A diamond-like glass-walled church building, lit up from the inside.
The new Christ Cathedral at dusk. Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange

Designed by an acclaimed architect for a famous televangelist, a unique church in Southern California has been transformed.

When a cathedral has changed denominational hands in the past, it’s usually been the work of the sword. From Hagia Sophia to England’s Canterbury Cathedral to Germany’s Magdeburg Cathedral, these shifts of ownership were never amicable, and often murderous.

By contrast, the conversion of the former Crystal Cathedral complex in Garden Grove, California, from a mainstay of 20th-century Protestant televangelism to a Roman Catholic cathedral was not the result of a second Counter-Reformation, but a relatively seamless commercial exchange, and one in which Robert Schuller—the founder and architectural patron of the church—actively favored the Catholics taking his place (in bankruptcy court, but we’ll get to that later).

It’s a shift that mirrors larger changes in suburban Orange County, which in recent decades has gone from paradigmatically white to extremely diverse. The Diocese of Orange has grown rapidly, fueled in large part by Catholics with Vietnamese, Latino, and Chinese roots. The Saturday vigil and Sunday mass schedule at the new cathedral features eight non-English services (four in Vietnamese, three in Spanish, one in Mandarin), and three in English.

Nuns get a first look at the Christ Cathedral before its July 17 dedication. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

The new Christ Cathedral was dedicated on July 17 after a $77 million renovation. This is the first instance in history in which a non-Catholic church has been converted into a Catholic cathedral. Also highly unusual is the 34-acre campus itself, an important ensemble of late 20th-century architecture, including a church designed by Richard Neutra (1961); the “Tower of Hope,” an office structure by Neutra (1968); the Crystal Cathedral, designed by Philip Johnson (1980); a family-life center by Gin Wong (1990); and a visitor center by Richard Meier (2003).

Johnson’s church, which lent the campus its name, has been counted among his best buildings. Neutra’s buildings are less celebrated yet also excellent. But before being reborn, most of these buildings, as you might imagine, needed some work—both of a practical and a liturgical nature.

***

Robert Schuller was an emblematic postwar evangelical and Orange County showman. Born in Iowa in 1926, he was ordained a minister in the Reformed Church of America (our branch of the Dutch Reformed Church) and made a splash when he began preaching above the snack bar at the Orange Drive-In Theater near Disneyland.

It wasn’t just the setting, but also the content of his theology that drew adherents. He stripped the dour elements from Calvinism and became a reliable blue chip in the prosperity gospel, which experienced a boom in the 1980s until the scandal broke of television preachers who loved prostitutes as much as they loved Jesus—but Schuller was not one of those. If Schuller ran into some tax issues and his church into trouble after him, he was a family man for whom there seemed little actual space between a cheerful gospel and a cheerful life.

Schuller leading a service at the Crystal Cathedral in 1996. (Michael Tweedy/AP)

Robert Schuller also loved architecture. When he tired of preaching twice each Sunday, at a drive-in and at a rented Baptist church, he decided to combine those buildings’ functions. He didn’t ask just anyone to carry out this bizarre commission, but Southern California’s premier Modernist, Austrian-born Richard Neutra. Neutra’s church in the complex, the Arboretum, is truly strange and greatly interesting. A basic rectangle, it was designed to accommodate worshipers inside on pews and outside in a semi-circle of parking adequate for 1,700 cars (“pews from Detroit” was Neutra’s description). The pulpit was located at one corner of the church and extended into a balcony. Glass doors would open, and Schuller would wander between interior and exterior while sermonizing.

It was a hit, and Schuller turned to Neutra for an administrative structure, the 13-story Tower of Hope, the tallest building in Orange County for a time. Schuller’s 1967 book Move Ahead With Possibility Thinking featured the Tower of Hope on its cover. Both of the Neutra buildings formed a backdrop for Schuller’s television program, Hour of Power, which aired starting in 1970. The beginning of the first episode could be mistaken for a vintage architectural documentary, featuring lingering shots and pans of the buildings.

