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How America's First Megachurch Changed LA's Echo Park

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The exterior of Angelus Temple in 1982, via the LA Public Library.

It was New Year's Day, 1923. Since first light, throngs of Angelenos had been streaming into the once sleepy neighborhood of Echo Park. By noon they were several thousand strong, singing spontaneous hymns as they took over the intersection of Park Avenue and Glendale Boulevard. They spilled into the green expanse of Echo Park Lake. At 2:30, an excited hush fell over the crowd as a woman in white fell to her knees and read the prayer of Solomon. Behind her was a new, massive domed building that looked like a theater but was in fact a temple. Her temple. The temple that would completely change its neighborhood. As the glass doors were flung open to the public for the first time, a reporter managed to ask the woman how she was feeling. She replied, "Today is the happiest day of my entire life. I can hardly believe that this great temple has been built for me!"

That woman was Aimee Semple McPherson. Born in Ontario, Canada in 1890, the only daughter of James, a successful farmer, and Minnie, a Salvation Army officer, Aimee was steeped in religion from birth. She converted to the Pentecostal faith when she fell in love with her first husband, Robert, an itinerant Irish preacher. They went to China as missionaries, but he soon died, and after a second marriage to a conventional businessman, Aimee had a nervous breakdown. In 1915, she took her two young children and left the marriage, determined to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. For the next few years, Aimee, called "Sister" by her followers, traveled around the eastern United States by car, holding tent revival meetings. She quickly became known for her theatrical sermons, for her raucous services full of dancing and speaking in tongues, and, most importantly, for her alleged healing powers.

[Angelus Temple today. Photo by Hadley Meares.]

By 1918, Aimee was packing churches and meeting halls up and down the East Coast with the help of her mother, who was a shrewd business manager. But her daughter Roberta fell ill, and as she knelt by her daughter's bed to pray, Aimee had a vision of God promising her "a little home in Los Angeles, CA." The vision soon went further, encouraging her "to build a house unto the Lord" in the unknown city. She had her doubts, writing later that she asked God: "Who ever heard of a woman without earthly backing … undertaking the raising of funds and the erecting of such a building?" But she decided to follow God's commandment and arrived in the city with her children and Minnie. Los Angeles was the city of movie stars, but it was also home to many who were lost, lonely, and sickly. During the the first half of the Twentieth Century, many Americans with health problems flocked to Los Angeles, drawn by the promise of pure air and a temperate, healthful climate. The city fit this noted healer, and "Sister" was almost immediately packing the Temple Auditorium across from Pershing Square.

Three years after their arrival, Aimee and Minnie set out in earnest to find the perfect plot of land for their "house unto the Lord." Years later, Minnie remembered:

One day Sister and I started out impressed that we would be guided to some suitable place and would know it when we saw it. After many hours we came to the now beautiful spot upon which Angelus Temple stands. It was then but a vacant, rough, debris-strewn lot. The moment Sister McPherson turned her car at the corner of Glendale Blvd., she drew her breath in quickly and sat silent for a moment or two. Knowing her as I did, I sat silently beside her, waiting. Then, without a word, she stepped from our automobile, walked over to the ground, lifted her hand and said: "This is the place God would have us build." Aimee was drawn to the lot's location across from Echo Park Lake, believing it the perfect place for parishioners to relax before and after services. A few months later, a "For Sale" sign appeared on the lot. According to her biographer Daniel Mark Epstein: "With a lead pencil Aimee sketched her vision of the temple upon the sign board … She drew it exactly in the shape of a megaphone." Soon the lot was theirs, and over the next two years Aimee would hold some of the biggest revivals ever seen. She raised funds for the $250,000 temple from offering plate donations and wealthy followers. Aimee also had no qualms asking for what she needed, with one reporter writing that "she then reminded all that the carpet had not yet been provided, and everyone was asked to contribute a yard at $5 for sinners to walk over to the altar and be saved."

Brook Hawkins of the prominent Winter Construction Company—which had also built the iconic Culver City Hotel, Grauman's Metropolitan Theater, and the Pasadena Playhouse—was hired as architect and contractor. Aimee helped design much of the temple, including the stained glass windows, interior, and lobby. When it was completed, the concrete and steel "Angelus Temple" boasted perfect acoustics and seating for 5,300 non-denominational worshipers. Aimee insisted on 25 large doors so that traumatic mob scenes she had witnessed in her travels would not be repeated at her services. A 125-foot concrete dome, "the largest in North America," featured an exterior coated with ground abalone shells and an interior painted with a blue skyscape by the artist Anne Henneke. There was a "watchtower" where parishioners engaged in round-the-clock prayer, the "500 room" for Pentecostal members to speak in tongues without shame, and a room for those seeking miracle cures to be instructed on God's miraculous healing.

Los Angeles had found its new "it girl." The media and public were enraptured with this little woman and her big building. One reported: "Two hours before the services were scheduled to commence, people were pouring into Angelus Temple in a steady stream, filling up all the seats on the lower floor, then lining the balcony, row by row, and overflowing into the second balcony." Another, hoping to get an interview with her, marveled that surrounding streets were lined for blocks to catch a Tuesday night prayer meeting. Loudspeakers were installed outside the temple to deal with the inevitable overflow.

