Monday, October 16, 2023

A Landmark Goes on the Market

Faced with a looming financial crunch, congregants of Central Lutheran Church in Northeast Portland have decided they must sell their landmark building that was designed by Portland’s most famous architect, Pietro Belluschi.

 Central Lutheran is one of two Portland churches designed by Belluschi in which he combined his love of indigenous Pacific Northwest building materials with hints of Japanese structural elements.  During his career that lasted from the 1920s into the 1980s, Belluschi was an international leader in buildings ranging from houses to churches to tall skyscrapers.

 In 1949 and 1950, Belluschi designed both Zion Lutheran Church in Southwest Portland and Central Lutheran in the Irvington neighborhood.  Zion Lutheran is perhaps a better example of the Belluschi style but Central Lutheran also has been designated as a Portland historical landmark for its architectural qualities.


Front canopy reflects Belluschi's Japanese influence

The landmark status likely will be a factor in whatever new use occurs.  Ideally, another congregation buys the building – which happened to another church just a block away that sold in 2019.  The landmark status prevents any significant changes to Central Lutheran’s brick and wood exteriors unless the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission – and perhaps ultimately the Portland City Council – agree. 

 Central Lutheran learned about violating the landmark regulations the hard way in 2005 when they whacked off the top 40 feet of Belluschi’s steeple that had suffered from dry rot.  The city forced restoration of the steeple following the original design at a cost of some $200,000. It took years of fundraising, but the steeple and its cross rising about 100 feet above street level were replaced in 2009.

Church officials have steadily worked on restoring elements of the wooden facades in recent years.  Their efforts have been hampered by the COVID pandemic that reduced rentals of church meeting rooms, and by the expense of cleaning up garbage and graffiti from homeless campers and vandals.

Rear side shows rounded end of chapel and church office.

Any savvy prospective buyers must recognize that Portland’s architectural preservation community will speak vociferously against changes that would significantly alter Belluschi’s design.  That said, the building with a sizable chapel, kitchen and meeting rooms conceivably could be converted to a new uses.

 Travelling in Denmark some years ago where Lutheranism is the state religion, your author learned that as religious views changed among the citizenry, many Lutheran churches were converted to new uses such as museums, art centers,  performance spaces and child-care facilities.

 That is the short way of stating that even if a new congregation does not buy Central Lutheran, another acceptable use potentially could be available.

 Church officials said their current funds are likely to be exhausted by the end of 2024.  That leaves an appreciable time for marketing the building and trying to find acceptable ownership and operation for a notable Portland landmark. 

 ---Fred Leeson

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