Zion Lutheran Church
The Zion Lutheran Church is a magnificent modern ecclesiastical building located between downtown Portland and South West Hills. It was designed and built in a distinctive fusion of architectural styles by the esteemed Italian-American architect Pietro Belluschi. The church was added to the National Register of Historic Places in March 1996.
Backstory and Context
Lutheran immigrants from Germany purchased the site on SW Eighteenth Avenue in August 1889 under the leadership of Reverent Ed Doering, and construction of the first site began in the following year. The original building consisted of a single story church built in the Gothic Revival style, with walls of white clapboard, a tower, and pointed arch windows. They held regular services, and from 1899 operated a day school for the congregation. The number of people attending the church grew steadily through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and by 1946 the church began to consider constructing a larger building.
The present-day building was designed and built by Pietro Belluschi and Kenneth Richardson. Construction began in 1948, and it took two years to complete. The single story structure was built in a Northern European style combined with that of vernacular Japanese architecture. The structure is thirty eight feet high and over one hundred and fifty feet long, made of timber frames and masonry upon a concrete foundation. The bricks were manufactured near Salem by the Willamma Brickwork Company, and have a distinctive reddish color, to which the mortar used in the building’s construction was expertly matched. It features a full-length East-facing window of multicolored glass with an Oriental wood trim in the chancel, which bathes the interior in sunlight. The nave walls are windowless, and instead have hollow ten square inch glass blocks interspersed between the rose-colored bricks, which lets an attractive pattern of light into the church. It features a wide-hipped pitched roof of redwood shingles over the narthex supported by thin wooden columnns. Access is via a pair of magnificent copper doors, each decorated with images of flying angels. These were made by a local sculptor, Frederic Littman. Inside, the floor accommodates the gently sloping topography of the site by a series of gradually rising steps that lead towards the chancel. The interior was carefully designed with sound quality in mind, with the use of materials carefully chosen for their acoustic absorbency. The walls are finished with birch panels, and the floor with green asphalt tilework is covered in carpet. The ceiling of fir wood is held aloft by innovative pointed “Glulam”-style timber arches. This is linked to the north to an adjacent two story hall and education facility, almost one hundred feet long and is topped by a fifty eight feet high spire. The interior contains spaces for offices, conferences, a kitchen, and classrooms.
Some alterations have had to be made to the complex during its lifetime. In the early 1950s the original German Evangelical Lutheran Zion’s Congregation church burned to the ground. The ruins were removed, and in their place a forty foot deep forecourt planted with a variety of vegetation. In 1971 the redwood shingle roof was replaced by one made of asbestos – better suited for the seasonal climate of the city. Nonetheless, the church remains in an excellent state of preservation. It contains much of its original furnishings – chairs, a candelabrum, flower stands, the copper baptismal font and altar topped with granite, and the pulpit– which were also designed by Belluschi.