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Preservation grant may be the saving grace for Tacoma’s urban church

Landmark downtown church seeks grant for repair

National church-preservation effort chooses historic Tacoma Urban Grace church for grant of up to $250,000
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National church-preservation effort chooses historic Tacoma Urban Grace church for grant of up to $250,000

Behind its 92-year-old sandstone tower, which still has “First Baptist Church” chiseled behind the modern electric sign for its nondenominational name of the past 11 years, Urban Grace church needs some work.

The sanctuary, which offers 850 theater-style seats (and no pews) to parishioners and an array of community-entertainment events, is showing the fraying and fading of a room that hasn’t been updated since the 1960s.

Issues range from handicapped access in a building with no elevators to the discovery that a leaky pipe was “just filled with holes,” said Jennifer Dean, the downtown Tacoma church’s director of operations.

Given the state of the water service in the rest of the four-story building at 902 Market St., this has prompted concerns costlier problems lie within its walls.

“Anywhere besides the basement, it takes like 20 minutes before you get hot water,” Dean said.

Add various other physical concerns — broken windows, peeling paint, getting another decade out of the 20-year-old roof — that come with an aging, urban church building that gets heavy use by more than a dozen community and arts groups and has a congregation of perhaps 100 to sustain it.

With all that, a glimmer of financial help for the building comes to represent something significant.

Enter the news, received last week, that Urban Grace is the sole Pacific Northwest representative on a list of 14 historic churches lined up for a $14 million grant program via the National Fund for Sacred Places, a collaboration between the nonprofits National Trust for Historic Preservation and Partners for Sacred Places.

The Tacoma cut of this largesse is by no means instant millions. If Urban Grace officials complete a training course in fundraising, the church can get up to $250,000 in the form of a matching grant that will pay 50 cents for every dollar Urban Grace raises. And the congregation still needs to decide whether to follow that path.

Urban Grace leaders speak of the prospect as a boon. For one, it’s potentially free grant money to help with longstanding building issues. For two, it would compel the church to undertake a capital campaign to raise as close to $500,000 as it could manage.

“It's a really cool opportunity,” said the Rev. Ben Robinson, the church’s pastor. “We’ve been looking for something like this.”

News that Urban Grace had been accepted to the shortlist for the grant came as a surprise. The church hadn’t applied for the grant, but officials from the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Partners for Sacred Spaces knew the church from an earlier interaction and wanted a Northwestern recipient to make its list national. An hour-long phone call followed.

“They’re a great project,” said Chad Martin, director of the National Fund for Sacred Spaces. “They have a fantastic building, and we're pretty excited to build a relationship with them.”

Martin said Urban Grace was especially alluring to the national program because it’s a regionally rare — and possibly unique — example of the early 20th century idea of a “skyscraper church.” That’s a colloquial term meaning that one floor of a multistory city building is devoted to the worship sanctuary and the rest has versatile spaces for a variety of uses.

“They share themselves with a lot of groups and really see themselves as a resource for the community,” Martin said.

Prominent evidence of that is contained in its sanctuary. The church, built just a few years after the Rialto and Pantages theaters nearby, was built with theater seats instead of pews because, Dean said, congregants figured converting it into a theater would be a reasonable backup plan if the times made religious use unsustainable.

That didn’t happen, though changing eras confronted it.

In 1979, the congregation considered and rejected a plan to sell the building. In 2005, after attendance had fallen to about 60 most Sundays, the church went from Baptist to nondenominational Protestant — hence, the new name.

At Urban Grace today, rooms are used by dance groups, therapists, community organizers and others. During a recent tour, the up-then-down tones of a trumpet playing a scale for a music tutor echoed through the hallway while Dean showed the tousled temporary cots of one of five rooms providing housing for displaced families.

Megan Berkinshaw, the operations manager of the Tacoma Youth Symphony, said the building is filled with spaces with good acoustic qualities, especially the theater-style sanctuary.

“We love it no matter what it’s like,” Berkinshaw said, “but as all old buildings can, it could use some help.”

The youth symphony brings up to 200 children into the church for events and frequently fans out into several adjacent areas for practice sessions close enough for instructors to flit between. The sound doesn’t bleed over much, she said.

“You hear them, but it’s not the same as if they were in a new building with flimsy walls and stuff,” Berkinshaw said.

Robinson said the church’s use of an earlier city of Tacoma grant to create a historical structure report will help the church make decisions about what needs to be done.

“We feel like we’ve been really fortunate to sort of have inherited it,” Robinson said of the building, listed in the Tacoma Register of Historic Places, “and we want to be good stewards of it.”

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693, @dcnunnally

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