SDA plans to renovate United University Church

A picture of the United University Church building, which is made out of red brick and features stain glass windows.
The United University Church, 40,000 square feet and located on 34th street near Trousdale Plaza, was built in 1931 and purchased by the University in 2015. (Emmett Fuchs | Daily Trojan)

The USC School of Dramatic Arts plans to renovate the United University Church building — transforming the 80-year-old building that has been a center for religious events, administrative offices, the Haven Outpatient Center and the Good Karma Cafe into a “vibrant new home” for the school, SDA Dean Emily Roxworthy announced at the 75th anniversary celebration last week.

The five-story building’s renovations are slated for completion by December 2023 and will include two new performance venues, a new office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, an audio design lab, digital media suite, new classrooms, rehearsal spaces and a cafe and courtyard. 

In an email to the Daily Trojan, Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life Varun Soni wrote that, while religious programming has not been offered at the United University Church for “the past several years,” the church played a “central and inspiring role” at USC.

“Not only has it provided liturgical and worship services, as well as pastoral care and spiritual counseling, but it has also been in the frontline of the struggle for social justice, equity and inclusion, peacebuilding, LGBTQ+ advocacy and support, and community service,” Soni wrote. 

According to the SDA announcement, the new renovations will attempt to preserve the building’s “historic feel” by retaining the original ceiling, rose and stained-glass windows, and trusses, while incorporating sustainable design.

Xavier Valdez, a sophomore majoring in theater with an emphasis in acting, said he looks forward to a unified space for all of his classes and for SDA to catch up to the other arts colleges at USC, such as the School of Cinematic Arts, which have their own buildings. 

“There’s definitely a lot of feelings every now and then about how SDA, while still being just as successful as a lot of the other art schools in terms of alumni and things like that, really doesn’t seem to get as much love as the other ones do,” Valdez said. “So, to finally be able to have our own space to feel like we’re catching up … [that] is a feeling that we definitely needed.” 

In a statement to the Daily Trojan, Roxworthy said the new building will allow for greater collaboration between students and faculty. 

“The combination of old and new is a perfect metaphor for training USC students in the ancient art of theatre within the context of our Hollywood location,” Roxworthy wrote. “The location in the USC Arts Corridor will enable unprecedented levels of interdisciplinary collaboration with our fellow art schools.”

Javi Casanova, a sophomore majoring in theater, said he is currently in a class that changes locations every day because of the lack of dedicated space for SDA classes. With the new building, SDA will “finally” have a space that recognizes the work of their students, Casanova said.

“[The current SDA buildings] are really sort of afterthoughts, especially compared to the School of Cinematic Arts just literally right down the street from us,” he said. “It feels great to know that we’re getting some recognition from the University for our work.”

According to the Los Angeles Times, Presbyterian and United Methodist previously owned the building for decades before USC’s purchase in 2015. Before, the University rented the space and used it for religious groups, writing programs, the Thornton School of Music and the faculty senate. 

While Valdez is excited for the new renovations, he wants to ensure that the current programs in the building are continued. 

“I really hope that no matter what SDA is going to be able to find a place to transport those … because to have those pieces disappear would be a huge loss for the school and for honestly the community,” Valdez said.

Soni said the sale of the United University Church building represents a larger trend of declining religious identification in American life, one that extends beyond USC. Despite the sale, Soni said he feels that the University values the religious and spiritual lives of its students. 

“I know the spirit of the building will endure,” Soni said. “That’s because religion and theater overlap in so many significant ways — in building community, bringing people together to change hearts and minds, creating meaning-making rituals, telling new stories and sharing new experiences, and developing empathy for other perspectives and worldviews.”