BY MATTHEW HENDERSON
The community initiative to save the vacated St. Paul/Gethsemane church at NE Eighth and Failing and turn it into a non-profit community center has met its end. But around Portland there has quietly assembled a host of former churches (or Xhurches, as my blog calls them) now hosting a variety of artistic and neighborhood endeavors.
Gethsemane will instead be given to another church, one currently attended by one of Gethsemane's chief inheritors. The fate of the church had been in question in recent months, initially due to a developer's plans to raze the building to make room for condos. This gave rise to an effort led by Sabin neighborhood resident Diane Benson and a group of concerned neighbors who saw potential to restore the church for use as a community center.
Perhaps there’s no better use for a building, or at least no more obvious one, than that for which it was originally designed. But whether they stay churches or become something else, these buildings are an important link to the past, adding to the character of our neighborhoods, while acting as easy landmarks—even offering a touch of the picturesque.
One example of a successful church reuse is Portland Playhouse, which has had a positive impact on its surrounding community through its vital and affordable theater productions.
Portland Playhouse appeared on the scene in 2010 when the family trio of Brian, Michael, and Nikki Weaver moved to Portland from Boston in search of a space to start their theater company. They found the disheveled church building at NE 6th and Prescott and it was a match. Originally known as Highland Congregational Church and dating to 1903, the modest-sized, wood-framed church was later sold to an African American congregation following a pattern common to many early churches of North and Northeast Portland, where congregations comprised of German-Russian immigrants dwindled due to changing values among the church's younger congregants, and discrimination sustained by the two World Wars.
Now there is a new wave of turnover. For the Weavers, rent was affordable, the space was well-suited to their vision, and the location was good, barring issues relating to parking, which have since been formally resolved with the city council last year following an outpouring of support for the venue. Portland Playhouse is currently thriving, consistently garnering acclaim from local press outlets and theatergoers alike.
As for the building itself, it enjoys good visibility at its corner lot on Prescott. The embattlements on the church's wooden tower give the sense of entering a small castle, helping to prime the imagination for a potentially transportive theater experience. Inside, there are warm greetings, a smell of popcorn, with beer, wine, and candy concessions. Also, there is something special about the way in which the seats are situated facing each other, flanking the stage in bleacher fashion. It results in a uniquely intimate experience that, as director Brian Weaver puts it, "increases the awareness that you're an active participant in the event."
Attending a recent production of Mother Teresa Is Dead, I was impressed not only with the acting and story, but also the atmosphere: the vague sense that the building’s past life as a house of worship was somehow touching this present-day theatrical setting. Was anyone, or anything, watching with approval or displeasure? Or maybe it was merely the patina of the old building engendering the troupe to give their characters that much more resonance. More importantly, the cozy, intimate setting helped foster a closer bond between actors and audience. Portland Playhouse has certainly embraced the church architecture as an asset.
It's worth noting that, in this growing trend of church adaptation, Portland seems to be a forerunner. I have been charting trends in church adaptation for the past few years, and off-hand I can think of nearly a dozen instances of church reuse in Portland alone, including a dance studio, a theater, multiple arts venues, multiple event halls, a communal living space, multiple residences—all located in former churches. Whether the abundance of disused churches in Portland and elsewhere reflects a broader decline in church attendance and religiosity is the subject of many reports and statistics (a Lewis & Clark sociologist has been compiling some interesting notes here in town), but one thing is certain: an opportunity exists for artists, entrepreneurs and the like to adopt these often beautiful spaces (some of them representing our highest architectural aspirations) and reuse them in ways which continue to serve the surrounding community.
At the same time, the Portland Playhouse almost burned out before it bloomed: one year ago, the facility lost its permit to stage plays at the church when the city determined it was acting as a retail establishment, rather than as a community center - the former being disallowed under current zoning. But to the Playhouse's credit, the King Neighborhood Association appealed the decision to City Council, with more than 80 people from the neighborhood testifying on the theater's behalf and none in opposition. The Council voted to reverse the decision, and the Portland Playhouse has been going strong in the year since - emboldened by its demonstrated community support.