In 1880 a group of Presbyterians first floated the idea for a new church. There have been many fascinating twists and turns over the past century. But remarkably, the building is still a community space that looks much as it did when it was dedicated in 1882. The topics below detail the story…
On June 23, 1880, a group of Presbyterians met at the Ladd & Tilton Bank (see photo above) to discuss the growing need for a new place of worship. William S. Ladd, a merchant, banker, and two-time mayor of Portland, donated the land. Some feared that this area of open fields and woods was too far out in the country. Despite this, planning moved forward.
Architect Warren Williams donated his design and supervised the construction of the new Calvary Presbyterian Church. The building was completed in 1883 at a cost of $36,000. When the church opened Portland was still a relatively small city of less than 45,000 and many of today’s neighborhoods were not planned.
The Historic Old Church, the oldest church building in downtown Portland, is a fine example of Carpenter Gothic architecture. Reinterpreting Gothic architecture in wood rather than stone, Carpenter Gothic is an American style that dates from the 19th century. Portland architect Warren Williams designed the building for free. Its spare simplicity was a good fit with Williams’s Presbyterian denomination’s core beliefs.
Originally the building was painted gray-brown to mimic Gothic stonework. While the structure is relatively simple and elegant compared to other religious structures of the 1880s, there are many beautiful details such as ornate window traceries, archways, chimneys, and spires. The Old Church features a porte-cochere to shelter carriages and stained glass windows created by highly acclaimed Povey Brothers Studio. Inside, the vaulted hall is an expansive but intimate space, softened by simple wooden pews and bathed in natural light.
One of The Old Church’s most notable features is a Hook and Hastings tracker action pipe organ, the first and now the only in Portland. A gift from the Ladd family, the organ arrived in Portland in 1883. The organ was used regularly in church services for many years.
This tracker action organ uses mechanical connections and hand-pumping rather than electricity to produce a unique sound. It’s able to produce a broad range of tones, perfect for performing a wide array of music. By the middle of the 20th century the organ was in disrepair. Fortunately, it had escaped being converted to electricity – a common fate for hand-pumped organs. Major restorations in 1976 and 1997 brought the organ back to its original glory, both as an object of art and a musical instrument that will inspire listeners for decades to come!
Calvary Presbyterian owned the building until 1948 when the congregation outgrew the space. Evangel Baptist Church occupied the building until 1951, at which point First Southern Baptist Church took ownership. In 1967 the building, in need of major repair and restoration, was put up for sale. With no interested parties, the demise of this historic structure seemed imminent. Lannie Hurst, an actress, performer, and mother of four, refused to see the building leveled to make way for urban renewal projects. Lannie placed option money of $100 to stave off the wrecking ball and persuaded the Portland Beautification Association to rescue this cherished landmark. With the building listed for $110,000, Hurst assembled a coalition of supports and funders. The Old Church Society Inc. raised enough money to buy the building (for only $95,000) and begin restoration.
The Old Church Society, Inc., incorporated as a nonprofit in 1968, aims to restore and preserve the building, while offering artistic and cultural programming. The Old Church has a volunteer board of directors and a small, dedicated staff. Decades of essential restoration work helped safeguard the building. Performances and other social events made sure it continued to be a vital community resource. In 1972 the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places – a significant victory in safeguarding the building. Since the late 1960s The Old Church has hosted a free sack lunch concert almost every Wednesday.
When The Old Church was purchased in 1967 it was desperately in need of major restoration and repair. Fundraising began in 1968 and a new roof was put on in 1969. The approach to the ongoing restoration has been to follow the founders’ plans of the building as closely as possible, while adding some modern conveniences. A stage was added to the front of the auditorium to accommodate performances, and the exterior and interior spaces have been largely restored. A new elevator provides easy access to updated restrooms on the lower level, a small bathroom on the main floor serves performers and brides, and a ramp entrance for wheelchair use ensures that all members of the community have access. A recent heating and air conditioning upgrade provides superior comfort while reducing our carbon footprint.
The restoration of the organ in 1999 and the “Consider the Lilies” stained glass window in 2002 were particularly high profile projects. In 2013, we repainted the interior to brighten the space. Now we are focusing on maintaining the building (an ongoing task) and making sure that we continue to host top-notch concerts and events. Thanks to everyone who has helped in this long process!
With most restoration projects complete and a great lineup of programming, the future of The Old Church is bright. We’re committed to preserving the building for future generations. We’re also committed to making sure that our programming and events serve the community and, more broadly, all of Portland. This will mean continuing to evolve our programming, events, and fundraising strategies. If the future of The Old Church matters to you, please consider becoming a member. And we hope that you’ll continue to attend events and tell your friends about us – that’s what keeps The Old Church going strong!