A Second Calling

The Neighborhood Church in Palos Verdes celebrates its 75th anniversary as a house of worship.

  • Category
    People
  • Written by
    Diane E.

During the early years of development of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, the late John Joseph (“J.J.”) Haggarty purchased close to 1½ acres of coastal land overlooking Malaga Cove in 1928 to build his third Southern California family residence. (His primary residence at the time was in Los Angeles, with a summer home in Long Beach). 

His esteemed and discerning lifestyle was chronicled in a 1920s publication, California and Californians. “Mr. Haggarty among his friends and associates is accounted as one of the most cultured and well-informed men in the west. In his travels he has kept in touch with world politics as well as business and has also used his opportunities to satisfy his taste for literature, painting and music.” 

Haggarty’s journey to becoming one of the most successful and highly acclaimed Los Angeles businessmen of his time began oceans away from the South Bay. He was born in London in 1864 of English and Irish descent. After completing school, at the age of 19 he embarked upon a four-year apprenticeship with a London-based dry goods business. 

In pursuit of opportunities abroad, he voyaged to America in 1887 and continued his dry goods career with employment in Missouri and Minnesota before arriving in Los Angeles in 1902. Haggarty worked as a buyer and manager for Jacoby Brothers—the pioneers of merchandising in Los Angeles and one of the largest retailers and wholesalers in the city. 

In 1905 he left his job, and with his personal savings he opened the New York Cloak and Suit House—a small, exclusive women’s clothing store. Having become an esteemed leader in the industry after just a few short years, he expanded his business with the opening of Paris Cloak and Suit House. He and his wife made annual trips to New York and Paris to bring the current fashion trends to the West Coast. 

With his success came a life of grandeur. Lured by a location reminiscent of the Mediterranean, Haggarty set his sights on the Palos Verdes Peninsula to build an oceanfront home. His European ancestry and world travels were his inspiration for designing a 32-room villa in Malaga Cove that would later become The Neighborhood Church.

 

Italian Renaissance in the South Bay

After procuring the land and securing a building permit in 1927, Haggarty hired Italian master architect Armand Monaco to design the elegant Italian Renaissance-style villa, which was built in 1928 for approximately $750,000—an astounding amount of money in that era. 

The exquisitely designed estate, which followed the natural curve of the property’s ocean bluffs, included luxurious, expansive living quarters and an epic number of special features: vaulted coffered ceilings, ornate corbels, arched windows, a portico, a staircased tower, two three-car carriage houses (garages), a swimming pool, waterfall, bath house, reflecting pond and sea wall, a conservatory for exotic plants, servants’ quarters and caretaker’s quarters. All were carefully contained within an elegantly scalloped wall commonly seen in Italy.  

 

SPIRITUAL GUIDANCE  Rev. Dr. David Young with the church in the background.

Key to the success of the construction project was the installation of a private pier that extended 150 yards into the bay, where all of the construction materials were offloaded from boats to be carried up the rugged hillside. Raphael-style art and Renaissance frescoes adorned walls, ceilings and beams, with additional artistry employed in the creation of the balustrades, carved fireplaces, stained glass windows, ironwork and light fixtures. (Construction crew workers were paid $5.50 per day, while the Italian artisans whom Haggarty commissioned from Italy were paid $100 per day.) 

Lush gardens were created by the Olmsted Brothers—the same landscape architects hired by Frank A. Vanderlip, Sr. (known as the founding father of the Palos Verdes Peninsula) for the original master plan of the peninsula. Full-grown olive and palm trees were installed, along with Roman statues to enhance the Italian architecture.  

Not long after the completion of the home, the stock market crashed, and the Great Depression led to incredible misfortune for Haggarty and his family in the 1930s. Haggarty died in 1935, and the London Exploration Company acquired the Palos Verdes mansion. 

For many years the beautiful villa passed through several hands and eventually a Midwest financier, Henry Wheeler, bought it to house his personal art collection. When he later passed away, it went back on the market in 1949. As it sat empty, rumors of ghosts in “the haunted house of Palos Verdes” began to swirl around Los Angeles.  

“Our ancestors in faith were committed to providing a voice for the voiceless and were the first to ordain a woman, an African American, an openly gay man, and we were one of the first churches to be involved in antislavery. We welcome everyone.”

New Beginnings

In 1950, while the former Haggarty estate sat vacant with an initial post-war price tag of $250,000, the population of the peninsula was expanding, and the rapidly growing congregation of the only church in the community was in search of a permanent home. Bible study classes in private homes had evolved into the formation of The Neighborhood Church, which was officially incorporated in 1939 as a nonprofit religious organization.  

