A craftsman original: for the love of Swedenborg

I love craftsman architecture, the natural elements of wood and stone at its heart, the whimsical artistic flourishes reflected in the decorative and woodcut art of the same period (early 1900s), the functional nooks and crannies, and a pleasing solidness to the structures. It’s a very warm and charming style. The original British creator of craftsman style, William Morris, was responding to the dehumanizing utility of the industrial revolution, so the best craftsman homes are an homage to nature–a sort of English garden fairyland nature–that produces a feeling both fanciful and secure.

Fortunately for admirers of the form like myself, there are a number of craftsman buildings found throughout Northern California. One of the most remarkable I’ve come across is the Swedenborgian Church on the corner of Lyon and Washington near the Presidio. Built in 1895 by a collaboration of architects, notably A. Page Brown (the Ferry Building), Bernard Maybeck (Palace of Fine Arts) and Joseph Worcester (also the church’s pastor), the group paid careful attention to every detail of the church and grounds, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2004.

The building also has elements of Mediterranean and Mission Revival style, with covered walkways, arched entryways, unadorned adobe surfaces and clay-tiled roof. And like many mission structures, as soon as you step in from the Lyon street entrance you’re immediately in an intimate, sanctuary-like space, removed from the outside world. To get to the church’s entrance at the back, you follow a path along a beautiful, serene garden, created as a shrine to Swedenborianism’s principles of spirit and nature, the seen and unseen, and also inspired by the era’s interest in all things Japan. The trees originally planted here were cedar, olive, sequoia, elm, pine, myrtle, hawthorn, maple, plum, crabapple and Irish yew.

The interior of the small church is adorned by arched beams of Madrone tree trunks, bark included, from the Santa Cruz Mountains. Instead of pews, there are 80 handmade maple chairs with seats woven from tule reeds from the nearby Sacramento Delta. And on the walls are large paintings of California landscapes at different seasons, created explicitly for the church by notable artist of the time William Keith (who was also a close friend of John Muir).

The adjacent parish house is a complete embrace of craftsman style, with a living room that looks untouched since its building in 1898, including period arts and crafts furnishings, fireplace and mantle, and more Keith paintings. The Swedenborgian church is like no other building I’ve found in the Bay Area, a true craftsman original created by the city’s top architects and artists at the height of their careers.

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