When a determined group of Presbyterians arrived at the Ladd & Tilton Bank on June 23, 1880 to discuss the growing need for a new place of worship, the emotional mortar for this historic landmark was put into place. The Honorary William S. Ladd donated the land and architect Warren H. Williams donated his design, plan and supervision for the construction of the new Calvary Presbyterian Church. Mr. Williams is acclaimed for his Victorian-era architectural style, seen in fifty Portland area buildings, helping to accredit Portland with being a paragon in the Pacific Northwest for its abundance of Victorian architecture.
The location selected drew severe criticism from some members who said it was much “too far out in the country.” It was true the area chosen consisted of open fields and woods, but it was argued that this distance from the center of town made the property less expensive. With building costs estimated at $24,000, the church was put under construction. The final costs turned out to be nearly $36,000.
The cornerstone for the Calvary Presbyterian Church was laid September 11, 1882. The first services in the sanctuary were for the installation as pastor of Reverend E. Trumbull Lee who then preached the first sermon.
The pipe organ, which was another gift from the Ladd family, was the first pipe organ in Portland. The organ was purchased out of Boston, from the Hook and Hastings Company, and brought around the horn to San Francisco. Next the organ was loaded onto an ox cart, which was necessary since Portland’s railway system was not completed until the late 1880s, and this musical masterpiece slowly wound its way home. Today, The Old Church is the only local host to an original Hook and Hastings pipe organ.
The church was rather exclusive in its early days. George Murdane recalls, “It wasn’t so easy to get into a church in those days, at least not that one. I had to appear before six elders. It was like an inquisition. Then they told me to go into the next room and wait. At last they came in and told me, ‘We’ve decided to let you in.’” Murdane recalls that by this time all the open spaces around the church had been filled, not with fine homes and businesses but predominantly with shacky, nondescript dwellings, most of them clustered in nearby “Goose Hollow.” Over the following decades the neighborhood would improve, most notably with the addition of the sprawling campus of Portland State University.
Hard to believe that the Calvary Presbyterians could bear to vacate this lovely wooden church, but after a 66-year stint their congregation had grown too large for the space, and in 1948 The Old Church began its odyssey of names. Almost immediately, this enchanting building, with its ornate Baroque style window moldings, and charming Renaissance style cast-iron columns, found new members. Soon the belfry tower rang out the services for the Evangel Baptist Church, however only until 1951.
First Southern Baptist Church took ownership from 1951 until 1967. Although no documented structural changes were made, in 1965 this assemblage changed its name to the Metropolitan Baptist Church, and thus it remained until our famed local landmark went on the open market in 1967. Much in need of restoration, and with no interested parties, the demise of this historic landmark looked imminent. Ms. Lannie Hurst placed option money of $100 to stave off the wrecker’s ball and persuaded the Portland Beautification Association to rescue this cherished landmark. The rich architectural quality, and pioneering historic spirit, conveyed its cultural charm convincingly and “The Old Church” became incorporated on April 1, 1968. The Old Church has lived up to the last of its many names. Yet, by any name, this church would be venerated for its traditional gothic styling of the slender, pointed arches, its belfry tower and buttresses, and the elegance of the window archery, which delightfully accentuates the Victorian-era architecture for which Warren H. Williams was acclaimed. Known today as The Old Church Society, Inc., Portland’s gracious, weather-hewn wood edifice provides a place of solace for some and a place of gathering for others. But, for all those that pass by, it is truly a visual delight.