DANA MERRYDAY/THE CHRONICLE
Architect Pietro Belluschi was able to capture all of the suggestions made by members of First Presbyterian Church.
Editor’s note: This is the second part of a three-part series on the First Presbyterian Church.
Rev. Hugh Peniston, who had arrived in 1947 as the new minister of First Presbyterian of Cottage Grove, knew he had a big task ahead of him. He had accepted the challenge of leading his congregation not only in spiritual matters but also guiding them through the process of building a new church. The old frame building was drafty, cold, leaky, and cramped. The congregation knew it was time to modernize.
Peniston had lots to do upon his arrival, getting to know his congregation, learning about his new community, and getting his feet on the ground. Thinking about a new building was not high on his priorities, but nevertheless a building committee was selected.
During its first few meetings it became apparent that they all had different ideas about the new church building. So they began a long process of study and discussion of their ideas. They looked at a lot of architectural styles. Some members favored the Gothic design, others had strong feelings for other styles. Between meetings, Peniston would visit the UO School of Architecture and research what was being done with churches in the post-WWII construction boom.
As related in last week’s piece, the decision to redecorate the old church building stimulated much discussion in the committee. The congregation got to rearrange and experiment with the layout of the church. This helped the committee visualize the future building and helped guide them in their journey. They agreed that they wanted something unique and different, suited to the congregation.
DANA MERRYDAY/THE CHRONICLE
The interior of the church features large windows that flood the space with light.
Eventually, committee members met with architechts. They had no schedule or definite plan; they just felt it was time to talk to someone who knew more than they did. One committee member suggested that they should reach out to Pietro Belluschi, a Portland architect who was making news with his modern, contemporary Northwest designs.
The first attempt at meeting with him was a real gamble. On a business trip to Portland, Peniston decided to drop in on Belluschi’s office without an appointment. Belluschi was in a meeting and didn’t wish to be disturbed. “Tell him to go away,” snapped Belluschi. The receptionist, a fellow Presbyterian, had warmed to Peniston, and cajoled Belluschi into at least speaking to the minister. “I’ll be right back,” he informed his staff. An hour and a half later Belluschi returned very inspired about the prospects of designing a new church for the Cottage Grove congregation. His initial hesitation was a result of the difficulties he had faced working with his last church project. However, the warmth of Peniston and the ideas he shared from the committee convinced Belluschi that this would be an agreeable group – and, besides, it looked to be a fun project.
Pietro Belluschi was born in Ancona, Italy. He was a soldier in the Italian army during WWI and afterward studied engineering in Rome. He came to the United States as an exchange student, and despite limited English, earned a degree in civil engineering from Cornell. With the rise of Fascism under Mussolini, Belluschi’s friends in Italy warned him not to return. He got work as a mining engineer in Idaho, and ended up as an engineer in the Architectural Firm of A.E. Doyle in Portland. He rose rapidly in the firm and was soon its chief designer. When Doyle died he was invited to join the firm as a partner and by 1943 he had assumed control of the firm, buying out the other partners.
During his career he designed over 1,000 buildings. He was a leader in the American Modern architecture movement, which grasped the opportunities of modern materials and technologies. One important example of his work in this style is the Equitable Building (now known as the Commonwealth) in Portland. Built during 1944-47 this is a modern building of concrete, glass, and aluminum, featuring air-conditioning. In 1951 he accepted a position as Dean of Architecture and Planning at M.I.T. and was recipient of many awards and honors.
After his initial meeting with Belluschi, Peniston left inspired. One point of discussion, however, concerned the financing. It would be an expensive project and he worried church congregations might balk after much preparatory work had already been done. Another point was that Belluschi wanted the committee to be willing to act intelligently, cooperatively, and conscientiously. And most important for Belluschi was that the project had to be interesting for him artistically, not being a real money maker in terms of the hours spent on the design and implementation of the plans. In fact it would be a financial loss offset by other projects for his firm. Belluschi advised the minister to bring his committee to Portland for a meeting and also to meet with other architects to get different perspectives. Those meetings with the architects proved decisive. Belluschi listened and asked questions as to what the members wanted from their new church.
Following the meeting with Belluschi, committee person Ina Daughtery expressed the opinion of the group before they even got to the car, “Well, what do we do to hire Mr. Belluschi?” A full committee meeting followed and later a congregational meeting to approve hiring Belluschi.
