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

In 2016, a devastating fire started on the roof of the First Congregational Church of Berkeley, destroying the congregation’s 95-year-old Pilgrim Hall and scorching the sanctuary.

Services resumed within a year in a repaired sanctuary, but only now is the congregation starting work on a project replacing Pilgrim Hall, which had held administrative, educational and performance spaces.  

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

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

“For years now, 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 many treasured memories,” Pastor Molly Baskette wrote in an email. “Having a new building — even the empty space is exciting, frankly! — gives us a sense of having been made whole again.”

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, though only half the size of its predecessor, will include offices, a commercial kitchen, a large assembly room, multipurpose program rooms and a terrace. It’ll also be more fire-resistant than Pilgrim Hall, the brick husk of which was finally demolished this year after being red-tagged. 

Insurance will cover most of the rebuilding costs, but the 370-member congregation is hoping to raise an additional $750,000 to $1.4 million through a soon-to-launch capital campaign, Baskette said. Inflation, supply chain issues and labor costs have strained an already limited budget.

Artist renderings show plans for the inside of the First Congregational Church’s community center. Credit: Siegel & Strain Architects

“In our church since the fire we have often said to each other, ‘The church is the people and not the building,’” Baskette wrote. “We have really lived into this mantra — the difficulties of the last few years, including the pandemic which exiled us once more from our campus, have made us scrappier, more innovative and inventive, and helped us learn how to live more simply, a Christian principle.”

That’s not to understate the benefits of having a new program building, which Baskette said will allow the church to do more ministry — from cooking up feasts and community meals for unhoused neighbors to providing more comfortable spaces for members to learn and worship in.

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

Iris Kwok covers the environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. A former music journalist, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner...