Seattle Now & Then: Third Church of Christ, Scientist, ca. 1922

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: The Third Church of Christ, Scientist, at the southeast corner of Northeast 50th Street and 17th Avenue Northeast, stands just prior to its 1922 completion. An early member described the nearly $100,000 building as “majestic and yet pure and simple, as is Christian Science itself.” Architect George Foote Dunham also designed Fourth Church (today’s Town Hall). Stained glass in both structures was created by the Povey Brothers of Portland. (courtesy, Third Church of Christ, Scientist)
NOW: Standing before the former Third Church, historian Cindy Safronoff holds a copy of her book, “Dedication: Building the Seattle Branches of Mary Baker Eddy’s Church.” The structure complements the adjoining Greek Row neighborhood, extending several blocks north of the University of Washington. (Jean Sherrard)

(Published in the Seattle Times online on Feb. 25, 2021
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on Feb. 28, 2021 )

There’s nothing metaphysical about the fate of this once sacred space
By Jean Sherrard

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: Seattle’s Town Hall, 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 as in the early 20th century by Christian Scientists.

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 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 may 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.


Our narrated 360 video will arrive tomorrow! In the meantime, enjoy these interiors, courtesy of Larry Kreisman.

THEN2: The spacious well-lit interior of the Third Church was also designed with acoustics in mind. (Larry Kreisman)
THEN3: The stained-glass windows in Christian Science churches contain few overtly religious symbols. These were fabricated by the Povey Brothers, whose work also adorns Town Hall. (Larry Kreisman)
Stained glass detail. (Larry Kreisman)
THEN4: Early Third Church historian Eileen Gormley noted the windows’ “beautifully shaded and mottled effect in amber and opal.” (Larry Kreisman)

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