by Frank Dunnigan
Two years ago, a Streetwise column for OpenSFHistory outlined some of the many closed, merged, changed, and repurposed houses of worship from over the years in many San Francisco neighborhoods. Thanks to eagle-eyed readers and the vast OSFH photo archive, there are numerous other houses of worship that have also undergone significant changes, mergers, or have completely disappeared from the local landscape over the years. Here are some of them from across many San Francisco neighborhoods.
BUDDHIST CHURCH OF SAN FRANCISCO — Founded in 1898 on Sutter Street in downtown San Francisco, the church is the oldest Buddhist congregation in the United States. After several relocations, the group settled at 1881 Pine Street in 1913. Continued growth necessitated construction of the present church structure in 1935 (shown here at the time of the building’s 50th anniversary in 1985), plus later expansion into new adjacent office space located at 1710 Octavia Street, just behind the main building. Today, several hundred members participate in a variety of activities, including meditations, Sunday School, Boy & Girl Scouts, athletic groups, and music/language classes.
DOLORES STREET BAPTIST CHURCH — This corner at 15th & Dolores Streets once held the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Ebenezer Church, and the building to the left was the pastor’s home. The church was built in 1903 and legend has it that the two buildings were saved from the 1906 fire by a group of congregants and the pastor. By the early 1990s, the church had become home to the First Southern Baptist Church, aka the Dolores Street Baptist Church. Sadly, the church building was consumed by an arson blaze in 1993 after a threatening letter was received, but no arrests were ever made in connection with the fire. The church was later demolished, but the home remained boarded up for years, with the possibility of being rebuilt. Some 16 years after the fire, the congregation disbanded and the property was sold. A new developer proposed several plans, one of which was finally approved for the construction of a 10-unit apartment building on the church site and conversion of the residence into three condo units, with work commencing in 2012, and completion two full decades after the 1993 fire.
See the completed 13-unit complex, now known as 200 Dolores Street.
FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH — The First Baptist Chapel at 52 Waller Street, shown here in 1951, was affiliated with the much larger and adjacent First Baptist Church at 22 Waller Street. This structure, built in 1886 for the San Francisco Fire Department, was declared surplus and sold to the church in the early 1950s. It has since been refurbished and is now the pre-K campus of the Chinese-American International School, with its original brick façade exposed. The larger church building with its lighted revolving cross atop a massive dome was built in 1909 by a congregation that had been active since the Gold Rush. Largely hidden from view by construction of the Central Freeway across Hayes Valley in the 1950s, worshippers welcomed the freeway’s removal in the 1990s and the expansion/refurbishment of the street that is now known as Octavia Boulevard.
GETHSEMANE BAPTIST CHURCH — This large building at 601 Broderick Street was built as a private residence in 1875 in the neighborhood north of the Golden Gate Park Panhandle. By 1974, it was home to Gethsemane Baptist Church. The church later vacated the 6,000+ square-foot property, and it was sold and converted back into a residential structure, with many modern upgrades. The property sold for nearly $6 million in 2021.
See photos from the 2021 real estate listing.
GRACE CATHEDRAL — Grace Cathedral is the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of California, which was established in 1849. An earlier building, dating back to 1862, was lost in the 1906 earthquake. A temporary structure opened in 1907, and work on the present building (shown here in 1952) began in 1927 on the site of the Crocker mansion, which was also lost in 1906. By 1934, the two-thirds-built cathedral was opened for use, but the Depression stopped further work. The north tower shown here was built in 1936-1943, but construction paused again and did not resume until 1960, with the building largely completed by 1964. In 1995, the Cathedral House, (with offices, shown here behind the flagpole) was demolished in order to complete the long-planned grand staircase to the Cathedral entrance doors.
See more images of the Cathedral’s interior and exterior architecture.
GREATER LITTLE CHAPEL CHURCH OF GOD IN CHRIST — Shown here in 1980, the church was founded in San Francisco in 1933. In 1970, it moved to the site of the former Harding Theatre at 616 Divisadero Street. The congregation relocated to Turk Street in 2004, and later to Bay Point in Contra Costa County. The Harding Theatre, built in 1926, operated as a movie house until 1970. The Lamplighters, a musical theatre company, also performed at the Harding from 1961-1968. In 2004, the building was sold and remained vacant until 2017 when Emporium Arcade Bar, a video arcade with a full bar and live music opened in the space. The developers of the new space removed elements such as the seats, while upgrading access and restroom facilities, yet still attempted to preserve much of the building’s original ornamentation.
See the end result of the re-purposed building.
ST. JOHN’S SERBIAN ORTHODOX — Prior to the start of World War II, Rt. Rev. Fr. Archimandrite George Kodjic purchased this home at 281 Castro Street, and it served as a missionary home and chapel for the St. John’s Serbian Orthodox Cathedral. Built prior to 1906, the building has since been converted into a multi-unit residential structure currently valued at more than $3 million. The vacant lot to the left now contains a 1950s-era three-unit residential building.
See a recent street view of the property.
ST. PAUL’S CHURCH — St. Paul’s Parish was established in Noe Valley in 1876. As the parish grew, construction on the present church began in 1897, but was not completed until 1911. The church building suffered serious damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and by 1993, the San Francisco Archdiocese was giving serious consideration to closing it. Instead, other parish properties (schools/convent) were sold off in order to raise the necessary $8.5 million in retrofit costs for the remaining structures, and all this work was completed early in this millennium. In 2017, the Archdiocese of San Francisco combined three parishes — St. Paul, St. Philip, and St. James — into the “Noe Valley Cluster” of parishes that would function under the leadership of a single pastor, while keeping all three historic churches open and operating. (A similar “Mission Cluster” was created by combining St. Peter, St. Charles, and St. Anthony under a single pastor.) St. Paul’s was the site of the 1992 film Sister Act, and it was also featured in a 1970s episode of The Streets of San Francisco crime-drama series.
Read more about the history of St. Paul’s
SHA’AR ZAHAV CONGREGATION — Sha’ar Zahav (Hebrew for “Golden Gate”) is a Jewish Reform synagogue founded in 1977 to serve a largely LGBTQ congregation. It soon outgrew multiple temporary locations in the Castro and relocated in 1998 to 290 Dolores Street, in the building shown at right. Located opposite Mission Dolores Basilica at 16th & Dolores Streets, the Craftsman-style building had previously housed a mortuary since it was first constructed in 1917. Shown here in 1960, it was the long-time home to the Comiskey-Roche Funeral Home that closed circa 1996. The property was then acquired and renovated by Sha’ar Zahav in 1998. Since 2005, the congregation has shared its space with the First Mennonite Church of San Francisco, a group that traces its local origins back to 1975.
Read more about the congregation.
SPANISH PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH — Originally dedicated in 1910 as the First Swedish Methodist Episcopal Church (later renamed Simpson Methodist Church when that congregation moved from Hayes Valley to the Mission), this large building has occupied the corner of Guerrero and Camp Streets for more than a century. Shown here in 1951 when it was known as the Presbyterian Church of the Good Shepherd, by 2010, it was known as the Spanish Presbyterian Church, but has since been converted to residential use. The 7,000 square-foot structure last sold for $750,000 in 1998, and is valued today at more than $3 million.
See additional photos of the building and its interior.