On September 22, 1912, Seattle First Baptist Church held service in the brand new sanctuary at the corner of Harvard and Seneca on First Hill. This “Earthly Temple for Spiritual Service” celebrates 100 years of service on Sunday, September 23rd. While the building is now a century old, Seattle First Baptist church has been with us since 1869 –- a pioneer by Seattle standards. Sunday services begin at 11 A.M. if you’d care to join the congregation in celebrating.
Seattle has plenty of early 20th century church and temple buildings. Many have gothic arches, towers, organs, and stained glass windows, as does First Baptist. This church, however, has a steeple rising high above the building on a height of First Hill ridge, “In order that from every high point in Seattle, people might see its finger pointed heavenward, directing their thoughts to God” described by Rev. Dr. Harold V. Jensen years after it was built. The copper -sheathed spire tower still rises the original 168 feet. In 1912 it was hoisted up with wires; a crane was used to repair the spire after the Nisqually earthquake of 2001. It is still pretty easy to see from many vantage points in the city.
The building has two towers, two entrances (one on Harvard and one on Seneca), and is described as Tudor or English Gothic in style, made of brick and terra cotta. When it opened in 1912, it was enthusiastically described in detail by Pacific Builder and Engineer and The Seattle Times, and considered both a fine design by the firm Russell & Babcock and Associates of Tacoma, and a fine building, as a result of the work of Carl Johan Ericson who chaired the building committee and served as contractor. At that first service in 1912, new pastor Dr. Carter Helm Jones joined the congregation in singing “Safely to arrive at home” in the hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”.
On opening Sunday, safely arriving at home was more than a spiritual aspiration for the congregation. First Baptist’s previous church, built in 1899 on Fourth Avenue succumbed to the City’s regrade of Fourth Avenue. The last services were held there on February 9, 1906, “after the building had been supported on props when the front part dropped six inches overnight” according to Our First Baptist Heritage, published in 1984. After a succession of rented facilities, coming home safely in 1912 must have been an enormous relief.
The new church was built in the garden of Minor Hospital on the northwest corner of Spring and Harvard, which opened on July 1, 1906. Built for real estate developer Nelson Grimsley, this elegant and well-equipped private hospital was designed by Somervell and Cote, built by E. J. Rounds & Co., and named after Dr. T.T. Minor. In between the garden and the hospital was the resident doctor’s cottage. Over time, the hospital was superseded by larger facilities. First Baptist bought it in 1929 and remodeled it to serve as the education building. In 1956, the church built the 3-story Activities Center (with a basketball court and a bowling alley) between the two buildings. So First Baptist Church today is actually the whole block along Harvard from Spring Street to Seneca. The sanctuary has been remodeled over the years, but is still the same place with the same footprint as it was when the church opened in 1912. The First Baptist Church complex indoors is something of a maze south of the sanctuary.
First Baptist Church, with a 143-year history in Seattle, has a fascinating story. The church has a “Heritage Room” and a committee of dedicated volunteers who steward the history of the church. The room has been undergoing repairs and will re-open on September 23. In addition, the church maintains a website on which the many activities, projects, and concerts of the congregation are highlighted, and parts of this history documented.
On September 16 and 30th, volunteers will lead tours of the church beginning after Sunday services at about noon. You can meet the tour guide near the communion table at the front of the sanctuary if you’d like to join the tour group.
Please note that Seneca Street runs into Harvard Avenue where it joins Union Street. This is so close to the church that it is often difficult to know which street is Seneca and which is Union. You won’t miss the church! Parking is to the west of the church and the #2 bus stops right there on Seneca as well.
This article written by Dotty DeCoster in consultation with Diana James, author of Shared Walls and active member of Seattle First Baptist Church.