Local Church Building Comes Back to Life

Zion Church Then and Now

We’ve been watching a significant transformation underway these days at the former Zion German Congregational Church, once also known as the Mt. Zion Baptist Church, just across from Irving Park at 831 NE Fremont Avenue. Maybe you’ve driven by in the evenings like we have, and seen the lights on in the sanctuary or the steeple tower.

Activity here is a switch. It’s been dark and quiet for years: one of those buildings whose future you worry about when you pass by. Not so today. Owned by Gresham Baptist Church, the building (built in 1914) and its adjacent parish house are coming back to life through a renovation by the Door of Hope Church, which plans to open its bright red doors early next month.

The building has a long and vibrant history. Part of the Volga German community in Portland, it was once teeming with Russian-German families engaged in worship, committees and community service, for a half a century, pretty much from its dedication on November 8, 1914.

Zion Church Cornerstone

Cornerstone of the Zion German Congregational Church, set on July 19, 1914. The building was opened in November 1914 and was in full and active use by the Russian-German community until the early 1970s.

In fact, only German language was allowed in the building up until the late 1950s when an English language service was first offered, a change that signaled the changing demographics in the Russian-German community that ultimately led to their departure from the building in 1967 1972 . In the mid 1980s, the building was home to the Zion Baptist Church.

For a fascinating and highly detailed examination of Northeast Portland’s Russian German community—including information on this and other churches in the neighborhood built and used about the same time—be sure to check out Steve Schrieber’s excellent website www.volgagermans.net where you can also find specifics on this church.

And as long as you’re clicking around, here’s a link to the Door of Hope Church community, which plans to move in full time in early February. During our recent visit to the building, we learned there are about 1,000 members in this church, and that there will be four services each Sunday. Here’s one more link: to the Sabin neighborhood website which does a nice job of reporting on developments in the neighborhood and is actively engaged on land use and historic building topics. The church building is actually in the King neighborhood.

Any time a dejected old building comes back to life, it’s worth having a look, so we dropped in recently for a visit, and toured from the ground up to the steeple. Here’s what we saw.

The basement, once a large, single, dark and open space, now holds multiple brightly painted classrooms designed with kids in mind. The new press-board floors have been treated with a clear Swedish finish, making them glow with warmth and light. Interesting and attractive flooring material, almost like cork.

Basement Rooms

In the far southeast corner of the building, you pass by the twin doorways that lead out onto Fremont and climb the stairs into bright light entering through the south gothic windows, and enter directly into the sanctuary, where more work becomes immediately evident: newly refinished stairs, floors and wainscot; repaired and painted walls; repaired stage area; restored lighting fixtures. It’s clear this has been a busy place lately. Prior to renovation, the floors were covered with a very worn red carpet and the walls were pink to match. Years of deferred maintenance was visible wherever you looked. Not so today: seemingly every surface has been stripped, finished and renewed.

Stairs

At the top of the stairs, you enter onto the main floor and become aware of the balcony overhead. Many of the pews here are original, but Door of Hope has brought in many chairs as well, creating a somewhat less formal and more flexible feel.

First Floor

The center of attention on the main floor (below) is the arched alcove area and stage, rimmed by lights and framed by the three windows. You can also see the new sound system, and glass railing added to the balcony edge. Electrical and other system updates are evident.

Stage

The stairs to the second floor are lit by bright light coming in through the window walls on the south side of the building making the newly refinished stair treads, railings and banisters glow.

Going Up

Top of Stairs

From the Balcony

The view from the balcony (above) provides a great vantage on the stage below, and a good look at the restored ceiling lights.

Crow's Nest

One of the most intriguing and comfortable spaces in the building (above) is the pastor’s study and office, which are located in the bell tower and provide a commanding view out on Irving Park and Fremont. The ladder at far right leads to additional office/study space above with desk, bookshelves and more great views. When the lights are left on in these rooms at night, the steeple tower glows, signaling the transformation that is happening to this building.

With the rising number of demolitions in the neighborhood and a growing pressure to redevelop properties (have you been watching the small abandoned 1930s service station at 7th and Knott, which probably won’t be around much longer?) it’s satisfying to see a once vibrant old icon of the neighborhood that shaped so many lives and memories come back from the brink.

Zion Church Night

13 responses

  1. Doug: thanks for the great article. The church looks awesome inside and perhaps I’ll see if it’s a good fit for me spiritually too (been looking for the right place for a long time). Best to you, Amy

    Via iPhone

    >

  2. Cont…. Found out about this cuz my teen daughter goes to Door of Hope Sunday eves. I did a double take when heard. Talk about life going the full 360. Last time I was there was 72. Was sad to drive by occasionally and see it in such disrepair.

  3. It is wonderful to see that old church come back to life. My family was part of that church for years. I may have been christened there in the late 60’s but I know every one in my German-Russia family was a part of this congregation for years until the neighborhood broke up.

  4. The Zion Congrgational Church in which I was bapyized and confirmed in was abandoned in 1972, not 1967.
    Peter Miller Osaka, Japan

    • Thank you Peter. The 1967 date has been referenced in other histories. I will make this change. Any memories you’d like to share?

  5. Zion Congregation has a rich family history that goes back for over 100 years. Yes the original congregation was made up of Germans. The Deines family grew up in this church. When the congregation left the church building at 9th and Fremont the congregation purchased land on NE 148th and built a church. That is known as Rivercrest.

  6. Acording to my mother’s so called unofficial autobiography that was a booklet of memories sent to my daughter, my grandmother Christina (Scnell) Herder was the first organist and her husband, my Grandfather Lucas Herder was the choir director. My grandfather who was also a fine carpenter and cabinet maker also helped build the church. I believe the date 1967 was the year in which Zion Congregational Church merged with the Brethern Church to form Zion Brethern Congregational Church U.C.C. They were at the 9th and Fremont site until 1972 when they moved to the Parkrose area to form Rivercrest Commiunity Church.
    Peter Miller. Osaka, Japan.

    • Peter Miller, I wonder if you are a descendant of Lawrence Miller. He passed away in 1910 and then his widow Christina lived in this house I have been living in for 26 years or so on N.E. 11th. I think Lawrence built this house. Please let me know if so. I would love more history of this place I call home now. Thanks!

  7. Peter Miller, Good to hear from you! I remember going to your house after church on sunday to play basketball, first when you lived near the Lehls on 42, then when you moved to my neighborhood on Ainsworth and 25th. Send me your address, I will send you some John Sinner sausage, now that NEW SEASONS took over the Fremont Market of Peter Schnell Senior!

  8. Peter Miller, I wonder if you are a descendant of Lawrence Miller. He passed away in 1910 and then his widow Christina lived in this house I have been living in for 26 years or so on N.E. 11th. I think Lawrence built this house. Please let me know if so. I would love more history of this place I call home now. Thanks!

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