12/26/2010: B3: [Rich Hovden]PC: Santa Rosa Park Planning and Development Director Richard Hovden admires the available light in the newly refurbished Church of the One Tree, Thursday Dec. 23, 2010 in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2010

Believe it or not: Santa Rosa church to reopen

After more than a decade closed to the public and five years since renovations began, a long-neglected but lovingly restored Santa Rosa landmark is being reintroduced to the community this week.

The Church Built from One Tree, the former First Baptist Church constructed in 1873 from the wood of a single massive redwood tree, will have its grand re-opening Tuesday as a city-run venue for weddings and special events.

"This is really a special event for the community," said Rich Hovden, park planning and development director. "It's long been a dream of mine to see the church resurrected."

The city inherited the church, made famous by Santa Rosa native Robert Ripley's successful "Believe It Or Not!" cartoon, in 1959 when it was moved from the corner of Ross and B streets to make way for a city parking lot.

It was reassembled on Sonoma Avenue at the northern edge of Juilliard Park, and for years a group of Ripley fans operated a modest museum of curiosities in the 2,000-square-foot structure.

By the 1990s, however, the two-headed calf with six legs wasn't drawing the crowds it once had and the museum closed in 1998. Plans to move the church again never panned out, Hovden said, largely because of the cost.

Then in 2002, California voters passed Proposition 40, the ballot measure that raised $2.6 billion for, among other things, parks and historical and cultural resources. The city won a $341,000 grant for the church, combined it with about $350,000 in local park development fees, and set about bringing the little church back from the brink.

Rotting exterior boards were replaced in 2006, a new wood shingled roof went on in 2007, and various other upgrades followed as time permitted. Eleven contractors and various city staff and volunteers have pitched in over the years, Hovden said.

"We kind of piecemealed it together," he said.

The biggest single expense with the gabled roof, including its distinctive spire, which cost $105,000. Another big ticket item was the restoration of the magnificent stained glass windows, which had suffered from years of settling frames and BB gun shots. They were repaired by a Calistoga craftsman for $95,000, Hovden said.

Other improvements include handicapped access, lead paint removal and repainting, upgraded lighting and stereo system for weddings, and landscaping.

The goal is to recoup the city's investment by renting the church for special events, primarily weddings but also as a place community groups can host events such as plays, performances and book readings, Hovden said.

Rental rates start at $75 an hour, and a typical wedding fee would be $400, Hovden said. By comparison, the comparably sized Kenwood Community Church charges $1,800. Hovden said the goal is to have the church be financially self-sufficient.

But the broader goal, much like the renovation of the DeTurk Round Barn in the West End, is to preserve the past in a way that makes the buildings relevant for the present.

"These are gems of the community and they really need to be reintroduced to the community," he said.

The grand opening is from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. The Church of One Tree is at 492 Sonoma Avenue.

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