632 11th St., Astoria, Oregon

ASTORIA — Loretta Maxwell was born into the Christian Science faith and has been a member of Astoria’s First Church of Christ, Scientist since moving to the area in 2011. “When I first came (to this church), I came with my mom,” recalled Maxwell. “It was obvious the church needed care or help.”

Astoria’s moist climate was catching up with the church’s deferred maintenance. Maxwell is now on the House and Grounds committee, coordinating the 68-year-old building’s upkeep.

“I want to respect the historic aspect of the building,” she said. “It seems hard for people to understand the value of a building of this era.”

Modernist approach

Many people associate historic architecture with details heavily rooted in ancient classical, renaissance or medieval periods. To be historic — and more importantly to have good design credentials — a building needs to reflect these roots. Familiar elements such as Doric columns, Palladian windows or Gothic arches are commonly used to express these roots.

The Modernist Movement — which is ironically now considered historic — set all of those references aside. Instead, practicing architects focused on form and materials. There was nothing new with that approach. For instance, architects were experimenting with this 125 years ago when they designed shingle style houses… which are essentially Queen Ann style buildings, stripped of their ornamentation, wrapped in shingles and left to stand in rambling, almost aerodynamic, forms.

Modernistic credentials

When it comes to design credentials, it is hard to argue with the Wicks and Brown firm. Ebba was trained by the pioneering, Finnish architect, Eliel Saarinen. She also worked with her father, John Wicks, whose architectural portfolio spanned 60 years here. Ernest worked for Saarinen’s son, Eero. Both Saarinens were internationally known for their iconoclastic work.

Wicks' modernistic design for the Astoria church is heavily influenced by Saarinen’s Scandinavian sensibilities: sleek lines, minimal details, an appreciation for wood, light, shadow, solid and void. Maxwell believes these sensibilities blend well with the Christian Science faith. “We have openness and light. There are no distractions… ” she said. “There is something serene about (it.)”

A bold form

Although constructed in 1951, the church remains thoroughly modern. Its design is quintessential “form follows function.” When viewing photos of the church prior to its corner addition, one can identify the use of each space without entering the building.

The form is broken into two major parts: upper and lower. The upper space is broken into two more parts: “public” and “private.” The public space is dominated by a bank of windows lighting the sanctuary while the private space is an enclosed area to the side where congregants prepare to give the Sunday lesson.

The building’s lower-half contains the reading room and Sunday School area. Although below grade, much of the space is open to natural light.

Importance of preservation

“After becoming aware of the historic preservation group in town, it seems even more important to preserve this spot,” stated Maxwell. “I’ve had several visitors come to the church and say, ‘please help keep this church alive.’ I’m doing it more than for just myself, I’m doing it for other people.”

Celebrating Wicks and Brown

Accepting the Modernist Movement can be as challenging today as the day it emerged. On July 17th, the Lower Columbia Preservation Society will present a free lecture, “Astoria’s Mid-Century Architects.” The careers of Wicks, Brown and others will be explored through photos and original drawings.

For more information about renovating an old home or commercial building, visit the Lower Columbia Preservation Society website at lcpsociety.org.

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