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July 3, 2002

A once lackluster hall now scans the heavens

  • Where a traditional steeple just wouldn't do, McClellan Architects designed radial panels that resemble the wings of a dove.
    Special to the Journal

    Embassy Center Apostolic Church
    Photos by Ross Ishikawa

    It's not what you would expect from an evangelical ministry in a modest neighborhood in the middle of Bremerton.

    Embassy Center Apostolic Church is clearly the product of raised expectations. It stands like a rock in midtown, presenting a cleanly modern face on the street and reaching for the sky. The light-catching, sculptural tower over the new entrance is an instant landmark.

    Embassy Center
    1023 Sixth St., Bremerton
    Emmanuel Apostolic Church

    McClellan Architects

    Project type:
    Church-daycare, renovation

    Construction type:
    Wood stud wall with stucco finish

    Project size:
    8,400 square feet

    Date complete:
    February 2000

    Structural engineer:
    Gary Gill

    General contractor:
    Ed Brown Construction

    Jury comments: This unusual transfiguration of a once very humble 1950s church is best appreciated by viewing its 'before' and 'after' photos. The difference is amazing. An evocative entry tower suggests the wings of a dove, and signals to its community that this is a special place of worship.

    A remarkable transformation from an unpretentious background building to a strongly symbolic building with enormous street presence. The interiors suffer from seemingly random placement of windows and a simplicity that contradicts the exuberance of the entrance.

    This project is important in that it changes a totally lackluster, mid-century building to provide the interior with a delightful play of light and the exterior with a heightened interpretation of a church steeple based on the Pentecostal experience. This project works both in daytime and in its exuberant evening lighting.

    Although it is a church within an established denomination, Embassy Center is the name the congregation has given its new home. It’s a name that fits the entrepreneurial spirit of the pastor, Rev. Larry Robertson, who travels worldwide to teach and preach the gospel.

    At home in Bremerton, the congregation acquired and repaired a large house next door for outreach activities and led crime clean-up in the neighborhood. With the renovation of the existing church -- an unremarkable meeting hall built in the 1920s and renovated in the 1950s -- the group has added two services on Sundays, a kitchen and a new week-long day-care in the basement.

    State-of-the-art sound and audio-visual systems complement Sunday services and support special programs in the sanctuary. A new library lies just to the left of the center's front doors.

    Robertson, a preacher of the Apostolic faith, has given architect Regan McClellan the informal title of deacon for his role in the project.

    The project itself is a teacher, according to Robertson. "This building teaches excellence," he said. "But it teaches other things."

    "Connect -- that’s what this building does," Robertson said

    The new center connects more and more people to the church, he said. Much of the labor involved in construction was provided by members.

    It connects the church to its neighbors, who have watched with interest as the tired layers of exterior paneling were removed and a clear statement of renewed mission took shape. And with its new visibility, it connects the building to the city itself.

    The design of the steeple grew from the idea of the flame of the Pentecost, but some see a flower, the sails of a ship or the wings of a dove.

    The renovation includes a new front entry and stair, and an access ramp in the rear, in addition to the sculptural tower over the roof. By clearing away some walls inside, the sanctuary was enlarged by about 20 percent. Other changes were made to add dimension and atmospheric quality to the interior.

    Embassy Center seems to prove that in order to transmit an idea or a spirit, a building design must be the product of a special partnership between architect and client. McLellan and his newly founded firm, McClellan Architects, formed that partnership with Robertson and his church in the initial interview.

    "He listens," said Robertson.

    They talked about light and scripture. The minister shared his favorite passage, from Matthew 5:14,16: "You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill and cannot be hid. Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your father which is in heaven."

    building hall
    Designers began with an unremarkable building hall built in the 1920s and renovated in the 1950s.

    McClellan remembers saying: "Let’s open up this window, put a wall in front of it, and then put the pulpit in front of the wall." That basic proposition became the starting point for design of the sanctuary. A stage-like platform the length of the wall supports a small musical group and several chairs, in addition to the podium. In the center, natural light breaks from behind a double screen wall that forms an abstract cross-shaped pattern. The source of the light is a pre-existing window, narrowed to a horizontal strip near the ceiling.

    "The southern light pounds in around late morning, when services are in full swing," said McCellan.

    The two remaining exterior walls of the sanctuary also get extraordinary treatment within the spare and cost-conscious renovation. Two additional layers of framing inside the existing structure enabled the architect to carve deep and narrow windows along the wall. The special treatment was inspired by a moment in the old building when McClellan noticed a woman facing the wall in prayer.

    Deep, narrow windows along the wall were inspired by a moment in the old building when architect Regan McClellan noticed a woman facing the wall in prayer.

    Along most of the length of the wall, a constellation of vertical and horizontal window slots admit a dancing pattern of light inside the space during the daytime and outside at night. In the corner, the play of light intensifies as the pattern of windows turns the corner and follows the back wall, which also happens to face the street.

    Many of the niches now frame one of several ceramic vases, set there by members of the congregation. The collection, according to Robertson, represent a biblical metaphor for believers -- lumps of clay made into perfect vessels.

    During the design process, the architect first brought up the need for some kind of steeple or tower to express the religious nature of the building and its place in the community. When he mentioned the need for such a landmark, the minister was quick to respond. "He let me know that a traditional steeple just wasn’t going to cut it," said McClellan.

    The towering sculpture that the architect designed after this conversation became a centerpiece for fundraising for the entire renovation. Inspiration grew from the idea of the flame of the Pentecost.

    Photo by Clair Enlow
    Rev. Larry Robertson with architect Regan McClellan

    At night, the construction is nothing so much as a lamp, a burst of light on the horizon. But the composition of radial panels could be the whorl of a flower, the sails of a ship, the wings of a dove, or a system of cosmic wave catchers opening to scan the heavens. Excitement and ambiguity work hand in hand here to deliver an arresting sight.

    Embassy Center is designed without pews or other fixed furnishings. This practical fact seems to fit the community and the congregation, which includes many military and former military personnel.

    The old saying: "You can’t take it with you" has new meaning, especially when it comes to real estate. This has not been lost on Robertson, himself a former military man and a transplant from west Texas. Minus the tower, Embassy Center would simply be a special meeting place, retaining its value.

    While it seems to grow from the roof and the wall at the entry to the building, the tower is actually attached by only about six bolt points right above the foyer. It is portable, according to McClellan. Given the attachment to the tower that some have expressed, it's entirely possible that it would follow them to any new home.


    Clair Enlow can be reached by e-mail at clair@clairenlow.com.

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