First steps taken to raze historic Westmoreland church for condos
Although the developer who bought the property from the Tenth Church of Christ, Science – otherwise known as the Westmoreland Christian Science Church – has allowed its congregation to continue to meet there for the time being, the demolition of the church is planned. In May, heavy equipment turned up in the parking lot, and removed what appeared to be large metal tanks from the ground, before departing.
The replacement for the church, on S.E. 17th in Westmoreland, will be 23 new condominiums – and that will be the third transformation for the site. It was first developed in 1905 by William Sibson as a rose nursery. When Sibson retired in 1916, the property, which included seven greenhouses, a warehouse, a boiler house, and numerous sheds, was acquired by John Holden, who used the property to grow seasonal plant material for his floral shop in downtown Portland.
Holden died in 1946, and the greenhouses were demolished in early 1954. According to a BEE article, Holden's daughter sold part of the property for a "huge parking lot" next to the Christian Science church, and intended to use the remaining lots for a new retail business. Her plan apparently came to naught, for in 1958 those three extra lots at the corner of S.E 17th and Knight were acquired by the General Petroleum Company for a new service station – now Space Age Gas and A-1 Auto Repair.
The members of the Westmoreland's Christian Science Church met for fourteen years prior to the completion of the new Westmoreland building, which held its first service in June of 1954.
On March 4, 1940, a group of Individuals met to discuss formation of a Sunday School and church in the Westmoreland-Sellwood area. A year later they began holding Sunday services in the Masonic Lodge on S.E. Milwaukie Avenue. By 1941, they felt stable enough as a congregation to apply for, and in 1943 to receive, authorization to become a "Branch Church of the Mother Church", First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston.
In spite of having been established during the chaos of World War II, the group attracted new members – some from beyond the neighborhood. Church records indicate that during the war its members supported the Armed Services through a nationally-organized War Relief Committee. They wrote letters to prisoners of war, assembled and mailed food boxes, and knit and sewed garments that were sent to civilians in England. After the armistice ended the war, they continued to send food parcels to England and Europe as rationing in those battered countries continued well into the 1950's.
As the church members met through the 1940's, they planned construction of a permanent home, and began searching for property. They owned two rental properties – a "large and a small house" – whose precise location was not recorded. However, the income from renting those was used to sustain church operations, as well a public reading room in the Moreland Theater complex, which continues in operation today. In 1946 they took an option on a lot in the "City View Park Addition" (west of Milwaukie Avenue). However, they soon sold this lot and four others, which allowed them – with additional loan money – to purchase the former Sibson-Holden property, between S.E. 17th and 18th Avenues, and between Reedway and Knight Streets. Not long afterward, the Building Committee minutes refer to their architect as Mr. Donald Edmundson, although there is no mention of how he was selected.
By the end of the war in the Pacific, the property was described in Christian Scientist committee minutes as consisting of "four lots and two ramshackle greenhouses, an eyesore to the neighborhood." At the time, the City of Portland required off-street parking, so the building committee used five of their eleven lots for parking, and six lots for the church itself. By August of 1947 they noted that the architect's conceptual sketches for the new building were ready for review, and a comment box was available for church members to offer their thoughts on them.
Design ideals included a "contemporary style; no steps to climb; low in height; informal and inviting." Architect Edmundson was in partnership with Neil R. Kochendoerfer; and, when a firm rather than an individual is involved in a building's design, without any notes or correspondence it is difficult to determine who was responsible for which of the project's elements. The firm was busy, and apparently the final plans were not moving forward as expeditiously as the congregation had hoped. No records have emerged that credit the final design, except for a line in Building Committee minutes. In January of 1948 it was noted that "an assistant in the architect's office stepped in, and soon ideas took form."
By August of 1952, plans were ready for a low one-story nave, of an unusual elliptical shape. Forming a U-shape, to the east were offices, a meeting room, and restrooms, then a separate Sunday School building. During construction, another smaller building was included to house an infant nursery. Typical of the "Mid Century Modern" style of the time, the one-story buildings covered a lot of space, with covered breezeways between structures, and a courtyard between the main building and the Sunday School. Acknowledging rainy weather, a covered port cochere provides a drop-off point at the main entry – its design more of its time than a more elaborate entrance, like that of the 1880's horse-and-carriage-era Old Church, in downtown Portland.
Construction continued intermittently, as the congregation had the funds to pay their contractor, R.M. Robson, of S.E. Oatfield Road. When the building was fully enclosed, all funds had been spent, and construction halted while the church arranged a loan.
The contractor was amenable to church members assisting with the work; on Saturdays, men helped with construction while women did site cleanup. Materials were from local sources: Oregon Lumber Yard on S.E. McLoughlin; Inman-Poulson (now, the site of OMSI); Masons Supply on S.E. Tenth – and Nicolai-Neppach at N.W. Second and Everett, who supplied sash/doors/windows, moldings, etc.
The cornerstone was laid in a quiet ceremony on November 4, 1953, and the first service was held on Wednesday evening, June 15, 1954. Whether by a rule of the Mother Church, or just at the inclination of the congregation, the church was not dedicated until it was debt-free – on June 27, 1971, seventeen years after its first service.
A building is successful if it fulfills the requirements of its users. In the case of the Tenth Church, it worked very well. A few changes have occurred: In 1971, the original (war surplus) wooden chairs were replaced with comfortable and upholstered pews. On another occasion, the north wall was replaced with glass – which opens onto a narrow interior courtyard planted with shrubs and small trees. There is no choir or organ loft, altar, baptismal font, or processional aisle. Worshippers seated themselves informally via a center aisle or one of two side aisles. Two readers sat at microphones on a slightly-raised platform to read various Bible passages and interpretation written by the national church's founder, Mary Baker Eddy. A piano or small electric organ has accompanied hymn singing.
For all of its lack of interior ornamentation, the nave, with a dropped elliptical ceiling and colored glass clerestory windows above the side walls, is well lit. There is little to distract the eye, but much for the mind to focus on – that is deliberate, and reflects the contemplative nature of the church.
It is unfortunate that this unusual building, one of only three post-WWII churches in the neighborhood, is to be demolished (the other two from the same era are the former Nazarene Church  and the Latter Day Saint Church , both on Milwaukie Avenue between Bidwell and Lexington Streets.
The Westmoreland church is a rare example of a mid-century modern church, whose low, sprawling form is more typical of metropolitan suburbs. As mentioned previously, the condominium developer has given the congregation up to a year to remain in their building while they search for a new gathering place. While a special open house for the community is under consideration, if BEE readers would like to experience the building as it was meant to be used, services continue to be held at 10:30 on Sunday mornings for the time being. Church members are most welcoming.