BY BRIAN LIBBY
To move west on Failing Street from Northeast Portland across Martin Luther King Boulevard and Williams Avenue into North Portland's Mississippi district is to witness the changing demographics and architecture here. And chances are the view will keep changing.
My first of two destinations was a church at 801 NE Failing, built in 1905 and originally known as the St. Paul's Evangelical & Reformed Church.
Built by Volga German immigrants (ethnic Germans who came from Russia), it was an outpost of hymns, prayers and culture for generations who called this neighborhood "Little Russia." In 1973, after the community became populated with African Americans and Little Russia uprooted, the church was sold and rechristened as the Gethsemane Church of God in Christ.
Today the church sits empty, but it's for sale by a family member of the late Gesthemane pastor. That worries neighbors and residents of broader Northeast Portland, who justifiably fear the century-old church will be razed in order to build housing.
Indeed, according to Anna Griffin's recent Oregonian story, the church's realtor, Tod Breslau, "has received numerous nibbles, most from builders intent on razing the church and putting up houses or a duplex...A builder can earn a larger profit by tearing down what's there and putting up three new homes -- what the law allows on this particular 7,500 square feet of land -- than by making the repairs and structural changes necessary to retrofit three condos inside the church."
Even if another congregation comes along wanting to renovate the church, it would likely face the same problem numerous other central-city houses of worship seem to: parking. When these neighborhood churches were built, most people walked there. Today, many come from the suburbs and don't want to hunt for street parking or walk several blocks to their salvation. Yet there aren't enough religious people in the immediate neighborhood looking to attend services there either.
The asking price is only $449,000 despite having 7,500 square feet of land. Most all of the single-family houses in my Southeast Portland neighborhood sell for more than that, despite having less than half the square footage.
The problem here is a community one: the loss of North and Northeast Portland's patchwork of historic churches. But to save such a building, or any building, it needs a champion: someone willing to step in act.
One local community member, Diane Benson, has spearheaded an effort to build a nonprofit community center there. But Benson will need a lot of help. Her website, Save the Old Church, is the place to go if you'd like to offer support and learn about the vision.
Even if it doesn't become a nonprofit community building, the right investor could certainly have found creative use of the existing church building. For example, a few blocks from where I live is a former church that was divided up into apartments. On the St. Paul's/Gesthemane property there is a sizable piece of vacant land to the east of the church. That could be the target for a new residential property, while the church itself could be renovated into a series of residences. Naturally from an architectural perspective it would be better if a use could be found that didn't gut the interior: something that preserved the sanctuary and pews. But failing that, even to save the outside would be help maintain the architectural character of the surrounding neighborhood.
Walking the blocks around the St. Paul's/Gesthemane facility, I was struck by the dichotomy still prevalent in this corner of the city. On one hand, this relatively close-in area of North and Northeast between Killingsworth to the North, Broadway to the South and the riverbank to the west is among the hottest areas in the city for small-scale development. Particularly going west towards the North Mississippi district, there are countless houses, apartments and retail establishments going up. Yet you walk around a corner and there are also boarded up and abandoned buildings, overgrown vacant lots, and chipping paint plaguing even the occupied homes.
Heading west on Failing from the church, crossing the MLK and Williams/Vancouver thoroughfares, I made a left onto Albina just before reaching the high street of restaurants, bars and shops North Mississippi has become. My destination was the Edwin Rayworth House, which seems to have an even bleaker future than St. Paul's/Gesthemane. Built in 1890, it's one of the oldest homes in the neighborhood, and though small in scale, it's a quirky but compelling example of Victorian architecture in Portland. Our city used to have perhaps the greatest collection of Victorian homes on the West Coast, enough to rival San Francisco. But one by one they have disappeared.
Now, a developer from Lake Oswego (naturally) has purchased the property, which was lost by its owner to foreclosure in 2010. According to online reports, the intent is to raze the home and build a two-family structure on the same site, which will turn more of a profit than fixing up the home and selling it. Apparently the developer, in a gesture of mild humanity, is willing to allow the Rayworth house to be moved off the property rather than having it demolished. But one way or another, this nearly 125-year-old piece of Albina history is no longer going to be there.
Every neighborhood remains in constant flux, as residents come and go and demographics change, as old houses and structures are cleared away to make for new ones. To a large degree, we have to accept it. But if enough of us keep the conversation going, the greater the likelihood that the right person - someone with both resources and vision - will come along and change the grim course on which these two buildings appear to be headed.
What's frustrating is that, while we know there can be value added to a property if it's split into multiple tenants, there is also an economic value in architeturally unique spaces. Particularly in the case of the Rayworth house, another developer or homeowner could easily have come in and renovated, and would have wound up with a valuable restored Victorian house in a burgeoning popular neighborhood. To simply demolish and start from scratch is potentially more profitable in the end, I would suppose, but it's ignoring the value of what's there.
But what we're all probably realizing too late is that the Rayworth house and the St. Paul's/Gesthemane church are most valueable to the broader community. Although they may not be architectural masterpieces, they provide something these increasingly popular neighborhoods are in danger of losing: their authenticity, and their connection to the past. In a predominantly white city, they are reminders of our immigrant roots. In an gentrifying section of the city, they are examples of the humble working-class communities that birthed North and Northeast Portland. And in a city that prides itself on quirkiness and low-rent charm, they're an invitation to do better than demolition at the community's expense.