Fire at Berkeley’s First Congregational Leaves Performing Arts Groups in the Cold

Mark MacNamara on October 3, 2016
The historic First Congregational Church in Berkeley in flames

UPDATED: Oct. 11, 5:30 p.m.

The four-alarm fire that rampaged through the roof of the historic First Congregational Church in Berkeley last Friday would have been much worse but for the efforts of the business manager, Rev Nate Mazur who along with another staff member got a small group of people inside the church to safety.

Damage in the sanctuary

A portion of the building — Pligrim Hall, which houses offices and assembly rooms — has been "red-tagged" by the fire department, because the brick walls are in danger of collapse. The actual sanctuary has not been tagged.

An initial assessment of the interior damage is that the sanctuary survived, although it’s now filled with plaster and debris. Moreover, the organ and piano don’t appear to have been damaged, at least by fire. But can the structure be saved? A final determination has not been made.

The fire is a disaster on several levels, not least for small arts organizations that have depended on the church as a performance venue. Groups such as Volti, Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, and Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra all use the space, as well as Cal Performances.

“When I got the text I though it was a sick joke,” said Nick Benavides, managing director of the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble. “A lot of groups like ours are so saddened because of what this place means to the community. And of course there is also the short-term problem of finding alternative venues. Our first concert is October 15th.”

“One thing I know is we’ll never find a space better than this,” said Parker Monroe, the

Aerial view of the damaged roof

interim executive director at Philharmonia Baroque. “If there were a better space we’d be there. We’ve been here for 30 years. So now we’re focused just on getting through this month. Our first concert is in two weeks and right now we’re looking at alternative sites and trying to get a sense of what compromises we’ll have to make.”

Factors to be considered in a temporary site include seating, acoustics, lighting, parking, and proximity to public transportation and restaurants. Philharmonia Baroque’s season includes 10 concerts in Berkeley. Monroe noted that one solution might be a series of venues. The minimum number of seats required is about 600.

There were similar problems caused by the Loma Prieta earthquake, added Monroe. “And the community came through, as it will again.”

Barbara Heroux, the executive director of Volti noted that organizations are thinking in terms of how they might collaborate, considering the several organizations may be looking at the same venue for the same dates. “We’ll need to talk to each other.”

As for the cause, Pastor Molly Baskette noted in an email, “We have a pretty good idea, and it will be revealed in due time, but in order not to compromise the claim-filing process, I’ve been asked not to speak about it publicly yet. Please be assured that it was not foul play or vandalism.”

One speculation is that the fire might have been connected to the installation of solar panels.

A benefit concert is planned for Tuesday, Oct. 18, at 7:30 p.m. in the nave of St. Mark's Episcopal Church (2300 Bancroft Way). Performers will include:

American Bach Soloists
Ars Minerva
Music for A Viol
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra
Valley of the Moon Festival
Voices of Music
First Church Benefit Concert Choir

Tickets are available at Brown Paper Tickets.
More information about the concert is available at the church website.

You may contribute to the rebuilding efforts at a gofundme site. As of October 11, nearly $12,000 has been collected, with a target of $50,000.

SFCV will update this article periodically over the coming days.

A street view of the fire at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley