SR's one-tree icon gets new life, thanks to patience, hard work

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If there's a moral to the story of the Church Built from One Tree it may be that it takes a village to save a church from being razed — a village and a half-century of hard work.

Either way, it's a story that ends happily as Santa Rosa this week celebrated the grand reopening of the former First Baptist Church that made Ripley's "Believe It or Not" fame for being built from the wood of a single massive redwood tree. The 138-year-old structure, located on the northern edge of Juilliard Park, will now serve as a city-run venue for weddings and special events.

In an era of deep government cuts and scaled-back service, this is a feel-good story about what can be achieved through community partnerships and persistence.

This week's celebration just adds to the lore of the structure.

The church's origins are well known, about how all the wood (except the flooring) came from a redwood tree — 18 feet in diameter — felled near Armstrong Woods. Equally familiar is how Guerneville lumberman Rufus Murphy sold the lumber to the First Baptist Church to build a new church at Ross and B streets. Murphy proudly proclaimed that the wood came from one tree in hopes of promoting the sale of redwood lumber.

What's not as well known, however, is the city's struggle to preserve that structure over the last half-century. To that end, we even give some credit to our predecessors at this community institution.

As Gaye LeBaron wrote in a Dec. 26 column ("A big church, a little tree, a restoration"), the second act of this story begins with the decision by the city to build a parking lot on Ross and B streets. The First Baptist Church willingly gave up its one-tree icon in favor of a larger home elsewhere.

"With the city assuming ownership, The Press Democrat took on the fund-raising task," LeBaron wrote. "With service clubs and citizens rallying &amp;&lsquo;round, the building trades volunteering services, ladies' clubs holding rummage sales and schoolchildren emptying their piggy banks, the campaign collected $10,000 and secured the lot next to the park. The construction firm of Rapp, Christensen &amp; Foster took the building apart and rebuilt it .<TH>.<TH>."

For a while, the church became part of the Ripley Museum chain, named after the Santa Rosa native who featured the church in one of his Believe It or Not cartoons in the 1920s. At the time the church "was stocked with curiosities supplied by the Ripley Museum firm, including a two-headed calf with six legs, a fish with fur and a wax figure of Ripley at a desk cluttered with his cartoons," LeBaron wrote.

Eventually, however, the museum closed and the church began deteriorating. In stepped Rich Hovden of the Santa Rosa Recreation and Parks Department who made the restoration of the church his quest. Despite various proposals to move the structure once again, Hovden cobbled together the necessary funds and recruited the help of 11 contractors and various city staff and volunteers to bring the church back to life.

This week's reopening is a tribute to Hovden's perseverance and that of many Sonoma County residents and businesses.

The good news is this source of community pride, located at 492 Sonoma Ave., is available for rental. The best news is it's likely to stay put for a long time — believe it or not.

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