Remembering Reverend Robert Schuller and His Architectural Legacy

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Daniel Paul is a Senior Architectural Historian with the environmental consulting firm of ICF International in Downtown Los Angeles. He grew up in Orange County, attended the Reverend Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral, and worked on a preservation plan for the campus, which includes buildings by key modern architects Richard Neutra and Phillip Johnson. Here are his personal memories of the dynamic televangelist who passed away yesterday at the age of 88.

From the late 1970s to the early 1980s my mother, sister, and I as a child attended Robert Schuller’s church: the Crystal Cathedral—a term used for both the primary sanctuary and the campus itself. Our attendance actually predated the construction of the Crystal Cathedral building. In those early years services were held in the 1961 Richard Neutra-designed glass-walled church that we called the Arboretum. Many people may not realize that Neutra also designed a small Sunday school building near the 13-story 1968 “Tower of Hope” (primarily designed by Neutra’s son Dion and Sergei Koschin) that was long since demolished to build the Crystal Cathedral. In September of 1980, when I was eight, we toured the newly finished Cathedral, with its intense, soaring, open space—either the week before or the week just after the sanctuary officially opened. I remember asking the docent how much the building weighed. I sang in the Crystal Cathedral boy choir for two years, with our polyester tan robes and sky blue stoles and the small patch I really want now of a bright blue crystal cathedral outlined in yellow with three abstract baby bird mouths in it—presumably singing children. There is an enormous space beneath the cathedral of its same dimensions where we practiced choir on Wednesday nights.

Like any other young person in a church, I’d get bored and restless. One Easter morning in the Arboretum I remember playing with a plastic car that you could crash and it would fall apart. Some Christmas in the early ’80s I was given a digital watch. At the service that Christmas morning I used its stopwatch to time the length of Schuller’s sermon: about 17 minutes. But even back then, I realized what an incredible public speaker Reverend Schuller was. My mom had a couple of his books around the house. “Tough times never last, but tough people do” was the one saying—and he had many, and they were all zingers—that I remember.

By the mid-1980s, we were on to other locations and denominations—Riverside and Catholicism. The Crystal Cathedral has repeatedly cycled back into my life, and with each repeating cycle I have more truly understood Reverend Schuller, the ministry, and his remarkable architectural instincts. In many ways the Crystal Cathedral felt like any other good old protestant church, except bigger. The ministry really was small at heart, even intimate. I remember nothing but kind people there, of the kind you might see at any other small church. Though not perfect, Robert Schuller was himself a decent man.

When I began graduate school at Cal State Northridge in 2001 I had an overwhelming desire to do my thesis about 1970s era mirror glass architecture; a condition no doubt due to formative years in Orange County and, one would assume, attending church here. In 2005 I began teaching the History of Western Architecture at Cerritos Junior College with the Crystal Cathedral campus: the best architecture against the 5 freeway traffic, as our field trip. How delightful it was to return 20 years later, to have the tour docents be people I knew from before. I am now an architectural historian. Some years ago I interviewed Reverend Schuller at length about a possible preservation plan for his campus. One-on-one he was rather intense, with a coldness that was more suspicious than villainous. As we talked he explained Richard Neutra’s theory of biorealism, and we talked about Michael Gorbachev and Donald Trump.

Last November, I presented for some friends an all-day architectural tour of mirror glass and office park architecture of 1970s and 1980s Orange County. Turns out we were the last public group allowed inside the Crystal Cathedral space, which was by then already stripped bare and closing to become a construction site. The Diocese of Orange that now owns the property will transform the building into literally a Cathedral (Cathedra: “Seat of the Bishop”) that under Reverend Schuller it never was. Walking out of the Cathedral that afternoon was emotional. Just after doing so, the Diocese representative was generous enough give us entrée to the impeccable, Neutra-designed “Chapel in the Sky” atop the Tower of Hope. From there, reflecting off the Crystal Cathedral, we watched the sunset.

 

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