The Modernist master Rudolph Schindler designed only one church and it stands today in South LA. But for all its well-lit internal spaces, the Bethlehem Baptist Church— "the lone example of Modernist architecture to cross Los Angeles's economic and racial boundaries during the era of Jim Crow housing covenant," as the Cultural Heritage Commission's application for Historic-Cultural Landmark status called it—has a backstory that in many places remains murky. How Schindler came to get the commission and the reclusive status of its owner around that time— a licensed plumber who stayed out of sight despite multiple attempts to contact him by city officials— are among the many mysteries of the church touched on by a piece on Atlas Obscura.
— For a bit of background, Bethlehem Baptist was built in 1944 for the congregation of a small, black church. How they got on Schindler's radar has always been unclear. Atlas Obscura, citing an unpublished essay by architectural historian (and one-time draftsman to Schindler) Esther McCoy, says that it appears Schindler wasn't the first one to propose a design for the church.
—Archival materials suggest that African-American architect James Garrott, who'd designed the nearby Mt. Zion Baptist church in 1926, had drawn up plans first. But for whatever reason, "Garrott disappeared and Schindler took the job."
— Even though neither the church nor its congregants were rich, it's speculated that Schindler took the project because he'd be given free rein to do whatever he wanted with the church. (Archival papers suggest that when Schindler died in 1953, he'd not been paid in full for his work on the church but had still volunteered his time to help maintain the church.) Plus, Schindler "also worked as his own contractor and could make small budgets go far."
— Another favorable attribute of a design by the famed Modernist Schindler: Garrott's design had been very traditional, but Schindler's would not be. That possibly appealed to the congregation in addition to his likely affordability.
— Once the building was complete, Bethlehem Baptist stayed in their church until the 1970s, moving to "a larger, more conventional building" about five miles away, on Normandie Avenue and 74th Street. In 1976, the Schindler-designed building sold to its second-ever owner a female minister named Ola Mae Miller. She paid $39,000.
— Miller held services at the Bethlehem Baptist building well into the 2000s, even though her congregation was shrinking, and even though Miller had suffered a stroke and moved to Claremont—at least a 40-minute drive away from the Bethlehem Baptist building.
— Trouble came in late 2006, when Miller transferred deeds for the church and her house in Claremont over to a man named Leroy Dowd. Sadly, nobody figured out it had even happened until late 2007. Miller had no memory of the transfers happening. An elder abuse report was filed with the city of Claremont in 2008 by a concerned friend of Miller's, but by then Miller's house was already in foreclosure.
— A police detective working the elder abuse case uncovered an incredible web of fraud, involving "straw buyers" who'd been engaged to fake their income, get loans, and buy properties out from under the elderly and in some cases deceased women. In this case, Dowd had Miller sign the house to him; he in turn sold it to a woman who'd faked her income to get an $800,000 loan; that new owner briefly sold the house to a real estate agent.
— By June 2008, all three had been arrested for their involvement in the scam, and evidence had been found to connect the whole scheme back to a guy living in a penthouse in Chicago and a church there that has "a bad reputation for preying on the elderly."
— In 2009, the Bethlehem Baptist was in bad shape. As it was preparing for and ultimately awarded designation as a Historic-Cultural Monument that year, it was often noted that the church's paint was faded and that the building was covered with graffiti.
— The owner, listed on the deed as Inland-Empire-based plumb Luis Niebla, was absent and not returning calls and letters from at least one councilwoman whose office attempted to contact him multiple times.
— Niebla had bought the church for exactly $0 from Dowd in 2008—a time when Dowd "would have been jailed for real estate fraud," Atlas Obscura notes. Niebla was still the owner in 2009, but the church was eventually repossessed for back taxes. (Miller got her house in Claremont back in 2010 and died four years later, at 93.)
— Bethlehem Baptist was purchased in 2012 by an investor group, Yamato Capital Fund. They paid just $210,000.
— In 2014, the Faith Build International church moved into the space. They'd paid Yamato Capital "a $17,500 down payment on the church to lease it with the option to buy," the head pastor said. But in 2015, Yamato Capital decided to list the church instead, asking $1.85 million. (The price has since been dropped down to $1.49 million.)