Structure Type: built works - religious structures - churches

Designers: Patton, William, Architect (firm); William Patton (architect)

Dates: constructed 1862-1864

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133 Geary Street
Union Square, San Francisco, CA 94108

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Built by the noted Unitarian minister Thomas Starr King to accommodate the throngs who would attend his Sunday services, this Gothic Revival Style building served its congregation from 01/1864 until 1889. In 1860, Starr King arrived in San Francisco from Boston, MA, where he served as the minister of the Hollis Street Church for eleven years. He was considered one of the most brilliant orators of his time in CA, and an influential figure in political and educational circles. He died at age 40, following a lecture circuit in which he argued vigorously for CA to remain in the Union during the Civil War.

The Daily Alta California newspaper reflected on the power of the Unitarian congregation in San Francisco in an article of 03/31/1867. It stated: "Probably no church organization has exerted greater influence in San Francisco than this. Composed of a single Society, its power, wealth and strength have always been concentrated to one centre, and from that point radiated and diffused throughout the community, and imperceptibly into every relation of life." The church's power was at its zenith between 04/29/1860 and 03/04/1864, the brief period during which Thomas Starr King served as its fifth minister.

Building History
The charismatic Thomas Starr King (1824-1864), while in office only four years, exerted tremendous impact on his congregation, the city of San Francisco, and California, in general. Soon after his arrival, Starr King proved very successful in raising money. "Since the commencement of Mr. King's labors, and during the period of ten months, this society relieved itself of a debt which had been for years accumulating upon them, and which amounted on the 1st of May, 1860, to very nearly $20,000. The mortgage upon the building, $12,500, has been paid, and the society is now entirely free from debt." (See San Francisco City Directory, 1863, p. 503.) Not only was he able to retire that $20,000 debt, he began the planning of a new church able to handle the crowds which assembled to hear him lecture. He also raised large amounts of money to support the Union side during the Civil War.

The 1867 Daily Alta California article discussed the churches that had served the Unitarians. "The first edifice owned by the Society was erected in 1852 on Stockton street, between Clay and Sacramento, and was capable of seating 1,000 persons. It is now occupied by the Zion Methodist (colored) Congregation, who paid $15,000 for it. The growth of Unitarianism necessitated the building of a larger Church. A lot was secured on Geary street, near Stockton, where the corner store of the present edifice was laid December 3d, 1862. It was dedicated in January, 1864. The Church is one of the most beautiful structures the city contains, and cost $120,000. The pews of the Church are not owned by individuals, but belong to the Society, whose organic law requires that they shall be rented annually to the highest bidder." The 1st Unitarian Congregation dedicated this costly new church on 01/10/1864, less than two months before its minister's unexpected death on 03/04/1864.

Building Notes

The church's grand scale and elegant appointments were direct reflections of Thomas Starr King's charisma and his ability to move people through his oratory and ideals. With such oratorical gifts, fund-raising became simple for him, and the new facility reflected this. The San Francisco City Directory of 1863 described in detail the new church's dimensions, plan and features: "The present church edifice being inadequate to the growing wants of the congregation, the society is now engaged in erecting a new building on Geary Street below Stockton. The lot measures 112 1/2 feet on Geary Street by 137 1/2 feet in depth. On this lot are erected a church building proper, with a double porch of approach, set back twelve feet from the street, and a school building, set 65 feet back, forming a wing to the church on the west side, also approached from Geary Street. The buildings are subdivided into accommodations to suit the needs and customs of the parish and the denomination to which it belongs." The extent to which the San Francisco City Directory, 1863, described the new Unitarian facility, far exceeded the number of words devoted to other churches in the city, and suggests the high regard in which Starr King was held by contemporaries.

The San Francisco City Directory, 1863, discussed the building's Gothic stylistic features:"The style of architecture is Gothic of the 15th century, Cosmopolitan as derived from the three great Medieval Schools of that age. The form of the ceiling, through which chiefly the light is admitted, is a modification of the leading ideas of the inter-space vaulting of that era, suited to the peculiar requirements of the case. There is a large marigold window, 21 feet in diameter at the entrance end of the auditorium, with octo-ramifications of tracery, which is flamboyant throughout. There are three great arches at the pulpit end of the auditorium; under the central one stands the pulpit, on the eastern side a new and powerful organ built for the church by Mr. Meyer, of San Francisco, and on the western side the robing room, in front of which will stand a massive baptismal font. This font is from an immense block of Vermont marble quarried for this purpose, and presented, with all the cost of carving, by friends of the parish in New York. It will be surmounted by a gorgeous cover of canopy and tabernacle work, also a gift for the ornament of the edifice." (See San Francisco City Directory, 1863, p. 504.) It is interesting to note that this well-connected congregation maintained close ties with "friends of the parish in New York," who paid for the new church's costly baptismal font and its canopy and tabernacle.

The 1863 directory continued its description: "The windows of stained glass are in Mosaic. The carpets of the church are from patterns expressly designed for the building by the architect, to harmonize with the purposes, structure, and color of the edifice. The exterior is massive and striking, surmounted by crocketted pinnacles on the buttresses, and the interior promises to be very rich and effective. All the arrangements for warming and ventilating, and for ingress and egress, are admirable. The building has been well designed and faithfully executed." (See San Francisco City Directory, 1863, p. 504.) The architect, William Patton, had a budget generous enough to allow him to custom design carpets for the new church designed "to harmonize with the purposes, structure, and color of the edifice."


The 1st Unitarian Church #2 was demolished. The City of Paris Department Store replaced it at this location, which, itself was replaced by Johnson/Burgee's controversial Neiman-Marcus Department Store of 1981-1982.

PCAD id: 20740