Black church in Venice in line for historic designation

Wave Wire Services

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission has recommended the L.A. City Council nominate a historic Black church in the Oakwood community of Venice to the historic cultural monument list.

The First Baptist Church of Venice was built in 1967 on the corner of Westminster Avenue in Oakwood, one of the only areas near the ocean in L.A. where Black people were able to own homes as a result of redlining procedures.

The commission’s recommended designation also includes two parking lots — one across the street, which housed the original building, constructed in 1927. The congregation moved across the street when it outgrew the original structure. The commission initially planned to only designate the church’s building to the historic cultural monument list, but added the parking lots before the vote.

Commissioner Diane Kanner, who made the motion to add the parking lots, explained the decision by saying, “It’s a whole story of several buildings and the passage of time.”

She said that by including the parking lot, which has historic ties to 1927, adds decades to the historic significance of the site, while the current structure only dates to 1967.

Naomi Nightingale, who helped prepare the nomination application and is a professor, activist and lifelong Venice resident, spoke to the commission about the Oakwood community.

Black people were prevented from living or buying homes in the areas outside of the restrictive covenant redlined one-mile area, and I want to emphasize that this Oakwood was this one-mile area within this three-mile section of West Venice,” she said. “People were able to thrive within this community.

“Despite having to deal with discrimination and racism … families and other working-class African Americans built a community, homes, businesses, organizations and a place of worship.”

In the 1960s and 70s, Black people comprised the largest demographic of Oakwood residents, but as a result of gentrification, they only accounted for 15% of the population by the turn of the century.

Councilman Mike Bonin did not initially support the church’s first nomination to the historic cultural monument list, but became a recent champion of preserving the church, noting the importance of protecting a historic Black church in a neighborhood that has seen “tremendous gentrification and displacement.”

The city of Los Angeles applied for the designation after being requested in a motion introduced by Bonin that was approved by the City Council on Nov. 12, 2020.

This morning you’re going to hear what I anticipate is going to be overwhelming testimony from my constituents on the historic and the cultural importance of the First Baptist Church, both as a building and as an institution in the Black community in Venice,” Bonin told the commission, which had voted to decline a historic cultural monument designation for the church in December 2018.

At the time, the church was owned by Jay Penske of Penske Media Corporation, which publishes Variety and Rolling Stone. Penske planned to convert the church into a home for his family, according to L.A. Curbed.

The move was opposed by many in the community and initially supported by Bonin.

I got it wrong last time, and the city of Los Angeles got it wrong last time,” Bonin told commissioners June 3.

The property had been sold to Penske by the church’s former pastor, Horace Allen, and was tied up in a legal battle over whether Allen had the authority to sell the property, LA Curbed reported.

The property was sold to Lee Polster in late 2020. Polster told the commission he planned to preserve the church and turn the parking lots into a housing project and that he was not seeking the designation because he believes he will adequately rehabilitate and preserve the church without it.

Some community members called into the virtual meeting to support a historic cultural monument designation for the entire site, including the building and parking lots.

I would like to suggest that the parking lots are part of the church, they are part of the site, and it would alter and diminish the site if they were removed,” one caller said.

Kanner, who visited the site and initially suggested excluding the lots from the site, said upon further discussion and calls from the community that her decision at that time was “short-sighted” and that she now sees the church and the parking lots “as a package.”

However, Commissioner Pilar Buelna, who abstained from the vote because she was absent for part of the discussion, noted the importance of housing in the community, which the property owner plans to build on the lots.

A designation on the historic cultural monument list does not guarantee preservation, but allows the Cultural Heritage Commission to delay such actions and create opportunities for preservation solutions.

In 2020, the church became a site of protests against police brutality and racism, sparked by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

If the designation is approved by the Los Angeles City Council, the First Baptist Church of Venice will join a small number — 3% of the roughly 1,200 total monuments — linked to Black heritage. In February, the city, led by Councilman Bonin, worked with community members to install a Black Lives Matter mural along Westminster Avenue in front of the church.

In April, the Los Angeles Department of City Planning and the Getty Conservation Institute announced its new Los Angeles African American Historic Places project. Over the next three years, the city will work to identify buildings that represent and celebrate African American experiences in Los Angeles to be added to the historic cultural monument list.