California tends to pave over history. Earthquakes, fire, flood and the ambitions of new generations all conspire to wipe the slate clean and start over.
A rare exception in San Luis Obispo is St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in San Luis Obispo.
The church was founded in 1867, the first organized Protestant church in the county, according to the St. Stephen's website.
The church building took shape in 1873, constructed before electrical service came to town, and it was a faulty electrical connection that almost spelled the end nearly a century later.
The Oct. 11, 1873, San Luis Obispo Tribune called it the “new Methodist church (South)”; however, the Myron Angel book, “History of San Luis Obispo County” confirms the article was about the Episcopal Church.
Angel’s 1883 book said the church was then called the Glover Chapel in honor of the founding pastor.
Parishioners arrived via foot, horseback or carriage.
According to the Tribune, at the first service in the building, the Rev. M.W. Glover appealed for $325 to pay off the remaining construction debt of $1,800, and when the collection plate was passed the goal was exceeded by $25.
The Tribune said, “The building presents a neat and artistic appearance, and is well adapted to the purpose for which it was erected.”
The construction was still green, and the church filled to capacity.
“In fact, the immense pressure which the floor had to sustain caused the foundation to settle once or twice with so loud a report as to cause slight alarm on the part of some of the ladies, though, of course, no danger was imminent.”
The only complaint was hurriedly made, uncomfortable seating, built too low and paint still wet.
The St. Stephen’s web page describes the building style as “carpenter gothic” and used Monterey pine beams from Cambria and redwood cladding.
It also says the building retains the lines and flavor of the original structure, rebuilt after the near-catastrophic fire.
The snarky “elegant pigeon house” comment below must have come from another article.
On Jan. 26, 1970, Telegram-Tribune reporter Elliot Curry wrote about disaster that befell the landmark:
Historic St. Stephen's badly damaged by fire
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church of San Luis Obispo, 96 years old, was heavily damaged by fire early Sunday morning, probably beyond repair.
The building at the corner of Nipomo and Pismo streets is one of the oldest frame structures in the city and one of its most famous landmarks.
The fire department, only two blocks from the church, received a call at 12:15 a.m. from the Yellow Cab Co. One of its drivers had spotted flames coming through the roof of the church.
The fire apparently had started in a small room where vestments and equipment were stored.
It is believed the fire may have started from defective wiring.
The fire already had burned its way into the high church attic when firemen reached the scene, and they had some trouble getting into the attic in the face of billowing clouds of smoke.
The walls of the church remain standing, and most of the stained glass windows are intact.
The roof is burned full of holes, however, and the belfry is standing precariously on charred timbers. Damage to the parish hall was small, and the education building was untouched.
The altar, strangely enough, was damaged but not beyond repair. Church members who reached the scene quickly were able to rescue some of the undamaged altar objects.
While no estimate of damages had been made, senior warden Charles Belcher said the building was insured.
The full schedule of Sunday services was transferred to Reis Colonial Chapel, next door to the church.
As news of the fire spread, thousands of persons came by to view the damage and photograph the historic building, which may soon be no more.
The wedding of Stephen Boyle and Christine Nybak, which had been scheduled Sunday afternoon, was moved to the Presbyterian Church.
Rector John Fuller said he had no idea at this time what plans might develop for the future. St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church dates from Aug. 1867, when Dr. W.W. Hayes called together a group of Episcopalians and organized the first vestry. Formation of the parish was approved by Bishop Ingraham Kip on Sept. 4, 1867.
Some of the inspiration for the new church no doubt came from Mrs. Hays, whose father was rector of famous Trinity Episcopal Church of New York City.
One of the first objectives of the new parish was a building, and by 1873 a contract was let to Walter Jerome for the new structure.
The building cost $3,000 and was completed in October of 1873.
Editor Walter Murray of the San Luis Obispo Tribune said it looked like a “very elegant pigeon house.” The steep-roofed little redwood building, however, was soon well established as a city landmark, an unusual departure in a land of flat-roofed adobes.
As the years went by, it was enlarged by an addition which held the altar, choir section and organ. Still later, a parish hall was connected to the church.
During the life of the church, cypress trees had been planted in the yard on Nipomo Street, had grown to maturity, and had been removed after one fell over during a storm and very neary missed taking the church with it.
When the city’s “Path of History” was established through the County Historical Society, one of the most visited and photographed stops was the church.
At the time of its centennial celebration in 1967, Rector Fuller pointed out St. Stephen’s has had a building committee for the parish since 1917.
Many suggestions have been made over the years for tearing down, rebuilding or moving the little church, but they always have met with stern opposition from those who regarded it as part of the city’s historical heritage.