Will downtown San Jose church become historic landmark?
Philip Garcia, a maintenance worker at Grace Baptist Church in San Jose, cleans the steps of the entrance in April 2022. Photo by Jana Kadah.

A downtown San Jose church is on the cusp of becoming a historic landmark, potentially ending a yearslong battle to shield the 1940s-era building from redevelopment.

The San Jose City Council will vote in the next few weeks to designate Grace Baptist Church as a historic landmark—protecting it, ideally, indefinitely. Councilmember Omar Torres’ request for the designation passed unanimously at Wednesday’s Rules and Open Government Committee meeting.

“It’s a place where our local civil rights movement got started (and) had many allies,” Torres told San José Spotlight. “It’s always important to make sure we’re preserving our history of the City of San Jose and this is a good first step … so we can prevent any type of development from happening there.”

The church at 484 E. San Fernando St. is one of the few religious centers still standing in downtown, and is also home to Grace Solutions, a nonprofit organization that provides aid to San Jose’s 6,340 unhoused residents.

Prolific former San Jose architectural firm Binder & Curtis designed the building in 1941 and featured a simplified gothic revival aesthetic and Art Deco influence, according to Torres’ memo. The firm designed more than 20 iconic structures in the city, 12 of which are still around today—including the San Jose Civic Auditorium and the San Jose Water Company building.

The church also houses a 100-year-old pipe organ. Bill Brooks, worship committee chair at Grace Baptist, has worked to maintain the old pipe organ but said the building needs expensive repairs. The congregation has talked about selling two old victorian houses adjacent to the property the church owns to cover some costs to maintain the sanctuary, but he said that has not come to fruition.

“We’ve talked to other developers about what can be done to expand the ministry … maybe off some of the properties encumbered by houses that are over 100 years old,” Brooks told San José Spotlight. “So it’s not like you can just tear them down. The development we’ve been seeking is the church as the centerpiece.”

Shielding the church from development has been a convoluted conflict within Grace Baptist’s congregation. An alternate proposal would have built housing and mixed-use development on the site at the cost of demolishing the sanctuary. But the pastor involved in the development deal, Rev. George Oliver, is no longer with Grace Baptist Church.

San Jose resident Larry Guernsey helped organize the effort last year to save Grace Baptist’s sanctuary from redevelopment. He shared with the rules committee he gathered 2,844 signatures to save the church.

“There is lots and lots of community interest in having the church made into a historic landmark so it cannot be torn down and developed,” Guernsey said at the meeting.

Jeanne Wardrip, who serves as the church’s moderator in lieu of no permanent pastor, said she was married at Grace Baptist in 1959. She said the building has historic value for members who came to San Jose as students decades ago.

“It’s always represented (a) mission to the local community,” Wardrip told San José Spotlight. “That’s what we want to perpetuate. What was going to happen, it would be torn down, and we wouldn’t even have a church there anymore.”

Contact Ben at [email protected] or follow @B1rwin on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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