Our Building

Learn about the history and architecture of our building, one of Tacoma’s historic jewels.

Tacoma’s Architectural Gem

Our current building opened in september 1925

First Presbyterian Church of Tacoma’s current building was designed in the Romanesque style by renowned Boston architect Ralph Adams Cram, one of the most noted church architects of the twentieth century. Construction started in 1923, and the building eventually opened for worship in the fall of 1925 to great acclaim in the Pacific Northwest and across the nation. "A Magnificent Church," declared an editorial in the Tacoma News Tribune. Costing $500,000, the building was later featured in the January 5, 1927 issue of The American Architect.
“It is in the great auditorium, with its high vaulted ceiling, its massive lines, its rose windows of brilliantly stained glass, its candle chandeliers, its solid oak pews and wondrously carved altar furnishings, that the atmosphere of worship rises to its sublime heights. Here is a room upon which the master church architect, Ralph Adams Cram, who devoted his personal attention to every detail of the church, lavished the wealth of his art and knowledge to produce the ultimate in ecclesiastical effects.”—E. Snyder, Tacoma Sunday Ledger, Aug. 30, 1925.

The Architecture of First Presbyterian Church 

by Rev. C. W. Weyer

Originally published as “Church Erected for 7-Day-A-Week Work” in The Tacoma Sunday Ledger, August 30, 1925, p. 1.

The new First Presbyterian church building is a pure type of Romanesque architecture. The architect, Ralph Adams Cram of Boston, is probably the greatest authority in the world today on church architecture. The building committee succeeded in securing his services after they had floundered about for two years and had failed to find suitable plans. The building, the furnishings, the lighting fixtures, the pulpit and the entire plant has been designed by Mr. Cram, and it may be said to the credit of the building committee that they have allowed him to have his way. Probably no other city in the West the size of Tacoma can boast of one of Mr. Cram’s churches.

The Romanesque is the earliest form of ecclesiastical architecture. Following it came the Gothic and still later the colonial. The building committee decided first of all that they would build true to a type, that when completed the building should not be an unsightly structure with a touch of the Gothic or a suggestion of something else, but it should remain true to whatever architectural type selected.

After careful investigation the Romanesque style of architecture was selected, believing that it was even more beautiful and far more unique than the stately and more common Gothic.
Those who have traveled abroad will recognize in many of the features of this church suggestions of cathedrals and church buildings in Europe. The symbolism and coloring on the dome and various parts of the building is simply carrying out the features of Romanesque architecture.

The committee believed that the auditorium should be churchly and carry the atmosphere of reverence and worship. Mr. Cram is past master in this art and anyone who enters the auditorium will realize at once that this was built for a house of God and a place of prayer. The same atmosphere is found in the chapel. Though the seating capacity of the chapel is but 100 it gives the impression of a cathedral. While the adult congregation worships in the auditorium the Junior congregation will hold their services in the chapel and the purpose of this service is to teach the boys and girls the art and meaning of worship.

The committee discovered that it was no more expensive to build a beautiful church and keep it true to ecclesiastical type than it would to build an unsightly structure and disregard all ecclesiastical features and that which appeals to the eye and to the senses.

The Tower

A Landmark of the tacoma skyline

The Tower of the church is 22 feet by 26 feet and reaches 165 feet into the skyline. In earlier years it served as a landmark for ships entering Tacoma’s harbor. Just below the Tower’s dome is housed a two-octave set of chimes constructed by the Deagan Co. of Chicago.

The Tower is filled with old Christian symbols used in churches throughout the world.

Facing the north the symbol is a square standing for the Eternity of Life.

Facing northeast is the triangle for the Eternity of the Trinity. As used on our tower the triangle is within a circle which gives it the added significance of the Eternity of Life.

Facing east is the Greek Cross or Cross of St. George.

Facing southeast is a five-pointed star known as the Star of Beauty, and is a symbol of Health. It is held to be a talisman against witchcraft. Also considered to point out the five places the Saviour was wounded.
Facing south are the interlaced circles (triquetra), an emblem of the Trinity found on the Celtic Cross and used in Western Churches.

Facing southwest is the seven-pointed star representing the sevens of the Bible: The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven days of the week, the seven branches of the candlestick of Moses, the seven churches of Asia, the seven mysterious seals, the seven stars in the right hand of God, the seven trumpets, the seven heavens, etc.

Facing west is the monogram I (Iota) for Jesus, and X (Chi) for Christ; surrounded by the circle of eternity or Perfection.
Facing northwest is a six-pointed star standing for the Creator.

Just below the dome of the Tower there is a balustrade. In the center of each side of the balustrade there is a niche with a model of one of the four evangelists–Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. The Boston architect originally thought that these items would have to be made in the east, but instead the work was done here by local artisans. Cram and Ferguson, the architects, sent a catalogue of ecclesiastical inspirations by the A. DaPrato Co. of Boston and models were made from illustrations in that book. Upon completion of each model a picture was taken of it and sent east for their approval. In a letter dates October 17, 1924, the architects wrote, “We wish to congratulate the modeler on the excellence of his work so far. We think it has been extremely satisfying.”

Atop the dome is a weather vane and careful attention was given to its design, too. Mr. Earl N. Dugan, architet locally in charge of construction, said that the whole weather vane is mounted on a movable ball so that during extreme winds there would be no danger of the vane being blown off, instead it can give with the wind, but will right itself again automatically. The whole vane is done in deep gold.

In connection with early plans for the church, a member of the Building Committee, Mrs. George L. Dickason, suggested that the pastor’s study be placed in the Tower. Her thought was that the view from the Tower would be inspiring to the Pastor.

Front Door Gable

Hundreds of symbols appear throughout our church, and these symbols are rich in meaning. Below is an excerpt from “The Message of the Symbols” by Janet Smith, explaining  the meaning of the peacocks that appear on the gable over the front door to the Sanctuary.

Peacocks Eating Grapes

symbols of the resurrection

At the vertex of the triangular gable over this entry way are to be found two peacocks eating grapes from both sides out of an urn. In this capacity they are said to be a symbol of plenty. The symbolic meaning of the peacock comes from a very old pre-Christian legend that says that the flesh of the peacock never decays but always remains fresh and sweet. Thus it has been adopted by Christians as a symbol of immortality or resurrection. It seems that this belief was widespread for Augustine was reported to have commented on the never-decaying nature of peacock flesh.

The main reason why the peacock has become a Christian symbol is that when it molts, it grows new feathers more brilliant than those which it lost. This reminds us of that new life found in Christ. Life gained by death to self is far better than the old one. Paul brought this to mind when he spoke to the Galatians saying: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live through the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Above the peacocks is found the Cross Patee, or broad-footed cross, one which is often confused with the Maltese cross, the difference being in the lines of the cross arms.
When grapes are found with the branches, they are symbolic of the unity of the church. When found as a cluster they represent holy communion. The grape, as a symbol of the blood of Christ, combined with the peacock as found here, is a symbol of immorality, speaking forcefully of the efficacy of His shed blood for those who will partake. The peacock is frequently seen on tombs, where it symbolizes the change from life to immortality. It was borrowed from pagan art and did not become the symbol of pride until modern times. Thus, the gable speaks exclusively of the attributes and work of Christ.