The Arboretum eventually became inadequate for the growing ministry, even with that capacious parking lot. Netura had died in 1970 (Schuller conducted his memorial service in the church) and Schuller went looking for a new architect. He found one in the unlikely figure of Philip Johnson, a leading Modernist known for his Glass House and New York’s Seagram Building, who was then edging into Postmodernism. Johnson and his partner John Burgee seemed initially bemused by Schuller’s request for a glass church, and Johnson produced a relatively tame initial stone design that was only topped with a glass roof.

Schuller said no, fortunately, which prompted Johnson to more imaginative solutions. Johnson was already well into the glassy-corporate-tower phase of his career, but this commission provided him an excuse to do something more daring. The tremendous space comported well with Schuller’s vision. “When you’ve worshipped in a drive-in as long as I have,” Schuller said, “you’ll come to the conclusion that a roof that comes between your eyeball and the infinity of space limits your capacity for creative imagination.”

The Crystal Cathedral complex, pictured in 1997. The Tower of Hope (designed by Richard Neutra) is to the right of the Crystal Cathedral (designed by Philip Johnson), and the Arboretum church, also by Neutra, is behind the tower. The Crystal Cathedral’s doors to the parking lot are visible. (Vince Streano/Corbis Historical/Getty Images)

The space-frame building, supported by a truss system, eliminates the need for internal columns. The structure’s full weight is supported by the frame. It’s impossible to resist the gibe that the building was neither crystal nor a cathedral (although that half of the name proved prophetic), but the sheathing of more than 10,000 panes of glass is enough to assuage any disappointment. Johnson credited the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris as inspiration but bounded well beyond it in transparency.

The Crystal Cathedral was celebrated and highly visible as Hour of Power became one of the longest-running American television programs. It didn’t forsake the drive-in elements of the ministry, either, with massive doors opening still to a parking-lot pulpit. The Schuller ministry hit difficult times in the 2000s after Schuller stepped down as head, with dwindling attendance, family squabbling, and financial troubles arriving in close concert. The church filed for bankruptcy in 2010. His grandson Bobby Schuller continues to broadcast the Hour of Power from a church in Irvine.  

The Diocese of Orange didn’t submit the highest bid for the property, but in a display of ecumenical spirit, Schuller personally intervened with the judge overseeing the case to request that its bid be accepted, as the one likeliest to respect the spirit and legacy of the structure. The judge agreed, and the diocese was awarded the campus for $57.5 million in 2012. Robert Schuller died in 2015. He is buried in the small cemetery on the cathedral grounds, which the diocese plans to expand and open to other denominations.

***

Work on the complex began soon after its acquisition. Rob Neal, an Orange County real-estate developer, served as head of renovations and chief operating officer on the project. “I did it as a volunteer, and I thought, ‘Well, how hard can it be?” he said. “I was wrong.” The years-long process entailed more than 100 site visits. Neal didn’t want any interim renovations, or to cut corners—these “had to be best-in-class renovations befitting the majestic architecture.”

The Arboretum (foreground) after its renovation by LPA. Schuller’s motto in the late 1950s was “Come as You Are in the Family Car,” and the Arboretum had a balcony where Schuller could stand and preach to congregants sitting in their vehicles. The retrofitted Tower of Hope is behind the Arboretum, and the Crystal Cathedral is at right. (LPA Inc./Cris Costea Photography)

The first project was the Neutra Arboretum. Jim Wirick, an architect with the firm LPA, supervised. It was, he told CityLab, “a fight with disaster from moment one,” because the structure was not air-conditioned.

“It was basically a hotbox … that’s why Schuller went to Hawaii every summer to write and made his son preach,” Wirick noted. He had two options. “We could put big units on the roof, or chunk out four feet of soil, make a concrete bathtub, and put the air [conditioning] underneath.” He argued strongly for the second option, but Neal opted for the cheaper roof units.

