The First Baptist Theological School in the Western US
The Seminary at Strawberry was opened in Marin and once considered a possible site for the United Nations.
One could say the Golden Gate Baptist Seminary’s history in Marin goes back 160 years. In 1859, just months before the United States was plunged into the cataclysmic Civil War, Harvey Gilbert founded the San Rafael Baptist Institute. Sadly, it lasted but a few years. Yet it planted a seed.
Fast-forward 70 years, when Gilbert’s dream for a theological school in California began to grow in the minds of America’s Baptists. A student at Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Texas, Isam B. Hodges, became convinced that if such a goal was ever to be achieved, it would be up to him — and somehow he would make it happen. In 1934, Hodges arrived in the Bay Area and within two years he was pastor of Oakland’s Golden Gate Baptist Church. The idea now had solid footing to germinate on.
As World War II drew to a close, Hodges was determined to make good on his idea. At his urging, in the spring of 1944, deacons from throughout Northern California met to formally organize Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, with the expressed purpose of training men and women for the ministry. By summer, a state charter had been issued and classes began in Oakland’s Golden Gate Baptist Church.
Inside of a decade, the seminary, under new leadership and ownership, moved to larger quarters in Berkeley and was poised to become one of the finest theological seminaries in the world. Then, with Harold Graves as its president, in 1953 Golden Gate Seminary purchased 148 acres of prime Marin County real estate, site of a dairy farm previously considered as a permanent location for the United Nations.
After six years of planning and construction, the new seminary campus opened in September 1959 on Strawberry Point. It’s the first Baptist seminary ever built in the western United States and now had a Mill Valley address — a mere 11 miles from the San Rafael location where Harvey Gilbert first envisioned such an institution a century ago.
The planning and timeless design of the campus brick buildings were by noted San Francisco architect John Carl Warnecke, known for Bay Area landmarks like Stanford University’s Mapes Pavilion, the San Francisco Hilton and the U.N. Plaza at San Francisco’s Civic Center. He also designed the John F. Kennedy Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia (after which he and Jacqueline Kennedy reportedly were briefly romantically involved).
Completed, the Golden Gate Baptist Seminary had nine buildings containing nearly 120,000 square feet of floor space, with 211 student housing units and spectacular views of San Francisco’s skyline over the bay. Enrollment peaked in the 1970s at 750 students, most doing graduate work, then years later began to decline. In 2014 trustees voted to relocate the seminary next to Ontario International Airport in Southern California and sold the Marin property to North Coast Land Holdings for $84 million.
North Coast’s first proposed plan for the land, to add 93 residential rental units and lease the campus buildings to The Branson School in Ross, was fervently opposed by neighbors, who posted red “NO BRANSON” lawn signs community-wide. Last September the company signed a three-year lease with Olivet University, a private evangelical Christian school, and will work with the community on a long-term plan for the site.
In 2016, Southern California’s Golden Gate Baptist Seminary was renamed Gateway Seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention. The Marin site, located off the Seminary Drive exit from Highway 101, is now called the Seminary at Strawberry and, besides having the university tenant, is a setting for weddings, seminars and special events.
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition with the headline: “The Seminary at Strawberry”.