Here is Jon Carroll today. It inspires one to take a walk around Berkeley and check it out.
I always loved the name First Church of Christ, Scientist. It produces the instant image of the Prince of Peace in a lab coat bending over a microscope. "Quick, Peter, come and look -- I think I've discovered the soul!" "Gosh, Jesus, could that mean eternal redemption for all humankind?" "I'm not sure yet. Hand me those tweezers." If Christ had been a scientist, how much different our national dialogue would be today.
But of course the Church of Christ, Scientist is more commonly known as Christian Science, a belief system about which I know almost nothing. The First Church of Christ, Scientist in Berkeley, however, is an architectural marvel designed by Bernard Maybeck and built in 1910. I have walked past it many times, and it's never been open, so I could only fantasize about the wonders therein.
So on Sunday, a lovely cool summer day, Tracy and I were walking around the south-of-campus area. We had a destination but were prepared to be distracted by serendipity. We passed the First Church; the doors were open. A woman smiled at us encouragingly. "Is the sanctuary open?" I asked. "The auditorium is open, yes." Apparently there are no sanctuaries for the Scientist Christ. "We're having a sort of social event. Would you like to come in?"
We didn't just get a peek. The woman, whom I will not identify because I was working undercover and did not caution her that anything she said could and would be taken down and used in any old way in the public prints, had a vivid enthusiasm for the building. Turned out she was a member of the Friends of First Church, a nondenominational group interested in architectural preservation.
The auditorium (which looks much like a sanctuary) is breathtaking. It's much grander than it seems from the outside, crisscrossed by heavy wooden beams, illuminated by natural light, a solid and steadying room that nevertheless seems to hover just a little bit off the ground. It was like being inside a Romanesque spaceship.
"Can I see the altar?" I asked. "You can see the podium," she replied. Check; no altars. The podium is a solid block of concrete, and originally it was supposed to be unornamented, but vertical grooves appeared when the work was finished, so (the story goes) Maybeck took a pencil and drew a woodland scene, using the grooves to delineate slender trees. One of the best examples of taking lemons and making lemonade I'd ever seen.
After the auditorium tour came the stain tour -- the First Church needs a new roof, lest the whole thing come tumbling down. Perhaps you'd like to aid in this noble effort, or at least take a look at the place. You can go to friendsoffirstchurch.org (the photos there do not do the place justice) or you could send a lovely check to Friends of First Church, 2919 Dwight Way, Berkeley 94704.
We wandered back out into the sunlight and walked to the east, where numerous young people were in the process of moving into the dorms. There were anxious parents hovering, and anxious students eager for the anxious parents to stop hovering, and boxes and pillows and registration tables and the whole "you so do not know what is about to happen to you" thing.
We walked in the plaza in the center of the dorm complex. No one noticed us, because we did not fit into the narrative. We could have been ghosts. I swear, if you showed a surveillance tape to the people in the plaza, they would deny ever having seen this spectral couple ambling slowly, peering at things. We are invisible people; we are history.
And then we went to the Berkeley Art Museum, where we saw real history: "The Bancroft Library at 100." We figured it would be worth checking out, but lordy. How about a diary from one of the members of the Donner Party, a diary kept all during that fateful winter? That do it for you? Or how about a letter from Thomas Jefferson saying that he's thinking of asking his pal Meriwether Lewis to lead some sort of expedition to find a Northwest Passage? Anything yet? Jefferson has very tidy handwriting, by the way; easily readable today, even under glass.
There's the first known drawing of San Francisco Bay, created in 1805 or '06 by a Russian seeking supplies for the starving colony at Sitka. There's a ravishing codex from the mid-16th century that illustrates of lineage of Cuicatec rulers, one of the most beautiful documents you'll ever see. And I haven't even started! We missed the original gold nugget from Sutter's Mill because our brains were overloaded; we'll have to go back. 'S OK; the show runs through December.
We felt giddy as we walked back, like time travelers trying to remember where they'd parked the car.
Come with us now as we board our trusty capsule and journey back to our younger years, to the Arts and Crafts movement, to Thomas Jefferson's bright idea.