Highland Congregational Church – Portland Playhouse

If you’ve traveled the west end of NE Prescott recently, you’ve seen lots of activity around the old church at the corner of NE 6th and Prescott. We know it today as the Portland Playhouse, but it started out life as the Highland Congregational Church on January 3, 1904.

Portland Playhouse, 602 N.E. Prescott. November 2018.

 

From The Oregonian, January 4, 1904. Note the original steeple cap.

A news story in The Oregonian from January 4, 1904 reported that its founding pastor, The Rev. D.B. Gray, explained to his new congregation that the building cost $4,709.15 to build and the two lots it sits on cost $800. The community raised $600 of the total and the Oregon Missionary Society provided the rest. The Sunday school associated with the church had 150 children. Plans for the church were furnished by L.B. Volk of Los Angeles, California and Peter Wiser was the builder. According to The Rev. Gray, the building is modeled after the Mizpah Church at East Thirteenth and Powell streets. Capacity was about 300 people, with room left for future expansion. Original interior finishes were natural wood.

The story went on to say why the new church was so symbolic for the surrounding community:

“The dedication signalizes strikingly the wonderful growth of the city to the northeast as fully 500 homes have been built in the Highland District in the last two years, besides a schoolhouse now occupied by 500 students.”

In 1904, this part of town was the eastern edge of Portland. Roads were dirt and the farther east you went, the wilder and brushier it got. The Broadway Bridge was still almost 10 years from being built, and central sewer, water and gas and streetcar systems were just working their way out to this edge of the city. Here’s a look at the surrounding area–known then as the “Lincoln Park Annex”–in the 1909 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map.

Detail from Sanborn Fire Insurance Map Plate 246, 1909. The address numbers you see here were completely renumbered in the early 1930s during Portland’s Great Renumbering.

This part of the neighborhood was platted as the Lincoln Park Annex in 1891, an 18-square-block area gridded by a collection of unimaginative street names that never made it to the map. In fact, most locals never used the “Lincoln Park” name either, preferring the term Highland back in the day, and today’s King Neighborhood.

The 1904 church building has always had a strong connection to the surrounding community. During its first year, it was the venue for a rousing anti-cigarette meeting featuring preachers and businessmen from near and far:

From The Oregonian, November 28, 1904

From the mid 1920s until the early 1950s, the building was referred to as Grace and Truth Hall. Its most recent faith community was the Mt. Sinai Baptist Church, from the mid 1960s up until 2005. Following Mt. Sinai, the building was vacant for several years and like many older area churches was sinking under abandonment and deferred maintenance. It was bought by a private owner who lived in the old church for several years prior to its current incarnation as Portland Playhouse, a theater company.

The first play in the church was 2008 and since then, Portland Playhouse has built a solid reputation for high quality and well produced shows, and a loyal following.

Michael Weaver, Managing Director of Portland Playhouse, explains that the church has recently undergone a $2.4 million interior upgrade to better function as a theater, and to expand the theater company’s offices into the former fellowship hall in the basement and the former Shining Star Daycare, which was attached at the back of the church. While much has changed inside, the upgrade kept the bell tower, stained glass windows and much of the original flooring. “We wanted to honor the history of the building,” says Weaver.

Check out this Portland Playhouse photo gallery to see a nice documentation of the renovation, and information about what’s playing (A Christmas Carol starts next week!).

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