First Unitarian Church of Oakland
photo from Our Oakland

The First Unitarian Church of Oakland is a long-time church in Oakland at 685 - 14th Street, founded in 1869 by Rev. Laurentine Hamilton. The building is an Oakland Landmark and a California Historical Landmark.

Building History

The large, brick, Romanesque church at Castro and 14th Streets was designed in 1889 by local architect Walter J. Mathews under the direction of the Rev. Charles W. Wendte, and built in 1890-91 by contractor Peter Remillard. The church building is still in use today.

The land was purchased from Jane Sather (of UC Berkeley's Sather Gate) who was a member of the church. When built, the church was just a few blocks west of downtown Oakland in a well-to-do residential neighborhood. During construction of the church and for at least a few years afterwards, the minister lived in a house on the opposite side of 14th Street.

Over the years, the neighborhood changed dramatically. The Oakland Public Library known as the Charles S. Green Library (now the AAMLO) was built next door in 1904. By 1910, when an apartment building was built across the street at the northeast corner of 14th and Castro Streets, the original neighborhood of single family houses was changing into a working class neighborhood of subdivided houses and apartments. By 1951, there was a police garage and fire station on Grove Street (now Martin Luther King, Jr. Way) a block away. In the 1960s, the route of the Grove-Shafter freeway was established west of the church across Castro Street. Many buildings in the neighborhood were demolished.

On August 5, 1975 the First Unitarian Church was designated Oakland Landmark #13, under Zoning Case #LM 75-221. The building is also California Historical Landmark #896, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places as NPS-77000284.

The church has survived major damage from the 1906 Earthquake, urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s, and the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, although it required extensive work after the 1989 quake.

Church History

First Unitarian Church, Oakland (1892) 3The church was founded in 1869 by Rev. Laurentine Hamilton. Hamilton was previously a Presbyterian minister at First Presbyterian Church of Oakland, and was charged with heresy and forced to resign his ordination. Most of the parish joined him, and formed the First Independent Presbyterian Church, later the Independent Church of Oakland. The church temporarily met in Brayton Hall. It was also known as the Hamilton Free Church.

1870, the church constructed Hamilton Hall as a meeting place.

An 1874 directory of Oakland lists it as Independent Presbyterian with Rev. L. Hamilton as pastor, and Rev. Henry Durant and Rev. David McClure as officers.

After hearing talks by Rev. Dr. Stebbins on "What is Unitarianism?", the congregation voted to become the First Unitarian Church on February 20, 1881. The church adopted a new constitution, and elected new officers:

  • Moderator - W.C. Bartlett
  • Clerk - F.W. Tompkins
  • Treasurer - J.W. Mackey
  • Trustee - G.E. Grant
  • Trustee - E.E. Potter
  • Trustee - C.R. Lewis
  • Trustee - E.W. Buck
  • Trustee - C.H. Reddington
  • Trustee - Carroll Cook
  • Trustee - Joshua Barker
  • Trustee - Charles N. Fox

Rev. Dr. Stebbins was pastor in San Francisco, but continued preaching occasionally in Oakland. Rev. Hamilton's status wasn't clear at that point, but it was noted that he had been paying the mortgage and the church owed him at least $4,000. Sadly, on April 9, 1882, Rev. Hamilton died in the middle of a sermon.

A church notice in 1883 lists the church as Hamilton Church, with Rev. Clarence Fowler, pastor. Rev. A.W. Jackson, a Unitarian pastor from Santa Barbara was preaching. 7

In 1885, Hamilton's widow, Clara Hamilton, posted notice that the church building was for sale, but mortgaged for approximately $10,000. 8

Reverend Charles W. Wendte came to Oakland in 1886, and re-organized the Unitarians. The church met at Odd Fellows' Hall at 11th and Franklin. 6 Wendte led the efforts to raise money for a new building, and the social hall was later named in his honor.

Swami Vivekananda spoke at the church on February 25, 1900, while on a visit to Northern California. Members and followers the Vedanta Society regard Hamilton Hall as a shrine. 2

The Pacific Unitarian School for the Ministry held its first classes at the church in 1904. The school moved to Berkeley in 1906 and became the renowned Starr King School for the Ministry. 2

First Unitarian Church following the 1906 Earthquake (1906) 3


685 - 14th Street, Oakland, California

Oakland Connections

Members of the congregation have included:

CA Historical Landmark #896
photo from Our Oakland

Links and References

  1. First Unitarian Church of Oakland
  2. First Unitarian Church History
  3. Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room and Maps Division
  4. HABS survey
  5. Unitarians Established Oakland Tribune February 21, 1881
  6. The Unitarians Oakland Tribune September 9, 1886
  7. Church Notices Oakland Tribune June 16, 1883
  8. Administratrix' Notice of Sale of Real and Personal Estate Oakland Tribune October 9, 1885