Noe Valley Voice March 2010

Built in 1888, the Carpenter Gothic church at 1021 Sanchez Street is set to undergo a major renovation starting in November
Photo by Jack Tipple

Ministry to Close for Yearlong Renovation

By Heather World

The 122-year-old Noe Valley Ministry will shutter its arched façade for at least a year this November to undergo a major renovation, scattering celebrated neighborhood institutions that call the building home.

Depending on the money raised, the building will emerge as a house of worship for three distinctive groups--Christians, Jews, and Muslims--or wind up as a simple restoration with more accessibility and a sound foundation.

The overhaul, which will cost at least $3 million for the simplest plan, is long overdue, says Rev. Keenan Kelsey, pastor of the Presbyterian church that owns the building and worships there.

"We have reached the point where a plumbing repair is no longer $200; it's $2,000," she says. The church is also anxious to install an elevator, to make entry easier for the disabled.

Still, the closure will have far-reaching consequences, because the building at 1021 Sanchez Street is home to a nursery school , a senior lunch program, numerous 12-step meetings, dance workshops, and the Noe Valley Music Series, not to mention the office of the Voice.

The Noe Valley Cooperative Nursery School, which has been on the premises since its founding in 1969, cannot afford to wait out construction and pay the $400,000 in capital improvements that the church wants for the school space, says director Susan Edwards.

Mary Carbonara and other parents are looking for a new home for the school's 30 students, but prospects have been scarce, she says. Though the school has two promising leads, one of them in Noe Valley, it will still need to negotiate a lease, renovate, and file for licensing before school starts next fall.

"We're trying to do everything by the book, but the book takes time," she says. "We're on pins and needles, but spirits remain very high."

Others, like Project Open Hand's senior lunch program, will relocate temporarily.

Site coordinator Wendy Cohen says the organization is looking for an alternative space--ideally in Noe Valley--to serve the 20 to 25 seniors who come five days a week for the noontime meal.

"We don't know what will happen," she says. "I don't see anything out there."

The congregation itself is investigating options for a spot, says Kelsey, and the church will try to bring back the senior lunches after remodeling.

Such accommodation might be harder when it comes to the Noe Valley Music Series, a fixture since 1981. Producer Larry Kassin would like to stay in the neighborhood, but he hasn't come across a viable space yet.

"If anybody has ideas, they can contact me," he says, laughing but not joking. "My main concern is that they won't have the money, and [the renovation] will go on for years." Staying afloat in a satellite location may not be feasible for long, he says.

Seeking Partners, Donors

All the tenants say they've known for a while that renovations would be coming. Kelsey says discussions began five years ago, but the 55-member congregation quickly realized it would need help with costs. Thus was born the id ea of bringing the three major Western religions into one home, she says.

The process has been as rocky as the Temple Mount, however.

"The tri-faith vision keeps coming together and falling apart," says Kelsey.

The Jewish synagogue Beyt Tikkun, which currently worships in the building, saw the space more as its San Francisco outpost than as a home, so now the Ministry is talking to Or Shalom, which worshipped there long ago. The imam who hoped to bring a Muslim congregation into the fold suffered a significant economic loss in the recession and had to pull back. However, before Kelsey could find a new Muslim partner, the imam called to say he wanted to stay involved.

The Noe Valley Ministry congregation has raised $1.5 million so far, says Bill Jackson, who chairs the capital campaign with fellow congregant Chris Keene. Jackson, chief executive officer and president of a nonprofit school information website, says the Ministry can benefit from its role as the heart of the community.

"More than thr ee quarters of the people who walk through the door are affiliated with the community purposes," he says, listing the concert series, educational classes for children, AA and other group meetings.

Keene and Jackson hope to find a couple of Noe Valley residents who can contribute something like a half-million dollars over three years. In turn, the church could recognize them by naming some portion of the building after the donors.

"My own belief is that there are several dozen individuals in Noe Valley who can make that kind of gift," he says.

Some will give to support the idea of harmony among the three Abrahamic faiths, says Kelsey.

"There's nothing earth-shattering about Jews and Christians sharing space," she says. But add a Muslim group and you have a new paradigm.

A preschool, too, could add to the pot. Noe Valley has a high demand for preschool slots, and the Ministry hopes to find a school that can afford the capital improvements and become a partner in the space.

The improvements would g ive a school better access to the courtyard outside, says architect John Goldman. He has rearranged the inside of the church extensively, but its exterior will be left largely intact.

"What I'm really doing is removing the bad additions and restoring the building the way it was originally," says Goldman, whose architectural practice is about two-thirds devoted to houses of worship.

The church was originally a one-story building designed by Charles Geddes, the architect of Yosemite Chapel and other noted churches in California. Its design is Carpenter Gothic, essentially American Gothic design created of wood. Construction ended in 1888, and three years later the architect who helped design San Francisco's "flat-iron" Phelan Building, William Curlett, lifted the church and added a bottom floor. There has been no comprehensive renovation since then, though the roof was replaced in the mid-1990s.

A Mihrab Facing Mecca

Goldman's redesign will open up the second floor, which now incl udes the sanctuary and a dance studio, and make it one level space that will accommodate almost twice the number of worshippers. A new chancel along the east wall will feature two cabinets, one for the accoutrements of Christian worship and one to house an arc for the Torah.

There will be storage space for the rugs that must roll out over the hardwood floors during services for Muslims, and a mihrab--a niche that points east toward Mecca--built in a wall near the northeast corner. "The angle is 18 degrees east of due north in San Francisco," Goldman says.

He also is adding a bay on the north side, which will hold a new kitchen and interior stairs. "[The design] adds some needed space and brings a lot more light."

Downstairs, the preschool will share space with offices, a multipurpose room, modern restrooms, and a small dedicated mosque with its own smaller mihrab. The plans include creating a special place where Muslims can perform their ablutions before entering the mosque.

"I think it's really exci ting," Goldman says.

Holding the Vision

Incorporating the necessities for Islam will add about $2 million to the cost. The imam has told Kelsey he still hopes to gather his faithful, but after so many ups and downs, she knows she must keep her goal in perspective.

"We are holding that vision, but holding it more lightly," she says.

More than six years ago, the Ministry was given part interest in the parking lot on 24th Street between Vicksburg and Sanchez, estimated to be worth about $3 million at the time. In a worst-case scenario, the Ministry could sell the parking lot, but Kelsey says she would prefer the lot remain as it is, as a site for the popular weekly farmer's market.

Jackson also expressed hope the church could raise the money without touching the lot. He is setting his sights on raising another $1 million this year.

"If we can get to that, then I think we'll be within striking distance," he says. After a private campaign, the Ministry can then go public, seeking grants and asking for public support.

Kelsey says the congregation has faith in the outcome.

"I wake up every morning, saying, 'Okay, God, show me the way,'" she says. "I don't know how it's going to happen, but it will happen."