“Grace Baptist Church appreciates the commission’s explicit commitment to rightly defer deliberations until after further research, consultation and coordination with other relevant city departments and our religious hierarchy,” Oliver told San José Spotlight. “It continues to allow us to build public support for our continuing commitment to housing the unhoused in bold new ways on our property.”
But another part of the congregation says Oliver doesn’t speak for all the members and that claims to help the unhoused are disingenuous, as there are no plans for housing the homeless with the new development. Rather, some congregants say the multi-million dollar project planned for the site is student housing that demolishes the church’s original structure—a move many oppose.
Bill Brooks, who has been going to the church since 1943, said he sees the position on development as a difference of opinion. He’s also a petitioner for the church to get historic landmark status.
“San Jose has had this idea of highest and best use and that’s what the taxes are based on. So the more money you can extract out of a piece of land to boost that highest and best use number up, the more taxes they can tax. And in my opinion it has kind of destroyed the city,” Brooks told San José Spotlight. “To us, highest and best use is ministry and the location is the core of their ministry.”
He said the request for landmark recognition is an attempt to halt development and save the church from demolition.
Ben Leech, executive director of the Preservation Action Council of San Jose, said he understands why the commission wants to further study the church’s merits. That is standard practice, but he is confident the church meets the requirements.
“I think the social history of the church is important. But even if you didn’t know anything about that, this is a handsome building, designed by one of the most important architects who was working in the city at the time,” Leech said. “Some of these older buildings are visual icons in the neighborhood and do contribute a lot to just the quality of life in the city.”
Leech has been helping Brooks and Hogg through the process. He said their initial goal is to have the church be recognized as a candidate for historical landmark status, because it will make demolition more difficult to approve. Candidacy for landmark status is also the precursor and cheaper alternative to applying for full landmark status, which costs $6,000.
“We hear all the time that a new owner will claim sometimes sincerely, sometimes maybe, disingenuously, they had no idea that this building was historic. And so we’re often cast as sort of 11th hour obstructionists,” Leech said. “We just want to get out in front of the development as much as possible.”
The commission is requesting the petitioners—Brooks, Hogg and Leech—hire a qualified consultant to study the merits. Leech says they hope to have someone do it pro-bono and within one to two months. When completed, the Historic Landmark Commission will decide the church’s fate.
Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.