By Karen Hery
Almost 100 years ago, a stone block was slipped in place on a building addition wrapping around the corner of SE Yamhill St. and 35th in the Sunnyside Neighborhood. It simply says Community House 1922.
In 1922 Community House meant an indoor swimming pool, long since changed over into regular meeting rooms, and a fine fir floor gymnasium that has stood the test of time, still regularly used by basketball groups.
Over a thousand community members had a stake in planning and building this Community House in the early 1900’s as the social and educational gathering spaces of the largest for its time Methodist church in the growing city of Portland.
A quiet giant, this 38,000 square foot greystone building sits more empty than full these days as it awaits a fate that, for a certain window of time, is in the hands of all of us.
Rather than begin the process of selling when the last members of the Sunnyside-Centenary Methodist Church congregation disbanded at the end of August, the building has been given an interesting lease on life by the Methodist Columbia District in an opportunity window that lasts until June, 2017.
If enough community members and community groups embrace the stewardship of the building to justify keeping it in service, the building won’t even need to change hands and it can continue to lend a helping hand to the community.
A small team gathered together by Erin Martin, the district’s superintendent, has been tasked with seeking input from interested parties to maintain the building as a community and social service oriented resource.
It’s much like how Tabor Space at 55th and Belmont came out of the Mt Tabor Presbyterian Church that opened the space to wider possibilities. When the answer isn’t to sell or to rent out space in a traditional way, the questions become deeper and the possibilities more interesting.
Tony Jordan, elected president of the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association is excited about the opportunities.
“Our neighborhood, like many neighborhoods, is lacking in large scale indoor public gathering space. It was great to hear that this building had been taken off the chopping block. Several of our board members have already toured the building. We see our most important role as helping to steward the conversations that allow everyone to work together well.”
There is a lot of work to be done for the building to be of full service. Parts of the building date back to 1911 and many bathrooms and ramps need to be brought up to ADA standards. A lift or elevator would need to be added to make the top floor, with a gym and a room for social gatherings accessible to all. Portions of the steep roof and the main stone tower both need immediate attention. The former sanctuary has exquisite acoustics for lectures and musical performances.
At the center of all this action is a humble, determined social activist and community hero, Pat Schwiebert.
The Wednesday and Friday meal service in the building’s basement has been going on under Schwiebert’s patient, loving leadership for 35 years. She and her husband, John, are painting the building’s interior and prepping for new carpet.
Schwiebert, like many visionary community leaders, isn’t interested in serving one program or one group. She is looking for the intersection where all meet up.
“I want the kids in the neighborhood to be able to play in the gym,” she says.
With an eye on serving veterans, kids of all ages after school and low income families, an open house and several tour dates have been set up in the coming months. Schwiebert welcomes neighbors from all over the inner SE to these events to discuss the potential in coming together for everyone’s benefit and the neighborhood and community’s most pressing needs.
The next year and a half will pass quickly, so the Schwieberts and their team members are doing everything they can to help seed success.
The building has been professionally inspected so all major safety upgrades, repair and maintenance projects are well- documented. Work that can be funded from existing building user fees is already underway.
Conversations around Sunnyside in break rooms and community meetings about the future use of the building are positive and hopeful.
“If you took away their community building all together, this school wouldn’t be what it is,” said Sunnyside Environmental School principal, Amy Kleiner.
“Over the past decade, we have been in constant partnership with the social services in the building. Our kids just made sandwiches for the meal program yesterday. We are very proud that our curriculum is founded on service learning and environmental justice.”
Whatever goes into the building next, Kleiner, as a K-8 Portland Public School administrator, has high hopes that there will be a win-win for both institutions. She is especially interested in after-school options for middle school youth.
The Schwieberts and other interested neighbors are seeking a future for the building that builds on and transcends what came before. To that end, they have taken to calling the building the Sunnyside Community House and are tapping into their existing groups non-profit designations to allow grass roots ideas, like having a day a week that neighborhood kids come in and play, have the right set up to be well run and appropriately insured.
For now, the Sunnyside Community House sits waiting for its newest set of stewards. All the Methodist Columbia District asks is that whatever comes next comes from the hearts of the building’s closest neighbors.
An open house meeting is Saturday, February 13 at 1 pm at the corner of SE 35th and Yamhill St. and is open to all. To schedule a tour at a different time, inquire about building use, join the team or provide helpful funding and resources, contact Pat Schwiebert firstname.lastname@example.org.