THOSE WITH AN ecclesiastical bent — or, thanks to Pete Seeger and the Byrds, a rock ’n’ roll penchant — know that for everything there is a season.
These structures understand it viscerally: Town Hall Seattle; the Rainier Arts Center in Columbia City; and two each called “The Sanctuary,” an event venue in West Seattle’s Admiral District, and a luxury townhome complex on Capitol Hill. Designed without overtly religious symbols, these repurposed community gems were built in the early 20th century by members of The Church of Christ, Scientist.
Founded by Boston-based Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910), the Christian Science movement emerged in 1879 with a mere 26 followers. Eddy’s metaphysical teachings ignited the fastest-growing religion of its time, eventually garnering nearly 270,000 members. Burgeoning congregations enthusiastically erected mostly Classical Revival-style churches nationwide, including in Seattle.
“With the appearance of the edifice for First Church (on Capitol Hill in 1906), Christian Science became more visible on the city skyline,” recounts church historian Cindy Peyser Safronoff, in her 2020 book, “Dedication: Building the Seattle Branches of Mary Baker Eddy’s Church.”
Naturally, local mainline denominations grew wary of the competition. The Rev. Mark A. Matthews, influential pastor of Seattle’s 10,000-strong First Presbyterian Church, lobbed an early slam, labeling Eddy’s teachings “blasphemous, immoral, licentious and murderous.” Despite denunciations, however, Christian Science growth and construction flourished across the city.
Within a hundred years of its founding, Christian Science joined many other churches in turn-turn-turning to a fallow period. Dwindling congregations scarcely could afford upkeep of their “sacred spaces” while land values soared.
Case in point: the former Third Church of Christ, Scientist, shown in this week’s “Then” photo. Designed by Portland architect George Foote Dunham and completed in 1922, it was sold in 2006, the congregation trusting that the new owner — celebrity-attracting megachurch Churchome (then City Church) — would keep the structure intact.
But it is up for sale again, this time with a recently granted demolition permit, raising preservationists’ ire. “Replacing this elegant contributor to the historic Olmsted boulevard would be criminal,” says Larry Kreisman, former Historic Seattle program director. “It’s a perfect candidate for adaptive reuse as a lecture and concert hall or as a community center.”
More such spaces soon might be lost. Churches and other institutions in similar straits, suggests Kreisman, should partner with preservation organizations. “The solution,” he says purposefully, “is creative thinking, brainstorming and a willingness to explore alternative paths.”
Because there’s also a season for preservation.