The building at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea Avenue has been many things to many people.
To the prominent Christian Science congregation that occupied it for nearly a century, it was an oasis of an eccentric sect that boomed in Hollywood alongside the film industry. Ginger Rogers worshiped there. In the late 1950s, the congregation tore down its original building and replaced it with a larger one.
To a grifter named Charles Sebesta, the church was an opportunity. He took a job there in 2001 as facilities manager, eventually became chairman of the declining congregation, and secretly embezzled more than $11 million from its coffers.
To the city of Los Angeles, the curved Modernist structure became, over time, a piece of architectural history in need of protection. Hollywood had frayed at the edges. But in the early 2000s, it was rebounding as a racially diverse quarter with arts, culture, mass transit, and meteoric real estate prices—the kind of place that threatened historic buildings.
To a New York real estate giant called LeFrak, the church building was an obstacle. The company bought it in 2008, wanting to tear it down and build high-rise apartments that looked out on the Hollywood Hills. The plan was thwarted after Los Angeles designated the church a historic monument.
And to Mosaic, the chic multisite evangelical church led by Erwin McManus, the building was a dream. Mosaic rented the space in 2011 and opened a campus there, growing even as McManus said people told him, “You really can’t do this thing called church in Hollywood.” In 2019, Mosaic launched an ambitious capital campaign to buy the property for around $20 million. People needed to know the church was there to stay, McManus said in a video—that it was “powerful and impossible to ignore.” As long as we’re renting, “we’re living like tourists that are just passing through.”
Mosaic fell short of its fundraising goal and abandoned its effort to buy the building. In announcing the disappointing news, McManus shifted his tone and told the church: “We have never been a building.”
A church is always more than the structure in which it meets, of course. But congregations are always shaped by the places they inhabit, as editor Kara Bettis explores this month. People are, too. All ministry is embodied. The Christian life is continually reworked within shifting physical limits, social networks, cultural contexts, and external demands. It is, somewhat like the church building on the corner of Hollywood and La Brea, ancient and renewed.
Andy Olsen is print managing editor of Christianity Today. Follow him on Twitter @AndyROlsen.
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