The Early Years
Reverend Thomas Thompson came to California from Missouri in the gold rush of 1849 and founded the first Disciples Church in Stockton. Thus beginning the flood of Christian and other Disciple churches that would find themselves popping up in Watsonville, Corralitos, and Santa Cruz county from the mid-late 1800s.
Around this time, Aptos had a Christian church and Santa Cruz had a congregation with no established pastor or building, but would meet at DeLameter's Hall on Pacific ave. They later purchased a property in 1892 on the corner of Lincoln and Center street.
The Christian Church was becoming the nation's third largest Protestant denomination after the Methodists and Baptists. Yet in California, though the disciples were many, the pulpits were few leaving them scattered. Reverend Thomas Thompson walked throughout the state to deliver his message- he inspired the yearly encampments of the Disciples, which started in Stockton and then moved to a different location each year. Thompson died in Santa Clara in 1872.
By 1888 however, the Disciples had around 15,000 members statewide.
In September of 1888, it was felt that their growing membership would be better served with a permanent conference ground.
George E. Walk- a pastor from Indiana, who helped establish Indiana's famed "Bethany Park", and the church state secretary at the time, said the Methodists regarded Pacific Grove central enough for gathering so why not also locate in a beautiful place on Monterey Bay. Particularly Santa Cruz.
However, the Methodists already had their campground in Santa Cruz- the Methodist Bishop of California had purchased a block by West Cliff drive, Santa Cruz avenue, Lighthouse avenue, and Gharkey street. This was for a campground for Methodist youth and the main building, remodeled by Daniel Damkroeger to represent the picturesque Del Monte Hotel.
Not quite deterred, Dr. Walk began exploring other sites in the area. He returned to Santa Cruz in 1889 and held a meeting at the Sea Beach Hotel to discuss their options. The realtors at this meeting hoped to entice Abram King of San Jose to donate 2-acres so they brought him to Santa Cruz. He was not only enthusiastic at the prospect, he also bought a property from a San Francisco owner and added it to his donation.
Horace Wanzer surveyed the site to make an accurate plot and they brought in the architect Daniel Damkroeger who willfully provided them with free mapping, site plan, and tabernacle design in blueprints and a 3-dimmensional sketch of what the site would look like.
Due to the network of streets already in play, the solution for working with this inspired the bullseye grid of circular streets with the tabernacle in the center. (For more indepth discussion on this see the Circles Neighborhood).
While they only acquired 10-acres for the proposed site, they deemed that to be enough for how strong the plan was, and how beautiful the location.
After what the committee had been referring to the site as the "Santa Cruz Christian Campground", Dr. Walk proposed they rename it after the late president James Garfield, which gained an emotional response. Abram King even offered to build a $3,000-$5,000 cottage for the president's widow if she spent a summer in Santa Cruz.
With the plans in full swing, a hand-full of other people and citizens of Santa Cruz began donating land and money towards the construction of the tabernacle.
The State Christian Church Committee signed a Memorandum of Agreement to accept the offer, and establish their state campground to be used and forever maintained for the general religious and educational purposes of the denomination.
Within a year of the agreement, the circular streets would be laid out, a large tabernacle built in the center, along with a minimum of 15 cottages costing no less than $300 each.
This eventually would expand out farther and include houses that were less expensive and utilizing less acreage around the tabernacle.
The original tabernacle was an impressive building and people came from all over to see it or attend religious conventions. It looked like a beached ship which inspired it's nickname "The Ark", and it was named "one of the noblest auditoriums in the state of California" by the Santa Cruz Surf.
The Ark tabernacle was a perfect gathering ground for religious events such as the annual convention for the Association of the Christian Church of California, which brought in many followers of the church. While some built cottages, most would use Garfield park as an encampment- setting up tents, staying in camper-like wagons, or setting up tent-frame wagons.
This later progressed into "boom towns" that would set up overnight and provide various services.
And eventually, in 1891, the trolley service arrived making travel to and from the tabernacle much more convenient.
The Garfield park campground and tabernacle became a popular tourist destination, as it was inviting and lively, hosting barbecues and programs, and various church services to anyone and everyone. Drawing in people of all sorts.
The tabernacle was even host to "the Campbellites" which at the time were regarded as "Yankees" or "abolitionists". Alexander Campbell aimed to have this title dismissed within the church to keep it seen as a more neutral space, but his younger sister Jane Campbell McKeever was a very vocal abolitionist. Her farm was a station on the underground railroad.
At the time however, it was thought that "women should remain silent in the church".
That being said, women were often time the main organizers of the church.
By 1896, woman's suffrage was on the presidential campaign ballot and Santa Cruz was pretty divided. The Methodist church was the first site in Santa Cruz to hold the suffrage convention- as more people got involved and the support grew, they moved to the YMCA on Pacific Avenue, and then at the Native Sons hall.
Here, Eliza Wilkes delivered her churches endorsement. This led to actions like churches ordaining female ministers in order to show support and then a talk from Susan B. Anthony.
The venue they found to be a perfect fit was the Garfield Park Tabernacle...even with the overflowed crowd.
As the years went on, Santa Cruz was starting to get into full swing- the trolleys traversed the town, and the beginning of electricity brought with it newfound growth. There was a casino, the boardwalk, a zoo, a college, etc. The city was now thriving since it had been bringing in much more people than before, and now there were many more attractions to keep them here.
A neighborhood was forming on the west side- and many of those who simply used the cottages as summer homes or solely for the religious events were becoming year-round residents.
By the 1920s the trolleys were beginning to be phased out by buses which allowed the Italian workers from the cement plant in Davenport to buy houses in the circles and commute to work instead- at this time, there was already an Italian fisherman community living on Gharkey street in the $10 lots.
During the Depression, the tabernacle offered its free use for interdenominational programs or cultural activities in order to offer itself to the community as well as keeping the space generally utilized.
In July of 1935, the tabernacle celebrated the 80th Annual Conference of the Christian Churches of North California. They looked back at the progress of the church and all of their achievements, with optimistic visions of a bright future as they exited the great depression.
A week later however, a fire broke out in the tabernacle and burned quickly and ravaged the building within an hour. Faulty wiring was assumed to have been the cause.
Due to the Depression and other reasons, there were no immediate plans to rebuild the church, but it remained a community space.
The site where the church was, turned into a swimming hole and the foundation around remained a park.
Then in 1940, the parks and recreation department leased the site from the Christian church association. They hired a WPA (works progress administration) and filled the hole and covered the area with sod, establishing the site as a community park. They put in a restroom, playground equipment, and a croquet court. This park would become a popular feature within the circles neighborhood.