Those lucky enough to get inside were not disappointed. Aimee was a show-woman extraordinaire. Her services featured music, show choirs, talking birds, farm animals, healings, and her famed "theatrical sermons" which combined biblical teachings with pageantry. With her lilting voice, Aimee was the star of these productions, "radiating health, optimism and magnetism … she dances and claps her hands like a happy little girl in the pulpit and she starts the singing with all the carefree exuberance of a joyous child." She could play any part, dressing as a farm girl to tell the story of her life or as a policewoman for a sermon inspired by a recent speeding ticket. "In this show-devouring city," reported Harper's magazine in 1927, "no entertainment compares in popularity with that of Angelus Temple."

The church soon owned much of the land surrounding the temple. By the late '20s, the campus included the six-story LIFE Bible College, KFSG (a Gospel radio station and the city's third broadcast station), the family parsonage, a commissary, and dormitories and administrative buildings. The temple was credited with revitalizing the neighborhood of Echo Park. Within a year of its construction, the LA Times reported: "It is estimated that since the church was built more than 250 residence flats and apartments have been erected within a radius of a few blocks of the temple, and many of the hitherto vacant lots are now being improved with residential structures of various kinds." In a letter to the editor, a supporter exclaimed that, due to the temple's moral, spiritual, promotional, and commercial benefits, the city was simply "rowing better since the temple was built."

The church grew in spite of, and partially because of, a series of scandals that rocked it from the mid-'20s on. In May of 1926, Aimee disappeared while swimming off the coast of Venice Beach. She was presumed drowned, only to reappear in the Mexican desert weeks later, claiming to have been kidnapped. Thousands of faithful swarmed to Angelus Temple waiting for her first message after her return, posted on the temple bulletin board. It was soon alleged by the local press, and eventually the Los Angeles District Attorney's office, that she had actually been holed up with her radio station's married engineer in a bungalow in Carmel. The media circus that followed the revelation turned Angelus Temple into a tabloid sensation, with so many members of the press around that the courtyard behind the parsonage became known as "newspaper alley." The temple building itself was instantly recognizable across the country, with plates, miniatures, floats, and wedding cakes made in its shape. On a popular birthday card, a smiling Aimee wore a dress whose skirt became a version of the temple.

The national symbol also became a magnet for bomb threats from as far away as Virginia, suicides—including a woman who jumped off the roof—and abandoned babies, who were often left on the parsonage doorstep. In 1932, painter Barse Miller's painting "Apparition Over Los Angeles," which featured Aimee surrounded by cherubs carrying bags of money, floating in clouds over Angelus Temple, caused a furor when it was displayed at the Los Angeles County Museum and later at Barnsdall Art Park. But the faithful still believed, and extra trolley cars were still frequently routed to Echo Park to meet the public demand. In 1935, Aimee climbed the temple dome, trumpeters blaring, to unveil an 18-foot-high blue and red neon cross, which was said to be visible from 50 miles away.

One of the reasons for the temple's continuing success was the remarkable amount of good it did. During the Depression, first on the Echo Park campus and then also in an old cab company Downtown, the temple fed more people than any other organization in Los Angeles. The parsonage was almost always unlocked and Aimee had an ingeniously designed secret compartment built into the right-hand volute of the staircase rail in the foyer. A weary congregant could lift the volute's knob and retrieve hidden coins for the trolley, no questions asked. During World War II, Aimee became a master at selling war bonds from the pulpit and was recognized as the number one seller in the country. She was active in every part of city life, and spoke for many Angelenos when she advocated for a reliable metropolitan subway system:

"Los Angeles has ever been a city of beauty, a place of refuge where tired men and women from all over the world have come seeking rest. They left the noise, dirt, unsightliness, gloom and danger of the elevateds to come to our fair city where there is peace, quiet and comfort …. let us have subways, the safe sane and practical solution to this great problem. They are out of view and take care of congested traffic in a smooth efficient way." By September 27, 1944, Aimee was tired and weary. She died in Oakland, CA, of a mysterious overdose of prescription pills as she was preparing to lead a series of revivals. Her followers flocked to Angelus Temple, and it was said that the wailing could be heard all the way to Echo Park Lake. Thousands stood in line to glimpse her body as it lay in state near the altar she had electrified for twenty-one years.

The Angelus Temple continued to grow under Aimee's son Rolf. In 1972, the temple underwent a $500,000 renovation that included new glass doors, carpeting, and a new organ console. In 2001, the temple became the home of LA's wildly influential and service-oriented Dream Center. The interior is now virtually unrecognizable when compared to its original design. The present sanctuary resembles any large, tech-savvy megachurch, though Aimee's impressive stained glass windows still draw the eye. It is again the site of enthusiastic, glitzy, musical services filled with true believers and a charismatic preacher. Aimee would be wonderfully pleased.

Further Reading:
· Sister Aimee by Daniel Mark Epstein
· Aimee Semple McPhereson and the Resurrection of Christian America by Matthew Avery Sutton
· Aimee Semple McPherson, Everybody's Sister by Edith L. Blumhoffer
· This is That: Personal Experiences, Sermons and Writings of Aimee Semple McPherson by Aimee Semple Mcpherson and Douglas Harrolf
· The Foursquare Church [Official Site:]
· Angelus Temple [Curbed LA]
· Curbed Features [Curbed LA]