The following history of Northbrae is written and provided by long-time member and church historian Barbara Hill, who also credits "with thanks the late Frances Conley, the first historian of Northbrae Community Church." We offer our gratitude to Barbara for her loving preservation of Northbrae's unique history and legacy. We thank photographers Dale Mead and John Penbarthy for their wonderful photos that capture moments in our church life. And finally, Northbrae lovingly thanks artist Harley Jessup, son of Northbrae's third senior minister, Craig Jessup. for his generous gift of skill in creating our Centennial Poster featured on our home page and in our Parlor. We display it always with pride and lasting gratitude.
During the years following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, Berkeley became one of the most rapidly growing cities in the state. The Northbrae subdivision was laid out as an upscale residential area, but the developers also intended to move the state capital from Sacramento to Berkeley. The present Marin traffic circle was envisioned as a grand entrance to the capitol grounds, and the streets in the subdivision were named after counties. Moving the state capital failed at the ballot box in about 1910, but today the subdivision is identifiable by most of the original stone pillar street markers and many sidewalks still tinted pink.
There was no church serving the subdivision then, so a meeting was held in the home of a Northbrae resident on February 8, 1914 with the intention of founding one. The Rev. Frank Brush, who had served for 20 years at the First Presbyterian Church in Alameda, was asked and agreed to become the founding minister. The first services were held in a garage-sized chapel in his yard on El Dorado Street. The growing church later met at the Mason-McDuffie real estate office located on the triangular block on The Alameda between Marin and Monterey. (That property later became a mini-park, and is now the location of a remarkable round firehouse.)
The present church property, originally part of 40 acres intended for the state capitol, was purchased in 1917. After a fundraising campaign, noted local architect John Hudson Thomas was hired to design a building. From the start, the congregation envisioned the church serving as a community center. The result was a two-story building dedicated in 1920, which included a Ladies Club Room and a Men’s Club Room (with pool table!) upstairs, and a small bowling alley in the basement. The largest room on the first floor was the Assembly Room, which doubled as the church’s sanctuary; behind its back wall was a projection booth (still there) for showing movies. A parlor with a fireplace still serves as a meeting room.
Northbrae residents from many different denominations attended the church, so although it was then officially Presbyterian, from almost the beginning it was called Northbrae Community Church; and that became its official name at the end of 1915. Rev. Brush retired after ten years, and the second minister was Rev. Laurance L. Crosswho served for 42 years and left a lasting imprint on the church. At that time the congregation wanted to become truly nondenominational and in 1928 the decision was made to leave the Presbyterian denomination. The San Francisco Presbytery agreed, if Northbrae would wait for 15 years and repay the Presbytery’s costs for establishing the church. In 1943 the terms were met and Northbrae has been steadfastly independent ever since, and has been shepherded by ministers (and interim ministers) from several Protestant denominations.
It was during Rev. Cross’s tenure at Northbrae that the present A-frame Chapel was built and dedicated in January 1958. The original 1920 building became known as Haver Hall (named for Philip J. Haver, the father of a Northbrae member), and continues to serve as a meeting place for many kinds of community groups, such as the AAUW, Soroptimists, puppy training classes, and some 12-step recovery organizations. Another building on the property is rented to the Dandelion Nursery pre-school.
Along the north side of the present Chapel is a row of stained glass windows arranged chronologically from the pulpit to the narthex, honoring “Torchbearers” in the history of human progress. (See the sections on the Chapel windows elsewhere on this site for illustrations and explanations.) The window behind the altar represents God’s “love come a-tumblin’ down” (from an old spiritual), and at the back of the chapel is the “World window” representing our duty to spread God’s love to the four corners of the earth. These two windows were designed by artist Judy North when she was still in her teens, and the Torchbearer windows were mostly made by Judy’s employer, Jon Wallis, at the Wallis-Wiley Stained Glass studio in Pasadena.
Because of the beauty of the Chapel when it was finished in 1958, it became a hugely popular place for weddings, especially due to a policy that wedding parties could bring their own officiants; for many years, several weddings might take place each weekend. The Women’s Service League of the church catered some of the wedding receptions in Haver Hall, earning enough to furnish a modern kitchen and also to make charitable donations. A wedding punch they developed is still served at special events, such as the church’s annual Mother’s Day Brunch.
After the death of Rev. Cross in 1966, Northbrae relied on interim ministers until Rev. Craig Jessup was hired in 1967. He had been forced out of his previous pastorate due to his strong stance on civil rights, which was the burning issue of the day. He served until retiring in 1978. Under his leadership, the church bought a building on Colusa Circle in Kensington and ran a second-hand store for seven years. Donations to Northbrae’s annual bazaar had grown to the point that the shop was stocked all year. During the turbulent 1970s, every effort was made to help people in real need; they were allowed to choose whatever they wanted from “The General Store.” The shop was later sold, and Northbrae resumed holding an annual bazaar in Haver Hall.
Wednesday night dinners, followed by a lecture, movie, or slide show, were a tradition probably since the Great Depression. The dinners are now on the first Wednesday of several months, and are followed by a speaker who may lecture on a topic of a spiritual nature. In the 1970s an upstairs room in Haver Hall was turned into an art gallery where many local artists and art associations exhibited. A few exhibits were church-related, and an annual quilt show was held for at least nine years.
Northbrae’s fourth minister was Rev. David Sugarbaker, who began as Rev. Jessup’s assistant and continued after his retirement, serving more than 26 years. During Rev. Sugarbaker’s term, at least two Jewish congregations held services in Northbrae’s Chapel due to its flexible design; both congregations later bought their own buildings. After Rev. Sugarbaker retired, Rev. Don Felt served as interim minister for two years until Rev. Ron Sebring was hired in 2000. He served for ten years, during which time his appreciation for Native American spirituality led to the decision to build a “Sacred Hoop” garden behind the chapel. A columbarium wall has been started, making the garden a lovely place for remembrance and quiet contemplation. A popular “Rite of Passage” program has also been developed for the religious education of our youth.
After Rev. Sebring’s retirement, Rev. Christy Newton served two years as interim, until Rev. Michael Burch was hired in 2013 as Northbrae’s sixth permanent minister, just in time to participate in the church’s Centennial festivities in 2014. We all look forward to our next hundred years as a spiritual home for anyone from any background, and hope to continue serving as a community resource for the entire area.
941 The Alameda, Berkeley, CA 94707 -- (510) 526-3805