Murray Morgan link could put North End church on city's historic register

It's a small, single-story Craftsman-style building at the corner of North J Street and Division Avenue. But its age and...

It’s a small, single-story Craftsman-style building at the corner of North J Street and Division Avenue. But its age and connection to an iconic figure of Pacific Northwest history just might be enough to put it on the City of Tacoma’s register of historic places.

For 99 years, the beige house with light blue trim, located at 206 N. J St. at one edge of the city’s North Slope Historic District (NSHD), has served several congregations of varying denominations. Today, it is home to the 150-member Center for Spiritual Living.

But one former churchgoer is of particular interest to local historians.

According to information gathered by Rev. Frances Lorenz, the Center for Spiritual Living’s minister, and Marshall McClintock, a local preservationist and NSHD board president, the late Murray Morgan — author of several books of Pacific Northwest history (most notably Skid Road, Puget’s Sound, and The Dam), and a prominent Tacoma native whose namesake bridge crosses Thea Foss Waterway — was a regular parishioner. Morgan’s father, Henry, was a minister at the church for 40 years. And Murray Morgan’s wife, Rosa, taught Sunday school there.

Rev. Lorenz and McClintock recently completed an application to nominate the building to the City of Tacoma’s register of historic places. On May 28, the pair will present its case to Tacoma’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.

“I think the motivation [for us to put it on the register] is that we regard the historic significance of this building,” says Rev. Lorenz, who has been a minister at the church since 1997, and began to look into the church’s history in 2004, when the congregation was preparing to celebrate the building’s centennial.

If added to the register, it would be a positive move for local preservationists concerned over potential expansion of MultiCare Health Systems located just across Division Avenue. In May 2006, the congregation at First United Methodist Church sold its 90-year-old building to MultiCare for $8 million. The church was later demolished to make room for the hospital’s expansion.

“Rev. Lorenz is the first among churches in the Wright Park area who said, ‘We are willing to accept the historic register designation,'” says McClintock.

According to the nomination, the church’s story begins in the early-1890s, on a site blocks away. In 1892, Charles B. Wright donated a parcel of land at what is today North I Street and Division Avenue, as well as $450 toward construction of a church, to Tacoma’s Universalist congregation. The Universalists built their church, which opened in 1894 and was led by Rev. E. J. Feit. Three years later, Rev. Feit stepped down, which opened the door for Rev. Abbie Ellsworth Danforth, Tacoma’s first female pastor, in 1903.

But the Universalists soon outgrew their building.

In 1904, two developers wanted to purchase the church’s land in order to build a new grocery store. The sale allowed the congregation to purchase the site where the church sits today.

The move also brought a new minister — Rev. William D. Buchanan. “He was quite a colorful figure,” says Rev. Lorenz. “He went to school with the poet Carl Sandburg, and used to bring Carl out to Tacoma.”

Rev. Buchanan had grand plans for their new place of worship: seating for 400 people, a towering steeple, and construction costs totaling $10,000. One newspaper called the design “a model of modern architecture.” The church, however, scaled back its plan. In the end, it hired architects Arnott Woodroofe and Arnold S. Constable, and contractor C. H. Hallen, to design and construct a scaled-down version of the building at half the original cost.

In 1911, Rev. Buchanan left Tacoma, which opened the door for Henry Morgan. Morgan ministered at the church between 1912 and 1952. During that time, the church changed its denomination to the Divine Science, and was renamed the Church of the Healing Christ. Murray Morgan married his wife Rosa in 1939 in the church.

“I think the building is very interesting architecturally and historically,” says McClintock. “And, of course, its connection to Murray Morgan is really important.”

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To read the Tacoma Daily Index‘s complete and comprehensive coverage of the historic Center for Spiritual Living building, click on the following links:

Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index and recipient of an award for Outstanding Achievement in Media from the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation for his work covering historic preservation in Tacoma and Pierce County. He has earned four awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, including third-place honors for his feature article about the University of Washington’s Innocence Project; first-place honors for his feature article about Seattle’s bike messengers; third-place honors for his feature interview with Prison Legal News founder Paul Wright; and second-place honors for his feature article about whistle-blowers in Washington State. His work has also appeared in All About Jazz, City Arts Tacoma, Earshot Jazz, Homeland Security Today, Jazz Steps, Journal of the San Juans, Lynnwood-Mountlake Terrace Enterprise, Prison Legal News, Rain Taxi, Real Change, Seattle Business Monthly, Seattle magazine, Tablet, Washington CEO, Washington Law & Politics, and Washington Free Press. He is a graduate of the University of Washington and holds a bachelor’s degree in communications. His journalism is collected online at wahmee.com.

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