First Baptist Church of Venice catches fire, sparking renewed interest in property’s historic significance and controversial sale

By Gary Walker

A fire, the cause of which is under investigation, ripped through First Baptist last Thursday
Photos courtesy of Save Venice

A beloved former house of worship in Oakwood that is the subject of a three-year fight to save it from the forces of gentrification may soon get another chance a week after firefighters extinguished a suspicious fire at the site.

Los Angeles Fire Department authorities are continuing their investigation of a fire at the First Baptist Church of Venice on Oct. 22, which some advocates of saving the structure believe was arson.

LAFD spokesman Nicholas Prange said the department is still reviewing what caused the fire at the church, which suffered some interior damage. “We’re still in the investigative phase,” he said.

Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents Venice, has asked the city’s Planning Department to prepare an application for review by the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for possible historic preservation status for First Baptist, which has been at its present location at Seventh and Westminster avenues in the Oakwood neighborhood of Venice since 1968.

Bonin noted that long time residents had previously sought cultural-historic designation for the church. “Previous efforts to do so have not included relevant information and documentation and members of Venice’s black community are requesting a renewed effort at seeking the designation,” the councilman wrote in his Sept. 15 council motion.

In 2018, the commission ruled the church did not meet the conditions to become a historic landmark. And Bonin had previously backed the church’s new owners development plans.

The church, which had a largely African-American congregation, was sold in 2015 by former First Baptist Bishop Horace Allen to media and publishing entrepreneur Jay Penske for $6.3 million, setting in motion a three-year campaign to prevent Penske and his wife Elaine Irwin from building a private residence there and to keep the site in community hands as a cultural center in Oakwood. A court found that Allen had violated his fiduciary duties and committed fraud as a representative of First Baptist but allowed the sale to stand.

First Baptist’s controversial sale has been a flash point in a years-long struggle fused with gentrification and cultural clashes in the historically African American and Latino neighborhood of Oakwood between longtime residents and newer, wealthier homeowners, who have purchased several residences and built large homes in their place.

While some residents welcome the mostly white newcomers, others say they have sought to transform the largely minority neighborhood into a gentrified version of where the newcomers once lived.

Over the weekend Save Venice, a grassroots organization created to draw attention to the church’s plight, banded together to clean up much of the debris from the blaze. The group has organized Sunday sit-ins, filed legal challenges to Penske’s development plans and during the summer held George Floyd memorial rallies outside the church.

First Baptist’s stature as one of the most egregious examples of Oakwood’s gentrification was recently chronicled in a profile of the church recently published by National Geographic.

Mike Bravo, one of the leaders of Save Venice, thinks it odd that the fire occurred after the National Geographic profile as well as a renewed community focus on the church over the summer. “It’s extra suspicious, given the timing,” Bravo noted.

The Penskes also purchased a second lot on Westminster for $5.5 million. Robert Thibodeau, a Venice-based architect who works for Penske, says his client plans to build multi-family units on the property.

“The clients are still planning to renovate/preserve the existing building per agreement with the city and build apartments on the parking lots,” Thibodeau said.

Allen, who could not be reached for this story, disparaged the tactics of Save Venice. “People are lying saying, ‘Come save First Baptist of Venice.’ First Baptist don’t need no saving. It’s still alive,” he told Spectrum News 1 in 2018. (The parish has since relocated to Westchester.)

Oakwood community activist Naomi Nightingale says the advocates seeking to save the church are weary but determined and are buoyed by Bonin’s council motion. “We’ve gone this far. I don’t see any reason to stop at this point,” she said.