Berkeley’s First Congregational Church Rebuilds Community Center 6 Years After Fire

Artist’s rendering of the planned two-story community center on the site where the First Congregational Church of Berkeley’s Pilgrim Hall burned down. A groundbreaking ceremony will be held on Sunday. Credit: Siegel & Strain Architects

In 2016, a devastating fire broke out on the roof of First Congregational Church in Berkeley, destroying the congregation’s 95-year-old Pilgrim Hall and burning down the sanctuary.

Services resumed within a year in a repaired sanctuary, but only now has the congregation begun work on a project to replace Pilgrim Hall, which had occupied administrative, educational and performance spaces.

A groundbreaking ceremony will be held at 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, October 30 for a new $7 million community center. The project at 2345 Channing Way is expected to be completed by January 2024.

The consuming fire Pilgrim Hall at First Congregational Church on September 30, 2016. Credit: Ted Friedman

“For years we have had to come to church and walk by the carcass of Pilgrim Hall, a ruin, a visible sign of our loss, not just the loss of space but the loss of a place that held so much precious memories,” Pastor Molly Baskette wrote in an email. “Having a new building – even the empty space is exciting, frankly! – makes us feel like we’ve been restored.

A photo taken in March 2017 during a clean-up event at Pilgrim Hall shows the extent of the damage. File photo: First Congregational Church

The new two-story, 9,700 square foot community center, although half the size of its predecessor, will include offices, a commercial kitchen, a large meeting room, multi-purpose program rooms and a terrace. It will also be more fire resistant than Pilgrim Hall, whose brick shell was finally demolished this year after being tagged red.

The insurance will cover most rebuilding costs, but the 370-member congregation hopes to raise an additional $750,000 to $1.4 million through a soon-to-be-launched fundraising campaign, Baskette said. Inflation, supply chain issues and labor costs strained an already tight budget.

Artist renderings show plans for the interior of the First Congregational Church Community Center. Credit: Siegel & Strain Architects

“In our church, since the fire, we have often said to ourselves, ‘The church is the people and not the building,'” Baskette wrote. “We have truly lived by this mantra – the hardships of the past few years, including the pandemic that once again exiled us from our campus, made us scrappier, more innovative and inventive, and helped us learn to to live more simply, a Christian principle.

That’s not to underestimate the benefits of having a new program building, which Baskette says will allow the church to do more ministry — from preparing feasts and community meals for homeless neighbors to providing more comfortable spaces for members to learn and worship.

“Our new community building is an outward expression of who we are as a congregation,” Lorenzo Llanillo, reconstruction committee member and architect, in an email. “Materials and form respect our history but embrace who we have become and who we aspire to be as a religious community in a diverse and largely secular culture.”

Jerry B. Hatch