Historic Tacoma church up for sale, might be destroyed

Staff writerMarch 12, 2014 

Another historic Tacoma church — a synagogue for the city’s first Jewish congregation before a Pentecostal congregation bought it nearly 50 years ago — is up for sale.

The North End building’s Jewish heritage has lived on in the sanctuary lined with 12 brightly colored stained-glass windows filled with symbols including menorahs and tablets depicting the Ten Commandments.

“It’s beautiful,” said the Rev. Tim DeBusk, pastor of The Apostolic Faith Church in Tacoma. “If you don’t know anything about the Old Testament, it’s still beautiful.”

Each of the 6-by-9-foot windows on the two sides on the building has a Star of David — a symbol of Judaism — at the top. The two windows at the front and rear of the building each contain a large Star of David. The church added six wood mullions to those two windows to de-emphasize the symbol.

The church also used pieces of fabric with New Testament Bible verses to cover the original donor dedications for the windows. DeBusk peeled back one that reads “pray without ceasing” from 1 Thessalonians. The etching behind it says: “In loving memory of my parents David and May Levin by Ethel Levin Dornberg.”

The windows date to the building’s construction in 1922 as the synagogue for Temple Beth Israel, the second home for Tacoma’s first Jewish congregation. In 1960, the Reform congregation merged with Sinai Temple, part of the Conservative movement, to form Temple Beth El. Eight years later, the Jewish group constructed a new synagogue on Tacoma’s west side.

DeBusk said his Christian parishioners packed the 250-seat church in the 1980s, but the congregation declined over the years. With Sunday attendance down to 20, The Apostolic Faith Church held its last service Dec. 29. The remaining members joined congregations in Seattle and Chehalis, DeBusk said.

Members were sad at the closure but also excited about joining larger congregations, said DeBusk, 56, the church’s pastor since 2005.

“The time had come,” he said.

The Pentecostal denomination is based in Portland and has about 1,200 congregations worldwide. It put the brick-and-stucco building at 324 N. J St. on the market for $795,000 in February. The denomination bought the synagogue in 1964 for $30,002 to start what was then a new congregation.

DeBusk said several churches have expressed interest in buying the building, but there have been no takers so far.

The 7,500-square-foot church, which is not on any historic register, is yet another historic Tacoma church to face the prospect of demolition.

In 2007, the 90-year-old sanctuary of Tacoma’s First United Methodist Church was demolished to make way for expanded emergency departments for Tacoma General and Mary Bridge Children’s hospitals.

A few blocks from the former synagogue, the historic First Congregational Church was spared the wrecking ball when Mars Hill Church bought it in late 2012 and renovated it.

Unlike those two churches, the Apostolic Faith building is surrounded by houses.

And Apostolic Faith Church is considered a "contributing structure" within the North Slope Historic District, said Reuben McKnight, the city's historic preservation officer. Any changes to the church's  exterior, or demolition, would require approval from the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission, McKnight said.

DeBusk said the denomination’s Board of Trustees, which would have to approve any sale, wants the building to remain a church.

“We would love nothing more than to see another church buy this and not tear it down,” said DeBusk, who’s on the Board of Trustees.

But he wouldn’t rule out selling the building to someone who would want to demolish it.

“We can’t afford to just hang on to a building that’s empty,” he said.

If the former synagogue were slated for demolition, Temple Beth El would see what it could do to save the windows, said Rabbi Bruce Kadden, leader of the Reform temple near Tacoma Community College.

“We’re not in a position to purchase it at this point,” Kadden said. “We’re obviously interested in what happens to it.”

The Rev. Darrel Lee, superintendent general of The Apostolic Faith Church, said the windows would be removed and preserved, if necessary.

“Those windows will not be destroyed,” he said.

The 7,500-square-foot church looks the same as it does in a picture from 1931. The church made a few changes to the sanctuary but has kept the building in good condition. It’s repaired the windows when necessary.

“In no way did we see these symbols as something that is contrary to our worship,” said DeBusk. “The Old Testament is all through these windows.”

He said the congregation “never even gave it a thought” about worshiping in a former synagogue.

The windows are known throughout the denomination in the Northwest, said DeBusk, who will become pastor of The Apostolic Faith Church in Medford, Ore., in May.

They let in “God’s sunshine,” he said. “People are mesmerized when they come in and see this.”

Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647

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