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Central Presbyterian Church, Merced, CA

April 21, 2017

In a post many months ago (“You tell me“), I’d found a church interior view somewhere on the web and was frustrated by its lack of identification: it simply said “Central Presbyterian Church.” That same image came up again in a different search context and now, with some assistance from Ben Bernard, our department’s IT dude, we have much more to report.

The interior belongs to this church, apparently still standing in Merced, California, midway between Modesto and Fresno in the Central Valley made famous by Bugs Bunny and the carrot festival at Chowchilla. But herein also lies one of the major issues I’ve confronted in this project.

The congregation has a well developed website with all the requisite information for those in search of a spiritual home. It contains an admirable history of the congregation’s evolution, which involved the merging of two previous Presbyterian groups, and offers dates for ground-breaking and dedication. But, as is too often the case, it is silent on the matter of architect. The single reference to the building’s designer: in 1914, “[t]he Building Committee was elected and began the process of hiring an engineering firm.” Indeed.

The cornerstone was laid 28 October 1916 and the dedication occurred on 13 May the following year.

But why is it [he inquired rhetorically] that histories of buildings from the late 19th and throughout the 20th centuries resolutely ignore identifying the names of architects? Contractors and builders will be named; plumbers and electricians identified and the amounts of their bids enumerated to the penny. But architects, as they say, don’t get no respect. I remain mystified on this point. But at least we know where the building is located.

The architects, by the way, were Messrs Cowell & Bedesen of Merced — home boys.

UPDATE [24.05.2017]: Further research into the practice of Cowell & Bedesen/Bedeson suggest that they were associate (i.e., local) architects for an Oakland-based design-architect Willson J. Wythe [1871–1926]. Wythe’s obituary appeared in the Architect and Engineer:

Passing of W. J. Wythe

Architect Willson J. Wythe, 15 Hill Road, Oakland, senior member of the firm of Wythe, Blaine & Olson, died at his home early in March after an illness of two years. Mr. Wythe was for several years assistant professor of mechanical drawing at the University of California, and a member of the official board and president of the benevolent fund of the First Methodist Church. He was also a member of the Orpheus Club and of Live Oak Lodge, F.M., and the Scottish Rite. During recent years Mr. Wythe designed a large number of churches in San Francisco and the East Bay section.

  1. Could not agree with you more. I remain mystified by congregation’s utter dismissal of the person who designed a building they are supposedly proud of.

    In the same vein, these images present a textbook example of another frequently observed inconsistency. Why, in a handsome, historic room, where obvious care has been made to respect and preserve the original stylistic character, is the one blazing anachronistic element the pipe organ? This lovely mission-revival building seems to preserve much of its original character but the modernist design pipe organ is as inappropriate as a would be a glass and stainless steel pulpit. This most certainly is form following function to the exclusion of -ahem- organic response the context.

    • I must admit to not being very aware of the roll played by the organ in the spirit of the interior. Thanks for the head’s up.

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