Rainier’s conversion of his historic church brings new life to the building as a venue

IIf you need a location for a wedding, meeting or other gathering, the City of Rainier now has a new – and an old – location to consider. It’s the Rainier School & Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church.

The City of Rainier converted this 1896 church into a performance venue that is now available for rent. Photo courtesy: Simplicity Photography

This 1896 community landmark has been resurrected and will enjoy a bright future as a multi-purpose space thanks to collaborative funding and renovation efforts. Rainier Mayor Robert Shaw says now-retired city clerk and treasurer Charmayne Garrison sparked the city’s effort to restore the facility. He says it was a city council and staff decision to move forward with this project a few years ago. He adds that when he entered the building years ago, he saw that a lot of work was needed. “The process took a while,” he says. “Money was needed and we didn’t have enough funds. We have gathered resources and received grants.”

Though the renovation of the historic church slowed somewhat during COVID-19, the beautiful white-painted timber-frame building at 207 Olympia Street, on the corner with N Minnesota Street, is now ready for its next chapter. That’s fitting, because the town of Rainier is on the Tenalquot, or Ten al Quelth prairie, which in Lushootseed means “best yet.”

“We just appreciate the support the city has had to get this renovation off the ground and complete it,” says Shaw. “The church had sat and nothing had happened to her for years.”

“It’s beautiful now,” he adds, noting that the completion of the extensive work meant the city was able to hold a church cutting and reopening ceremony at the church on March 15. “We get a lot of comments. People come to Minnesota at night and the church is all lit up. It’s really nice to see.”

old light fixture in the historic Rainier Church at 207 Olympia Street W
Among many other improvements, the city improved the church’s electrical system while preserving the historic ambience. Photo courtesy: Simplicity Photography

The remodeling project was supported by Rainier City Council and its staff, Port of Olympia’s Small Cities Program, the Thurston County Heritage Grant Program, the Rainier Historical Society, and others. While maintaining the historic feel of the church, the renovations in recent years have included several interior and exterior improvements including the sewage system, plumbing, bathroom, pews, exterior finish, paint, windows, electrical system, security and the flooring, sprinkler system, fence, lawn, rose bushes and other sanitation.

And the effort was worth it. The Church is reborn.

Before entering the white clapboard church, you first step through an arbor at the front entrance gate, which is part of a distinctive picket fence that encircles the building. Then pass the new rosebushes beside the sidewalk and enter the gabled porch under the bell tower. As you step inside, you’ll see light pouring in through the large double-paned windows and onto the refurbished wooden benches. An altar area and wooden pulpit in front face the pews, with a brown door marked ‘Pastor’ on the side, leading to a small room behind the pulpit.

Brothers Albert, Theodore and Paul Gehrke built the building and it has been used as a pioneer house of worship and a school. The building was added to the Washington State Heritage Register in 2007. The State Heritage Register catalogs historically significant properties. Register papers filed in 1985 summarize the history of the facility. “Albert Gehrke, a German immigrant, came to Rainier in 1890 to farm a 170-acre claim, including much of present-day Rainier, named for its view of Mt.,” the documents describe. “Gehrke, a farmer and former carpenter, was accompanied by his two brothers in Rainier. Along with his brothers and neighbors, Gehrke built the school in 1896. The one-room building was the first schoolhouse in the community and served students in grades one through eight.”

new pews at the Rainier School & Zion Evangelical Church
The sun streams through the windows of the Rainier School & Zion Evangelical Church onto the renovated pews and interior. Copyright: Nancy Krier

The documents recall what happened next: “In 1902 the school moved to a new building and the building was purchased by the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, which included the Gehrkes and much of the city’s German congregation. Although organized in 1893, the community had met as a member[s’] apartments until the school is bought. Early services in the new church were held in German and the church served as a community center for Rainier’s German population. It even had an educational function again. When the new school building burned down in 1915, classes returned to the church building until a new school was built.”

In the years that followed, the building continued to be used as a church and received additions such as the church tower and a sanctuary. However, as the structure aged, its use dwindled. The city bought it in 1995 and completed the conversion in 2022.

Those interested in reserving the facility for events should contact City Clerk-Treasurer Tami Justice at City Hall who will process the lease and can answer any questions.

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