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A walking tour of Oakland’s historic churches

on June 23, 2011

The City of Oakland has eight free, guided walking tours from spring until fall that offer different looks at the city. Jackie Tasch, a volunteer guide for seven years, said the “Oakland Chinatown” tour usually draws the largest crowd, and “Jack London Waterfront” is also popular. The most consistent, though, is the “Churches and Temples” tour. Someone – at least one person – can always be counted on to show up.

“It’s really remarkable that it’s been so appealing,” said Tasch, speaking to a group of six women seated in the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church in downtown Oakland as the “Churches and Temples” tour began on a hot, midday Wednesday.

The tour included four of the oldest places to worship in Oakland – First Presbyterian Church, Temple Sinai, First Christian Church and First Congregational Church. They were built in the same era – between 1914 and 1925, and all in the same area – none are farther than five blocks from one another.

First Presbyterian was the first Christian congregation in Oakland, Tasch said, forming in 1853 in a tent on Oakland’s waterfront. The congregation eventually settled at its current location, at the corner of Broadway and 27th Street, when the church was completed in 1914. Outside, the copper-clad spire is 138 feet tall. Inside in the sanctuary, long, white walls are lined with green, plaid stained glass up high, and scenes from church’s near-100 year history are captured in stained glass line the walls near the ground. Organ pipes that are about 30 feet tall fit inside a white, 65-foot arch at the altar at the front of the church.

Temple Sinai was also completed in 1914. Pairs of white Corinthian columns line the front, connected under the inscription, “My House Shall be a House of Prayer for All Peoples.” A cement pineapple ornament sits on top of the building, “a symbol of hospitality,” Tasch said.

While Oakland’s original Jewish congregation worshiped at Temple Sinai, it is not at the site of Oakland’s first temple. In 1877, the city’s first temple opened at 14th and Webster and moved three more times before settling at the current location on Summit Street. According to Tasch, writer Gertrude Stein was a member of Temple Sinai.

First Christian Church was designed in the Mission Revival style and was modeled after a Mexican cathedral. The exterior is a mostly plain, drab white building that is offset by bright red, elegant and detailed window trim that looks as if it was carved from stone from the Grand Canyon. Its tower, also white, is done with the same carved, intricate red-rock colored detail. “I can’t imagine why anyone would have done that on purpose,” Tasch said of the color choices.

When First Congregational was completed in 1925, there was a clear view of Lake Merritt from the church’s front steps. Now the view is blocked by a 7-11, a billboard and a five-story yellow building. Like other early Oakland congregations, the people of First Congregational moved in the early years. The original church was located at 12th and Clay before the church bought the land at 27th and Harrison in 1923.

The City of Oakland offers eight tours, two each week, from May through October. For more information, visit the city’s Events Calendar page.

View Oakland’s Historic Churches and Temples in a larger map

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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