Preserving a city's sacred sites

The loss of an historic church in Tacoma and the saving of several in Seattle offer lessons about the particular problems, and opportunities, of saving urban religious sanctuaries.
Crosscut archive image.

Town Hall: A 1916 Seattle church converted into a performance center

The loss of an historic church in Tacoma and the saving of several in Seattle offer lessons about the particular problems, and opportunities, of saving urban religious sanctuaries.

Churches embody most of what preservationists and urban planners look for in good cities: They are community gathering places, often boasting impressive architecture. They're distinctive and literal landmarks that broadcast historic, cultural, sometimes ethnic, and also spiritual identities in their respective neighborhoods. Preserving them is also difficult, as Peter Callaghan points out in the Tacoma News Tribune.

Tacoma, he says, is still stunned over the destruction of the gothic First United Methodist Church in 2007. The demolition caught preservationists by surprise, he writes, and before anyone knew it, "a 90-year-old church housing one of the city'ꀙs first religious communities was demolished." He observes, "Not much to be proud of there. Not much to look back upon fondly."

Out of guilt, he says the city is embarking on an inventory of older churches. There are nearly 200 churches in the city built before 1965, but only seven are protected on the city's register of historic structures. The inventory will better prepare preservationists to be proactive in defense of their religious institutions in the future.

Protecting churches is problematic in Washington because the state Supreme Court has ruled, on grounds of religious freedom and separation of church and state, that a church cannot be landmarked over the congregation's objection. You can't tell people how and where they'll worship and what they can do with their property, aside from basic zoning and building code issues. Forcing a church to save its building because of the broader community's interest in historic preservation was ruled as an intrusive step too far.

That decision was a factor in Seattle's own near-loss of its historic First United Methodist Church sanctuary in downtown Seattle. The old sanctuary had become something of a white elephant. Its congregants wanted to sell the downtown property for development and move to a new location. Preservationists objected, including King County Council member Dow Constantine, who worked to save the structure. A new deal between a developer (Nitze-Stagen) and the church's congregation was worked out whereby the church was able to move elsewhere and the sanctuary was saved while a high-rise tower will go up on a portion of the church's former property.

But as Tacoma's loss indicates, not all church stories have a happy ending. The problem with saving churches is a national one. Not only are there religious freedom issues, but as many urban church congregations have shrunk, the financial burdens of maintaining large churches have risen. Many churches have also changed their missions and style of worship: organs, stained glass and gothic arches have given way to homeless shelters and soup kitchens. Chicken soup for the soul is now real chicken soup served to the struggling underclass. Old-time sanctuaries weren't designed for providing social services. As a result, they often begin to decay as maintenance money either dries up or goes elsewhere.

Another factor is the press of development and density. In New York City during the late real estate boom, churches especially became hot properties. Most are low-rise (not counting steeples) which makes the land under them choice spots for residential high-rise apartments. Selling out to developers is sometimes seen as the Christian thing to do. As one preacher told the New York Times last fall, "Christianity is not about a building, it's about people doing work in the name of Christ." Unloading an old church frees them up so they don't "have to worry about fixing the roof all the time."

Some churches are looking at reorganizing how they provide services and worship opportunities to their people. A group of Protestant churches in the University District, for example, has explored whether to consolidate under one roof to save money, share worship facilities, and more efficiently provide services to at-risk youth, seniors, and others in need. Consolidation would presumably make some U District church properties ripe for sale or development. Depending on which church buildings would survive a reorganization, preservationists might have to scramble to save sanctuaries no longer wanted by their stewards.

Tacoma is a striking town architecturally, with an enviable inventory of great historic buildings, and some great examples of adaptive re-uses, like the area around and including the University of Washington Tacoma campus. On a trip to the City of Destiny last spring, my guide pointed out that it was a city of "cones and domes," all of them echoing nearby Mount Rainier. There's the giant Tacoma Dome and the beautiful dome of the old Union Station downtown. There's the cone of the Chihuly glass museum's hot shop, and the city's tapered smokestacks that suggest tall, skinny mini-volcanos. Joining these is a small forest of impressive church spires. A city-hired historic consultant, Caroline Swope, is quoted by Callaghan as saying "churches really dominate the city."

But if congregations and denominations are, in some cases, shrinking, what do you do with an old church? Some can be adapted to private uses. St. Michael's Catholic Church in Snohomish was purchased in a bankruptcy sale and is now a private residence. Seattle's First United Methodist sanctuary has its booming pipe organ and is being used as a recital venue, but has not yet found a more long-lasting purpose or tenant. How many Town Halls (formerly the Fourth Church of Christ Scientist) do we need? Tacoma is wrestling with the same dilemma posed by adaptation:

"Tacoma probably doesn't need 200 theaters or 200 community centers," [Caroline] Swope said. The best way to save them is probably to help current congregations &mdash or new religious groups — keep them as places of worship, Swope said.

There's at least one national nonprofit group, Sacred Places, that's devoted to helping congregations stay in and use their historic churches, and they've developed a number of strategies that church groups can use to do so. In Seattle on Sept. 12, Historic Seattle will be hosting a conference, "The Public Value of Sacred Places," featuring Sacred Places' executive director A. Robert Jaeger. It will feature case studies in church preservation.

It's unlikely, even the secular-heavy Northwest, that all of Tacoma's church and temple worshippers will up and leave their pews at once. While some churches are dwindling others are booming. Some are looking for new homes, maybe even an upgrade. Switching congregations recently worked spectacularly well in Seattle with Queen Anne's recently landmark designated 7th Church of Christ Scientist. The distinctive, beautiful 1926 church by Harlan Thomas was slated for demolition in 2006, but community efforts and the Queen Anne Historical Society got busy (with the aid of Historic Seattle and the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation). The church was saved from destruction in 2007 and is now the home of its new owner, the Seattle Church of Christ.

Preservationists have a chance to play matchmaker in the shifting landscape of religious worship to find win-wins for heritage and building (or maintaining) community. In Tacoma, according to Callaghan, Historic Tacoma is recruiting volunteers to help research the backgrounds of all their churches with an "Adopt-a-Church" program. Hopefully, more of the citizenry will get religion when it comes to saving historic churches.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.