CRYSTAL CATHEDRAL BECOMES CATHOLIC SEAT
For nearly 30 years, the Rev. Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral was not only a religious landmark, but an architectural wonder and an embodiment of flush times in Southern California’s Orange County.
Schuller, who began preaching to motorists at a drive-in movie theater in 1955, captured the ebullient positivity of midcentury America, and by the 1970s he was one of the country’s top televangelists, best-known for his broadcast, “Hour of Power.” The symbol of his success was Crystal Cathedral, a 128-foot-tall building designed by the cutting-edge mondernist architect Philip Johnson to be the largest glass building in the world.
From the top, you can see Disneyland. Inside seats almost 3,000. On holidays, services included live animals and acrobatic performers. It was a physical representation of the limitless hopes of the evangelical community of the time.
But the landscape began to change.
Around the turn of the 21st century, Schuller’s large following of white evangelicals was aging, and the population of nonwhite residents in California was increasing. Membership and donations to Crystal Cathedral began to decline. The cathedral filed for bankruptcy in 2010.
At the same time, the Roman Catholic Church started seeing an increase in Southern California. In 1976, the Diocese of Orange consisted of about 300,000 Catholics. Today, the numbers are closer to 1.6 million, supporting 62 parishes, 41 schools, three hospitals and care centers and a number of agencies serving the poor, according to the Orange County Register.
“It’s like, ‘Where are all these people coming from?’ They keep coming and coming,” said Hank Evers, director of strategic communications for the Diocese of Orange.
Fittingly, then, Crystal Cathedral is almost ready to open as a church again – this time as Christ Cathedral, seat of the Diocese of Orange.
“It’s the carrying on of a legacy that was begun before us,” said the Rev. Christopher Smith, a priest at Christ Cathedral. “And a very important sign of Christian unity.”
When Evers joined the Orange Catholic Foundation in fall 2011, his first project was a capital campaign aimed at raising at least $200 million to build a replacement for Holy Family Cathedral, an early 1960s parish church that was selected as the diocesan seat when the Diocese of Orange split off from Los Angeles in the 1970s.
It was that winter that the Crystal Cathedral campus was foreclosed and bidding for the entire campus, including 35 acres, seven buildings and 340,000 square feet of building space, opened up.
“The timing was unbelievable,” Evers said. Unbelievable, but far from simple. “We’re buying a used cathedral,” Evers said. “That’s never happened before.”
For one thing, the Diocese of Orange wasn’t even the highest bidder. But at Schuller’s request, the bankruptcy judge awarded the Diocese of Orange the campus for $57.5 million. Then came the hard part. Crystal Cathedral needed major repairs and would have to be adapted to serve as a Catholic facility. The new focus of Evers’ capital campaign was raising money for its transformation. The final numbers were just too high – $25 million to $30 million over budget.
The diocese brought in Richard Heim, division CEO for Clark Construction Group and a local Catholic. By cutting back on construction costs on what Heim refers to as “back of the house” features that few worshippers would notice, the diocese was able to save millions of dollars. The total cost of acquiring and adapting the building, at a little more than $100 million, came to about half that of building a new cathedral.
Some of the changes were small, such as switching from English walnut to red oak for the pews and looking at a wider range of flooring. The entire glass facade and roof had to be recaulked to withstand an earthquake.
To transform the building into a place for Catholic mass, a substantial altar area replaced Schuller’s pulpit in the middle of the predella.
Rob Neal shows in 2013 how transformation will change the former Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif. The work is expected to be completed in spring 2019.