Wirick recalled: “I said, ‘We can’t do it.’ We’d get shamed in the architecture community if we did that. But he said no, so I walked away.” Neal called back a week later and conceded—they’d dig the bathtub. After the Arboretum came the Tower of Hope; the main challenge for it was, in Neal’s words, “an exhausting amount of seismic mitigation. ”

The Crystal Cathedral, in regular use for longer and built 20 years later than the Neutra church, posed somewhat fewer challenges, but those that remained were considerable. Scott Johnson, the design partner at the architecture firm Johnson Fain, led the renovation; he worked for Johnson and Burgee when they were designing the Crystal Cathedral (he is of no relation to Philip). His task, he says, was “to convert this very particular and unusual architectural object for a very particular and unusual church into a Roman Catholic cathedral.”

Cooling was, not surprisingly, a big issue in a building that is basically a greenhouse for humans. The climate was theoretically regulated by a convective cooling system that drew in cooler air at its base and emitted hot air via a chimney above. “It works until about 80 degrees, then it doesn’t,” Neal remarked. Interior temperatures were measured as high as 110 degrees, which sounds like one route to martyrdom.

There was also a tremendous amount of glare—old images show people in the pews with sunglasses on. This problem was most acute in mornings and evenings (which happens to be when masses are held). Nightfall would bring other problems. “At night, it was difficult to illuminate,” Scott Johnson said. “The glass doesn’t reflect back; it just goes out of the building into outer space.” And the acoustics were poor, because glass is highly resonant.

The “quatrefoil” shades reduce glare and improve the acoustics inside the cathedral. (Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange)

The architects arrived at a clever and bold solution: “quatrefoil” shades made of plastic and fabric that cross each glass panel in an “x” pattern. “The quatrefoils are like leaves, and they’re opened and closed in different ways,” Johnson said. His team ran a computer program to pattern the light with the thousands of quatrefoils; “they’re almost glittering stars,” he said, and they also help with the acoustics.  

The conversion is not just a question of slightly more ornate fixtures, but of a different nature of service altogether. Schuller’s church was centered around him, the preacher on the move. Catholic churches, and particularly cathedrals, revolve around the altar and other traditional, fixed elements. It’s a challenge more like adapting a theater in the round to a conventional setup than just shifting the scenery in a play. It also required an unusual sort of consultant: Brother William Woeger, advisor on elements liturgically required for cathedrals by the Catholic Church.

Christ Cathedral on its dedication day. (Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange)

The structure is decidedly irregular as cathedrals go. It is wider than it is long, making for an anomaly no matter what was done inside the envelope, since procession along an axis is an important element of Catholic liturgy. A fountain that formerly lined the central aisle was removed. The vast pulpit of Schuller days is gone, with new structures located nearer the ground. The altar is centered on the predella, a traditional platform up three steps, with the ambo (the pulpit) to the right. A baldacchino, or ceremonial canopy, hangs from above, accentuating the altar. A reliquary under the altar contains relics of martyrs from different parts of the world. Tucked in two corners of the diamond structure are a new baptistry and Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament.

Scott Johnson chose a muted palette for the additions. The sacred elements are a Turkish white marble, which stands out from prevailing colors elsewhere, but not dramatically. Gray limestone walls provide a somewhat stronger anchor to the ground floor. The flooring is a different shade of gray, and the pews are a dark walnut. Artworks, ranging from tapestries and mosaics to bronze bas reliefs by Bolivian artist Pablo Eduardo, offer occasional color. In addition to Johnson Fain and LPA, the firm Rios Clementi Hale redesigned the landscape and outdoor public spaces of the campus.

According to Wirick, the project sustained pressure from all directions: preservationists, who worried the renovation would destroy the campus’s architecture; followers of Schuller, who thought it was disgracing his memory; and Catholics, disturbed by the complex’s Modernism or its cost. Rob Neal sees it as a continuation of the Catholic Church’s tradition of commissioning and preserving significant architecture of the present age. “I can’t think of another campus in North America where you would see the work of  three of America’s greatest architects play well together,” he said.

One intriguing relic of televangelism remains, hidden in plain sight: the 90-foot doors to the parking lot from which Schuller would preach to the auto-bound, “on piano hinges the likes of which no one has ever seen,” Johnson commented. “The door’s still there, if in some future life someone wants to open it again.”

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