The planning process began with input from members. Belluschi came for a covered-dish supper and meeting with the congregation. He emphasized that the interior and its functions were more important than the exterior. He also expressed his desire that the building should reflect the site, the community, fitting into the neighborhood, and his love of natural light. Since Cottage Grove was a timber town, he stated that wood should be used for the exterior rather than bricks or stone.
Belluschi took all the ideas back to Portland and developed the design and gave the model to Peniston. The reverend was startled when he looked at it, seeing something completely different from what he had expected. “I had never seen a church like it!” Peniston thought. The building committee likewise was shocked. It did have to admit it honored all of their requests and needs. Belluschi had anticipated this reaction and told the group to take its time and really get used to the design.
The group struggled with this unique conceptualization of their ideas and were getting nowhere. Peniston asked the group if it should give back the model to Belluschi, and decline. That shamed the group, and one of the members most opposed to the design said: “We can’t do that, because he has done exactly what we said we wanted to him to do.” That proved to be a turning point. Now the time had come to sell it to membership.
Belluschi presented the design to the congregation using the artist elevation drawings and a then modern opaque projector. His warmth and charm won over the church members and when a secret ballot was taken, there was only a single nay. Having made the crucial decision to move forward, now came the hard part: making it happen.
The building fund had about $50,000, and the projected cost estimate was almost triple that. There were pledges but the church still lacked about a third of the money. There were hard discussions about whether to try and begin construction or raise all the money first. Attempts to get a bank loan met obstacles. Finally a check arrived. W.H. Daugherty lent the church the remainder and ground could be broken.
The next question was the contractor. Belluschi told the group he doesn’t usually recommend a builder but in this case he had no hesitation, and proposed Albert Vik of Eugene. “He is completely honest and a real craftsman, being trained in old world skills in his native Norway,” he said.
This turned out to be superlative advice and this father/son team took especial care to ensure everything was perfect and kept an eye on saving the church any money they could. For instance, with the Korean War having just broken out, Vik realized certain materials would become scarce and expensive so he immediately bought the nearly two miles of copper tubing needed for the in-floor heating, saving a huge sum for the project.
The church was designed to fit into the site without disturbing many of the trees, particularly a row of Black Locust trees along Adams Avenue These are survivors that were planted by Dr. Wynne who made a special trip back to his hometown to get the seeds. The old oak that stood at the northwest corner is now gone but had been a landmark for a long time and was in the plan.
The congregation eagerly followed the progress of construction and by mid-May it was far enough along to plan the dedication service on Sunday, May, 20, 1951. On that day Vik and his crew, in their Sunday best, were there to symbolically present the keys as well as to attend services themselves.
There were many details to finish but as the congregation settled into its new home it was awed at what it had collectively wrought. The large open windows on the north side of the Nave both flooded the space in light and allowed members to look out into their community and realize their place in it.
The organ was not completed until 1953 and other features like the bell tower came along as they could. By 1954 the debt had been repaid less amounts forgiven annually as the Daugherty’s contribution to the effort. When the mortgage was burned, Daughtery was both delighted and relieved. “I don’t know what I would have done with a church,” he quipped.
The church drew lots of media attention and visitors. While most visitors were largely connected to architecture many were just curious laypeople who had heard of this amazing structure. The church was featured in magazine articles, books, and on TV. In 1974 the First Presbyterian Church of Cottage Grove was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places. In the nomination, Marion Ross was quoted “… Probably the best of Belluschi’s Oregon churches … the material is all wood, there can be no doubt that it is suitable for the small community in which it is sited. It would seem that in this design Belluschi had become so imbued with the spirit of the region that no obvious similarity of shape was necessary to give it the feeling of belonging.”
In May of this year the “new” church will mark its 70th anniversary. While some modernization has occurred in the course of the years, the landmark building is mostly just as it was designed and built. The First Presbyterian Church building remains a working, living, memorial to those dedicated members and a visionary architect who decided to do something completely different in bringing about a church to serve its members and community.
Next week: A look at Rev. Peniston’s leadership and the congregation’s contributions in other areas of the ministry: mental health, low-income housing, and food security in Cottage Grove.
Sourcing: “A Leap of Faith,” the history of the building of First Presbyterian Church, 2001, by Rev. Hugh Penistion. All quotes are from that publication.
Part Three: Church now focusing on homeless, ill