Dean Kahn

Bellingham man brings color, whimsy to historic Lutheran church in York neighborhood

Richard Sands steps out a window onto a scaffold while painting his home, a former church built in 1910 in the York Neighborhood, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016. The building once housed Lutheran and then Unitarian congregations.
Richard Sands steps out a window onto a scaffold while painting his home, a former church built in 1910 in the York Neighborhood, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016. The building once housed Lutheran and then Unitarian congregations. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

Richard Sands is a landlord and a carpenter with colorful interests, so it makes sense that he lives in an old Bellingham church he has painted eye-catching hues and has enough “deferred maintenance” to keep him busy maybe for a very long time.

“The ultimate fixer-upper,” he said. “I guess there’s a chance I could be done before I croak.”

Sands bought the former church at 1474 Franklin St., and its two-story parsonage next door, 21 years ago. German families built the parsonage in 1904 and built the church six years later. The building, originally Trinity German Evangelical Lutheran Church, is one of at least six surviving churches built in the early 1900s in the northwest part of York neighborhood.

The churches served people from Scandinavia, Germany and other parts of Europe who came to Bellingham to work, often in the city’s lumber mills. York was an early suburban neighborhood, with working- and middle-class residents served by churches that offered services in their members’ native languages. Some of the churches have been demolished, but others live on as businesses, houses of worship, and as private homes.

Loves to dance, fix things

Sands, 67, spent last week sanding and repainting the upper part of the church’s south face. He has erected three stories of scaffolding, with a ladder rising even higher from the top level. On Thursday, Sept. 1, under a dry sky, he was at work reaching sideways from the scaffolding to paint a piece of trim.

Sands owns three other rentals – two in Bellingham and one in California, where he used to live – so he’s accustomed to repairs and remodels, even if it means working high above the ground.

“Never be in a hurry,” is his work mantra, “and never take a step without looking.”

All the old Fairhaven (College) people ended up dancing here. The only problem was the plaster ceiling downstairs started to crack.

Richard Sands, Bellingham

Sands passed up a chance to buy the church years ago because it needed a lot of work, but ballroom dancing changed his mind. His love of dancing, combined with the church sanctuary’s open fir floor, was too much to resist, so he bought it in 1995.

Sands used to teach swing dance and ballroom dancing, and used to host community freestyle dances in the sanctuary.

“All the old Fairhaven (College) people ended up dancing here,” he said. “The only problem was the plaster ceiling downstairs started to crack.”

Turn-of-century churches

Trinity German Evangelical Lutheran was built in-house, so to speak, with its minister acting as the contractor and with congregation members donating their labor. “German” was dropped from the name in 1925, and the church moved to Texas Street in the late 1950s.

With the Lutherans gone, Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship leased the church in 1958 and bought it six years later. Highlights of the Unitarians’ tenure there include Robert Fulghum’s three years as minister in the early 1960s, before he wrote the 1980s bestseller “All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” and the fellowship’s founding of a community “food closet” that blossomed into Bellingham Food Bank. The Unitarians moved to Lettered Streets neighborhood in 1985.

Other century-old churches in Sands’ corner of York include Garden Street United Methodist, still an active church, at 1330 N. Garden St.; the former Norwegian Free Lutheran, now a private residence at 1446 Franklin St.; the former Bellingham Bay Lutheran at 1430 N. Garden St., now The Bell Tower Studios with a dance studio and offices; the former Norwegian Danish Baptist at 1349 Franklin, which used to house Morca Dance Academy and is now residences; and the former Norwegian Danish Methodist Episcopal, 310 Gladstone St., now the home of Bread and Wine Fellowship.

Full of color and this and that

In his younger days, Sands got around on a unicycle, sometimes while playing the Bulgarian bagpipe. He also has played the flute and saxophone, and performed with Balkan and folk bands in the Bay Area.

His sense of flair extends to color, too. The church exterior used to be white. Now, each side shares a palette of colors – cream, light blue, light purple – to varying degrees. Likewise, the sides of the bell tower are variable mix of cream, light blue, purple, violet, and green-blue.

People get to know who I am because of what I do here.

Richard Sands, owner of former church

The ground-floor exterior is sea green, appropriate because one side features paintings of an octopus and several sharp-toothed fish. The main door is purple, with a mailbox to match.

Sands lives on the ground floor. The next floor up, the high-ceiling sanctuary remains a work in progress, with repainting, plasterwork, and some seismic retrofitting yet to be done.

For now, the sanctuary contains a hodgepodge of old furnishings, musical instruments, a workbench and table saw, workplace vacuum cleaners, and assorted construction supplies, including boxes of panes of colored glass to replace the church’s original clear ones.

It’s the hub for Sands’ ever-present job of decorating and repairing the church, a task that brings him visits from neighbors, from Unitarians who used to attend services there, and from relatives of the German Lutheran church’s early minister.

“People get to know who I am because of what I do here,” Sands said, “making friends, because I’m kind of an introvert.”

Dean Kahn: 360-715-2291

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