Its places of worship had moved from family residences to the Malaga Cove School. After attending an open house in July 1950, 60 members of the congregation loaned $1,000 each to the church (which was later repaid), and a $60,000 offer was made to purchase the unoccupied villa in November. Prayers for a permanent location were answered when the executors of the estate accepted the offer. 

After the property was rezoned by the city, the first projects for the church members were to install a cross on the roof tower and hand-paint a scripture passage—Isaiah 56:7—in the entryway alcove: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” 

 

While extensive renovations were made to the empty mansion (its contents auctioned off to the public), great care was taken to preserve the architectural beauty of its original, masterful design. The immense living room and two guest bedrooms were combined, and part of the portico was enclosed to create the church sanctuary with breathtaking ocean views. Draperies, the organ and organ pipes were installed, concealing the immense fireplace. 

The master bedroom became the church parlor, and the adjacent Roman tub was converted into a small kitchen to service the parlor. The dressing room and other rooms throughout became offices for ministers, staff and quarters for the groundskeeper. The butler’s pantry transitioned to a room for communion preparation, and the former kitchen was turned into the library.

The frescoes and other wall and ceiling adornments were preserved, including the Haggarty family crest and a mural of an unknown man and woman entitled “Springtime” by Italian painter Alfredo Orselli. Additional religious works of art, including a Renaissance triptych donated by the Vanderlip family, were added to enhance the beauty of the original work by the Haggarty-commissioned artisans. 

New stained glass windows were added to complement the existing ones, and many original light fixtures were also preserved, such as the wall sconces of Neptune (god of the sea in Roman mythology) and his horses, which remained on the great room walls during the sanctuary transformation. Expansion of the church was necessary for more worship space and educational and social events, so in the 1950s the swimming pool was filled in to build what is now the Fellowship Hall. The formal garden and a greenhouse became parking areas.

The dedication of the sanctuary and chapel was celebrated by the congregation in November 1952 and was officiated by Rev. Richard Dawson. At the event he said, “There is no higher use of wood and stone than the building of a house of God … A chapel receives world-worn folks and by its beauty, its symbolism and its sanctity, it heals and refreshes them and sends them out into the world again aware of eternal values.” 

Currently under the leadership of Rev. Dr. David Young, The Neighborhood Church, affiliated with the United Church of Christ since 1961, has a congregation that is 700 members strong and provides services to members as well as non-members. “The church has become a spiritual anchor in the community, with many friends of the church feeling a strong kinship to it,” says Rev. Young. 

New to the South Bay and a native of Indiana, he found his way to the community just over one year ago when a colleague told him that a position at The Neighborhood Church was open. “I was in Florida serving as an interim minister when a good friend of mine mentioned The Neighborhood Church was seeking a senior minister. Until then, I had never heard of the church. He suggested I check it out and said, ‘I think you would be perfect. Do you mind if I put your name in?’ I agreed. A few months later I heard from the church, and following an extensive interview, here I am!” 

The scripture message painted at the entryway welcoming all people when the church doors opened was especially fitting for its United Church of Christ affiliation. “Our church values and honors individual freedom and faith choices. Our ancestors in faith were committed to providing a voice for the voiceless and were the first to ordain a woman, an African American, an openly gay man, and we were one of the first churches to be involved in antislavery. We welcome everyone.”

From Sunday worship to community socials, the annual Christmas pageant (with costumes donated by the late Ralph Jester, a congregation member and costume designer who worked with Cecil B. DeMille, best known for the costume designs in The Ten Commandments), Summer Sundays outdoor concerts, church picnics and other community activities, there is something for everyone to enjoy at The Neighborhood Church. 

Though nearly a century has passed since the late John Joseph Haggarty built his personal tribute to the Mediterranean on Paseo del Mar in Malaga Cove, his appreciation for history, the arts, beauty and a grand celebration of that which is good in life lives on. 

Not only is he memorialized by his Italian-style villa that is now The Neighborhood Church, he unknowingly merged art history and European culture with an iconic California lifestyle. For decades, the surf break below the church has reverently been called “Haggarty’s” by The Beach Boys in “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and fellow local surfers. 

As visitors to The Neighborhood Church commune with God and the surfers below commune with nature, the legacy of “J.J.” Haggarty will certainly be remembered for many years to come.

 Special thanks to Rev. Dr. David Young and Fran Bock, historian of The Neighborhood Church. For more information, visit neighborhoodchurchpve.org.

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