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Old Vedanta Temple

by Helen O’Brien-Sheehan

Its roofline an architectural confection of fanciful domes and graceful galleries, the Old Vedanta Temple at the corner of Webster and Filbert Streets is a vibrant landmark of the Cow Hollow neighborhood. The spirited architecture of this building, however, has a firm spiritual foundation.

The structure is said to be the first Hindu Temple in the Western Hemisphere. From 1905 until the community outgrew the space and dedicated the “New” Vedanta Temple in 1959 at Fillmore and Vallejo Streets, just a few blocks away, the Old Temple served as the home for what became the Vedanta Society of Northern California. An early pamphlet published by the Society noted that the Temple “…may be considered a Hindu temple, a Christian church, a Mohammedan mosque and a Hindu …monastery.”

The community’s history reaches back to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and its concurrent World Parliament of Religions. Swami (teacher) Vivekanandaji, a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, visited San Francisco after attending the conference. His lectures and classes gathered a significant group of students in the Bay Area who formed the Vedanta Society in 1900.

The Vedanta is a philosophy based on the Upanishads, the final books of the Veda (ancient Indo-Aryan philosophic/religious texts). It is considered the basis of the Hindu religion and embraces the concept that all religions share the same goal, the achievement of spiritual knowledge and oneness with God.

In 1904 the San Francisco group purchased the property on Webster Street for $1,800 in order to build its first temple. The neighborhood was still dotted by sandlots, market gardens, and nursery operations.

Joseph A. Leonard was chosen as the architect and worked with Swami Trigunathiandaji on the design. The first two floors were completed in 1905. Leonard (1849-1929) was an eclectic architect and developer who delivered a large Edwardian structure with undeniable Queen Anne touches.

In 1907-08, Swami Trigunathiandaji explicitly directed the design of an exuberant third floor: five hollow domes and the graceful, lobated arches of the gallery. Thus, the domes of the Old Temple acknowledge in sheet metal and wood the Vedanta philosophy of universality.

The crenulated dome that looks down on Webster Street honors Christianity, seen as a European, Western religion. The corner dome is a double bulb, patterned on that of a Hindu temple in the Bengal region of India. The easternmost Filbert Street dome is a two-stage octagon. It represents a Shivite temple in India, but is topped with an Islamic crescent that is itself crowned by a trident.

The next dome, moving west, is the “Hershey kisses” dome, a miniaturized replica of a temple in Benares (in Uttar Pradesh, India), also reminiscent of the onion domes of Russian Orthodox architecture. The final dome above Filbert Street is a copy of the Moghul architecture of the Taj Mahal.

The Old Vedanta Temple is in good company as a landmark-worthy house of worship and study in its Cow Hollow neighborhood. The Russian Orthodox Holy Trinity Cathedral, the English country-style Episcopal St. Mary the Virgin, and the Heidi-Swiss Roman Catholic St. Vincent de Paul churches are all nearby.

More than 200 members of today’s Vedanta Society of Northern California study and worship under the leadership of Swami Prabuddhananda. A retreat center in Olema is open to non-members. The Old Temple continues to serve the community as a dormitory, lecture hall, and site of classrooms. Tours of the Old Temple are not available to the public, although architecture students are sometimes given access.

Web site: www.sfvedanta.org.



Photo courtesy of SF History Center, SF Public Library.

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Cow Hollow's Old Vedanta Temple

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