By Jim Tortolano
Among the most magnificent buildings anywhere in Orange County is the Christ (originally Crystal) Cathedral in Garden Grove, a gleaming edifice of glass and steel that is at once a landmark and a center of worship. Small wonder that it was designed by one of the foremost architects of the 20th century, Philip Johnson, whose artistic fingerprints are also on the famed Seagram Building in New York and the Gate of Europe Towers in Madrid, Spain.
Johnson, who died in 2005 at the age of 98, is known for these and other striking examples of the art of building. But he is lesser known for his role in promoting and supporting the great monster of the 20th century, Adolf Hitler.
In his youth, the dapper Johnson was a journalist who embraced the fascist and racist view of demagogues both foreign and domestic. He supported Father Charles Coughlin, a radio preacher with a large following during the Depression-ridden Thirties and a virulent anti-Semite. Johnson worked as a correspondent for Coughlin’s newspaper, Social Justice, a publication that – among other content – serialized the faked “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” which claimed to be an account of the plans of Jews to conquer the world and enslave Christians.
His work carried him to Nazi Germany, where he watched, with approval, a large rally in Nuremberg where Hitler was the chief speaker. In 1939, he went into Germany for the invasion of Poland. He reported, “We saw Warsaw and Modlin burn. It was a stirring sight.” He wrote sympathetically of the invasion and compared it favorably to Great Britain’s history of expanding its empire.
But as France fell and the British stood alone, American public opinion shifted strongly against Hitler and Nazism. William Shirer, a CBS radio journalist and later author of “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” called Johnson an “American fascist” and others began to wonder where his loyalties lay. Friends of his with pro-Berlin leanings were arrested or indicted for sedition. He made two visits to the German embassy in Washington, D.C. in 1940, and then was cast into the public eye by the publication of Shirer’s “Berlin Diary,” which suggested that Johnson might be a spy for Nazi Germany.
Stalked by FBI agents, Johnson performed an about-face. He enrolled at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design where he began his career as a brilliant advocate of modernism. In what some writers suggest was simply an effort to reform his reputation, he even tried to form an anti-fascist student group, and joined a civil defense group.
Johnson was never charged with a crime and after Pearl Harbor, he attempted to enlist in the U.S. Navy, but his past dogged him and he was refused. In 1943 he was drafted into the U.S. Army at the age of 37. Because of his fluency in German, he was initially assigned to interrogate prisoners of war at Fort Ritchie in Maryland, but when word of his past associations caught up with him, he was reassigned to Fort Belvoir “to clean kitchens and latrines,” according to one history.
Later in life, Johnson was contrite about his shady political past. “I have no excuse for such unbelievable stupidity. I don’t know how you expiate guilt,” he said. In 1956 he donated the design for a synagogue in Port Chester, New York as a form of atonement.
Johnson went on to a career as a giant of architecture and modern design. He was commissioned by Rev. Robert Schuller to design the unique all-class sanctuary for what was then the Garden Grove Community Church. Construction began in 1977 and was finished by 1980.
There’s no evidence that Schuller or the church knew of Johnson’s political past, or that he was gay – still a controversial matter for churches at that time. Perhaps even if his past were known, his change of heart was accepted at face value.
The greatest writer of the New Testament is St. Paul. Originally he was Saul of Tarsus, who persecuted Christians. Maybe Johnson’s second life was an echo of that kind of epiphany.
Sources: “1941: Fighting the Shadow War” by Marc Wortman; “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” and “Berlin Diary” both by William Shirer; Wikipedia.
Categories: History of Orange County