An impromptu tour of Tacoma’s First Presbyterian

Tacoma First Presbyterian church has been a beacon of light to the community both literally and figuratively for nearly a hundred years.

The church, which was built in 1923 and finished in 1925, features a 160-foot tall tower that was used by incoming freighter ships to guide them into the Port of Tacoma nearby.

While the tower is now surrounded by high-rise apartment complexes, at the time it was the only thing jutting high off hill in the Stadium District.

Tacoma's First Presbyterian Church rises high above city streets.
Tacoma’s First Presbyterian Church rises high above city streets.

I’ve long held a fascination with old church buildings. Not sure if that is because I come from a long line of pastors and have been in church buildings my entire life, or if it is just because I love the pageantry that makes up old churches.

Either way when I found myself with 30 minutes to kill before a lunch meeting recently I decided to go walk around the First Presbyterian church and see if they’d let me go inside.

I’d driven past the building plenty of times, but never walked around it or in it.

On a whim I went into the church office and asked if the sanctuary was open to visitors. They seemed a bit surprised, but the building supervisor – Mike – happened to be there and said he’d show me around.

One of three Rose Windows, which measure 16.5 feet and consist of 2,500 separate fragments of stained glass.
One of three Rose Windows, which measure 16.5 feet and consist of 2,500 separate fragments of stained glass.

We quickly crossed the play area of the church’s elementary school, entered the ancient structure and made our way to the sanctuary.

I was expecting more statues – not sure why, as this is obviously not a Catholic church, but was still stunned at the interior.

The sanctuary is laid out in the form of a cross, with a nave, a pair of transepts, the chancel and a narthex.

Above the sanctuary the ceiling rises 65 feet to the clerestory above, according to the church’s history book that Mike graciously gave to me. There are 20 stained glass windows, each costing $150 at the time of construction.

On the right, left and back of the sanctuary are three rose windows, each 16.5 feet in diameter, consisting of 2,500 separate fragments of stained glass and originally costing $1,000 apiece (The Message of the Symbols, page 6).

You can see the square symbol on the tower which rises 160 feet above the street. The square represents earthly life, and is surrounded by a circle which represents eternal life.
You can see the square symbol on the tower which rises 160 feet above the street. The square represents earthly life, and is surrounded by a circle which represents eternal life.

The pipe organ, which was shipped from St. Louis, cost $25,000 at the time of installation. It features pipes, which stretched from end to end would extend two miles, totaling 3,240 (p. 6).

The coolest part of this building, though, is certainly the tower. Mike said it was closed because the stairway is in disrepair. I tried to convince him to take me up anyway, but my luck ran out at that point.

To me the most interesting part of the tower is the symbols on the dome at the top. The dome is turquoise and features eight symbols.

There is a five-pointed, six-pointed and seven-pointed star representing different parts of scripture. There is a triangle representing the Trinity, a square representing earthly life, a Greek Cross representing the crucifixion of Jesus, a Triquetra representing the Trinity and an IX Monogram representing the Greek initials of Jesus. All of the symbols are surrounded by a circle, which represents eternal life.

A page out of "The Message of the Symbols," a historic account of Tacoma First Presbyterian Church written for the 100th anniversary of the congregation in 1973.
A page out of “The Message of the Symbols,” a historic account of Tacoma First Presbyterian Church written for the 100th anniversary of the congregation in 1973.

It is topped by a giant gold ball with a weather vane and sits on a pair of rooms. It also features a pair of chimes, which are rung to call people to service.

According to Wikipedia, the church voted to leave the Presbyterian Church in 2012 and affiliate with the ECO, A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterian.

The church office is in an old mortuary, and according to Groundskeeper Mike could be haunted, based on the number of phone calls his workers make when they have to work in the building at night.

To learn more about church architecture, be sure and check out one of my favorite authors – Ken Follett, and his two-part series: The Pillars of the Earth and Edge of Eternity.

Or just drive to Tacoma and ask for a tour. Oh, and be sure and request a copy of their history book.

– Craig Craker

The Portico is the main entrance to the sanctuary.
The Portico is the main entrance to the sanctuary.

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