By Jon Wolff, photos by Margaret Molloy
The West Los Angeles Planning Commission met on August 15, 2018 to hear an appeal from Venice activists to oppose a proposal to convert the First Baptist Church of Venice into an 11,760 square foot single-family dwelling with rooftop parking. This historic African-American church on Westminster Avenue and 7th Avenue in the heart of Venice has been a profound symbol in the Venice Black Community since its establishment as an institution over a century ago. And it has been the focus of a great struggle for a year now. The present purchasers of the property are Jay Penske and Elaine Irwin, a rich white couple from outside of Venice who seek to gut the church and turn it into their own private mega-mansion.
The August hearing was the second meeting by the Planning Commission after the first one in June was left undecided by a tie vote among the commissioners. With five commissioners now present, the Commission heard testimony from the Venice activists opposed to the project and from individuals who supported the project. A last minute change in the agenda allowed the commissioners to elect a new president and vice president. President Esther Margulies stepped down to serve as a regular commissioner, and new President Michael Newhouse chaired the meeting. Newhouse is, by day, an attorney for big property developers but, predictably, he saw no reason to recuse himself from this hearing.
The church’s historic significance was the main topic of discussion. Venice activist Laddie Williams pointed out that this church is the most prominent of the African-American churches in Venice. She told of the former slaves who were among the founders of the church. She explained how the history of the church does not leave the site just because a congregation leaves. And she questioned the methodology of the historic reviewers that the Penskes had used.
Clearly, the history of the First Baptist Church of Venice is central to the history of the Black Community of Venice. The surrounding neighborhood is known as Oakwood and has, from the beginning of Venice, been the only area where the original Black families were able to live and thrive. Arthur Reese, the first African-American who lived in Venice in the early 1900s, worked closely with Venice Founder Abbot Kinney. As the official town decorator of Venice, it was Mr. Reese who conceived and formed the image of Venice that we know today. He served on the Election Board of Venice and was a member of the Chamber of Commerce. He was a property owner and was a pillar in the
Venice Community. And Arthur Reese was a founding member of the First Baptist Church of Venice.
Irving Tabor, Arthur Reese’s cousin, was Abbot Kinney’s friend and chauffeur. He inherited Kinney’s house in Venice but was prohibited from living in the section where it was located. So he moved the house to Oakwood where it is now a City Cultural Monument. The families of both Mr. Tabor and Mr. Reese attended the First Baptist Church of Venice.
Venice activist Mike Bravo spoke at the meeting about the Penske’s disregard for the history of this church, and their blatant disrespect for the African-American Community of Venice. He told of how the Penskes allowed event organizers to set up their beer garden and vodka concession facilities right in front of the steps to the First Baptist Church. They allowed an alcoholic playground for a predominantly white crowd to be dumped at the entrance of an historic Black church. On a Sunday.
Elisa Paster, the hired lobbyist for the Penskes, spoke on their behalf. She said that the Penskes are “responsible” people and that the Community’s concerns are only “rumors”. She said that the building is not historic and that it was built after the African-Americans’ time of significance in Venice was over. This cold, sweeping statement by Ms. Paster prompted a gasp of horror from the Venetians in the meeting room. She apparently saw no value in the last fifty years of the cultural, social, and political history of the Oakwood neighborhood of Venice.
Horace Allen, the self-described “bishop”, spoke for the Penskes. It was Horace Allen who had sold the church to the Penskes, and now he came when they called. He said that the First Baptist Church of Venice didn’t need saving. But it was this same Horace Allen who, according to the lawsuit brought against him in Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles, took out multiple loans on the church property to pay other loans on the church property to pay still more loans on the church property. The lawsuit described Horace Allen’s actions as “fraud” that caused great and irreparable financial and personal harm to church members who would lose their place of worship. This is the Horace Allen who came from outside of Venice and cashed out the most historically significant Black church in Venice. He sold it with no regard for its Legacy in the Community. He sold it to white millionaires who now pulled his leash to come speak to the Planning Commission.
The usual members of the Venice Neighborhood Council were present at the hearing. George Francisco, Will Hawkins, and Robert Thibodeau spoke on the side of the Penskes. Of course, Robert Thibodeau is the Penskes’ architect for the proposed conversion. In fact, the VNC is made up largely of architects and developers who have no knowledge or consideration for the History of Venice. Will Hawkins would have you believe that this church building has no historic value. How a white, recent transplant to Venice would have anything pertinent to say about Venice Black History is difficult to imagine.
The commissioners took turns discussing the merits of the case for the appeal. Former President Esther Margulies asked Lambert Giessinger of the Office of Historic Resources if there were any other recognized cultural monuments of the African-American Community in Venice. He named Tabor Court [Irving Tabor’s house] and alluded to two others. Ms. Margulies asked if any Black churches were recognized. Mr. Giessinger replied that some are recognized but not actually designated as cultural monuments. Ms. Margulies asked the other commissioners (and presumably every person in the room) if we are the generation that erases the Legacy of the Venice Black Community. She reminded everyone that there is no visible Legacy of the indigenous Tongva tribe that once populated Southern California. She spoke of the evidence of the cultural significance of the First Baptist Church in the African-American Community of Venice.
The Planning Commission voted. Only Esther Margulies voted to not deny the appeal. The other four commissioners approved the conversion of an historic Black church into a single-family dwelling for the Penskes. Michael Newhouse, Lisa Waltz Morocco, Adele Yellin, and Heather Rozman saw no sufficient historic value in the First Baptist Church of Venice.
President Michael Newhouse said that the Penskes will build their “home” in this “structure”. And he hoped that this would lead to “healing” in the Community. For those who need a translation of this little bit of linguistic sorcery, “healing” means “Black Venetians go away”. Frankly, this current desecration of an historic sacred site is just the most recent attempt to destroy the Legacy of Venice Black History. But it’s also the most disgusting. Who would have imagined that anyone would even think to violate the most prominent Black church in Venice?
The Sunday gatherings of Venice activists in front of the First Baptist Church of Venice are continuing, and sharper strategies are in the works. This struggle has galvanized the People of Venice more strongly than ever. It has brought more minds and more talents together to win the fight and write the true History of Venice for generations of Venetians to come.
And what about the Penskes? Will they really be able to make a “home” in this “structure”? Will they be able to live peacefully in Venice or even be seen in public? They are a very image-conscious couple. Will their public image as the enemies of Black History be survivable? It can only get worse for the Penskes.
In the meantime, you can stay informed by going to http://www.savevenice.me . You can come to the ongoing gatherings on Westminster Avenue and 7th Avenue on Sundays at 1:00 PM. You can participate and share in the Victory. For History. For Venice.