Interior, Swedenborgian Church
Interior, Swedenborgian Church

Joseph Worcester (1836-1913)

The Reverend Joseph Worcester was a Swedenborgian minister, the son of a Rev. Thomas Worcester, who founded the New Jerusalem Church in New England. In 1863, Joseph Worcester was a young graduate from Harvard College. Joseph had considered becoming an architect, and maintained a strong interest in architecture for the rest of his life. He read and admired the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau and the Arts & Crafts philosophy of John Ruskin. Suffering from chronic poor health, Worcester ventured out West where the fresh air and salutary climate might restore his weak constitution. He stayed in Yosemite for several weeks with family friends. He met and began an intriguing friendship with the naturalist, John Muir. They shared a reverential view of nature. Worcester's belief in an architectural style that incorporated a harmonious relationship between nature and design was likely reinforced by his association with Muir. Worcester espoused the expression of raw materials in simple, hand-crafted design. After a half-year of convalescence, Worcester made his way to San Francisco, where he found a Swedenborgian congregation being led by a New Yorker lacking the proper theological training. Church members urged young Worcester to return East and complete his theological studies needed beyond his Harvard degree, and they vowed that if he would then return to San Francisco, they would serve as a loyal foundation for a new congregation. So Worcester returned to the east coast to finish his studies. In 1867, Worcester returned to San Francisco, against the strong wishes of his family.

Worcester designed his own house (1876) in Piedmont, California with strong rustic qualities that embodied his architectural ideas. Architectural historians recognize this as the first Arts & Crafts structure in California. Noted author Jack London lived in the house while he wrote "Call of the Wild," published in 1903. Worcester contributed the design of houses on San Francisco's Russian Hill, encouraging a member of his congregation to build in a manner to enhance the natural environment of the hill. Worcester is also credited for initiating the use of unstained redwood in interior paneling, although the architects Ernest Coxhead and Willis Polk were already utilizing abundant and inexpensive redwood for interiors before they arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Exterior, Swedenborgian Church
Exterior, Swedenborgian Church

While his design skills were strictly amateur, Worcester relied on architects for assistance with his designs, and commissioned A. Page Brown to design the Church of the New Jerusalem. Albert Cicero Schweinfurth and Bernard Maybeck were both designer and draftsman employed by Brown, and are credited with the design of the church. Bruce Porter had provided sketches from a church in an Italian village that is reflected in the exterior of the Swedenborgian church. Both Keith and Porter contributed designs to the Swedenborgian Church (Church of the New Jerusalem) at 2107 Lyon Street in San Francisco (1894-1895). Keith did four great paintings on the north wall of the church. Porter made two stained glass windows, and obtained a piece of medieval glass from Westminster Abbey in London. After the church was finished, Willaim Keith hired his friend Willis Polk to design a house of fitting style to border its western edge.

Worcester was a strong influence on architects of the late 19th century, including John Galen Howard, Ernest Coxhead, Willis Polk, A. Page Brown, Bernard Maybeck, and A.C. Schweinfurth. Worcester could very well be thought of as the one individual that initiated the Arts & Crafts Movement in northern California and as the grandfather of the First Bay Tradition. No other individual was as influential as a designer, a client, a mentor and an associate of the many fine architects who translated this style all around the San Francisco bay region. He was the central figure of a collection called The Worcester Group. The group regularly met in Russian Hill for spirited discussions under his quiet leadership. Among those who participated were artists Mary Curtis Richardson, William Keith and Bruce Porter, architects Howard, Coxhead and Polk, writers Charles Keeler and Gelett Burgess, and neighbors such as Helen Livermore.

Exterior, Swedenborgian Church

The poet Charles Keeler made this observation in his 1902 book, San Francisco and Thereabout:
'Just off from Jackson Street is a simple little brick church which has been an inspiration to a growing number of lovers of the genuine and beautiful in life. It matters not whether they are Swedenborgians as the minister of the church happens to be, or have other creedal affiliations. The spirit of the place, with all its quiet restfulness, its homelike charm, its naive grace, has sunk deep in the lives of a small but earnest group of men and women. Within, the stranger is impressed with a certain primitive quality about everything. The heavy madroņo trunk rafters left in their natural state, the big open fireplace, the massive square-post, rush-bottom chairs, and the large, grave allegorical landscapes of seedtime and harvest, painted with loving care by William Keith, combine with the simplicity of design and the fitness of every detail, to make a church, which, without any straining after effect, is unique in beauty."

Worcester was called "a catalyst who offered a conceptual promise" for rustic simplicity. He was committed to the correspondence between nature and extremely simple expression, and his ideas influenced the evolution of architectural design throughout Northern California. The good reverend passed away in 1913, having served his congregation for 46 years.

Other Joseph Worcester links.


Joseph Worcester Collection, (1920-1), Environmental Design Archives.
University of California, Berkeley. Berkeley, California.

Longstreth, Richard, On the Edge of the World: Four Architects in San Francisco at the Turn of the Century
New York: The Architectural History Foundation,1989

Russian Hill Neighbors

Swedenborgian Church

Charles Keeler, San Francisco and Thereabout
The California Promotion Committee of San Francisco, Publisher, 1902

Last updated 08-14-2004

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