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