A former church in Seattle brings people together again—this time as multi-family housing.
By Rachel Gallaher
Images by Rafael Soldi
Designed by Allied8, the Columbia City Abbey Apartments are an adaptive reuse project that transformed a historic church into multi-family housing.
In 2014, Northwest Investments—a developer/builder that had previously worked with design firm Allied8 on a handful of projects—sent architect Leah Martin a link to a real estate website that took to her a listing for a historic church in Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood. Originally built in 1923, the Columbia Congregational Church building had sat vacant for seven years and needed a series of repairs. Along with the link came a question: “How hard would be it to convert this into housing?”
“I looked at the link and was immediately sucked in,” Martin says. [The developer and Allied8] have a shared love of saving buildings and breathing new life into them. It took a couple weeks of research to determine the viability of adaptively reusing this building, and it was during that time that my client said he could take this project on as long as we saved as much of the structure as possible. It was a deal!”
Past and present combine in the Columbia City Abbey Apartments. According to architect Leah Martin, the design team opted to keep many of the building's original details, including board-formed concrete, and craft contemporary additions in white.
Due to the density limits of current zoning, demolition and rebuilding was not financially viable, but research revealed that as long as they did not change the exterior massing, the architects could significantly increase the floor area on the interior (by 28%). The building had undergone several renovations during its near-100-year life—the result was a series of additions that spanned multiple land parcels and two land-use zones. A 1959 addition covered up many of the original details (and craftsmanship) on the building and created low ceilings that didn’t do justice to the architecture. Martin and her team knew that they needed to remove these modifications to reveal the 1923 design, which they planned to juxtapose with a contemporary renovation. It was important to everyone involved that the history of the building, which is rich and layered, be taken into account.
“I grew up in the Northeast where neoclassical buildings pepper the landscape,” Martin says. “I’ve lived in Seattle for nearly 30 years, and I’ve always noted that, due to its age, the city has a dearth of these neoclassical buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, if you look closely, you can find them. The Columbia City Congregational Church was one such find. The original church was beautifully and thoughtfully designed by James Stephen, one of Seattle’s premier architects at the turn of the 20th century—he was instrumental in rebuilding Seattle after the Great Seattle Fire of 1889.”
The seamless renovation reinvigorates the former church and reengages it with the surrounding neighborhood.
One of the first buildings in the Rainer Valley, the church served as a catalyst for the development of Columbia City. Allied8 was able to save most of the original structure, quickly revising an old master use permit and an expiring contract rezone while designing the Columbia City Abbey Apartments: an adaptive reuse concept to include 14 units of housing and two retail spaces.
“Each apartment is unique and captures 1923 moments in different ways,” Martin says. “In addition, the project is anchored by a common plaza that sits one story above grade creating a vantage over the hustle and bustle of Columbia City. This plaza was the instrumental design concept that pulled the entire project together. It is the critical outdoor space from which most of the units are accessed. Furthermore, we were able to bring a 1923 moment back to life that had been eliminated in the 1959 renovation. The original entrance to the 1923 church was on the important southwest corner of the property that was closest to the commercial center of Columbia City. By inserting the plaza into our design, we reinstated the primary entrance to the building from the southwest corner. The new building very much engages the heart of Columbia City again.”
Original beams were salvaged and made an integral part of the design.
No two homes are the same, and each has its own unique details including dramatically exposed rafters, rounded windows, and interesting nooks and exposed brick. Aiming to make the original rough-sawn beams, board-formed concrete, and load-bearing brick the standout architectural features, Martin knew that the modern overlay needed to be, “stylistically quiet,” so new additions were done in white. After the team removed the midcentury-added brick from the exterior of the sanctuary to expose the original stucco, the client scoured the region to find old-school stucco craftsman. According to Martin, he found an older Irish man, “on the verge of retiring, who agreed to make this his last project. It took months and months of painstaking restoration, patching, and new stucco application—but it was totally worth the wait.”
Finished in May 2021, the building entwines past and present in a seamless, community-focused design with historic details that make this project one of a kind. “Our intent was to revive the 1923 building where we could,” Martin says. “It wasn’t about replicating the original building. It was about offsetting the historic moments in the building with modern touches and functionality.”