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Historic church holds its own amid a changing Costa Mesa

Historic church holds its own amid a changing Costa Mesa
Senior Pastor Amy Aitken appreciates the popular stained glass window that adorns the entrance to First United Methodist Church in Costa Mesa. (DON LEACH / Daily Pilot)

For nearly 90 years, in the historic core of Costa Mesa, First United Methodist Church has been a downtown anchor.

Built in 1928 in the Spanish Colonial Revival style, the church at 420 W. 19th St. once hosted multiple services each day for the thousands of people of all Christian denominations who worshipped there.

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Yet as a growing Costa Mesa around it got busier, more dense, more bustling, the church did not.

Today, only 35 congregants call First United their home.

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In recent months, the fate of church has been brought into question.

Many wondered whether, given its prime downtown real estate of just under 1 acre, First United might be replaced by housing as has happened to other Newport Beach and Costa Mesa churches in recent years.

In a recent interview, the church's newly installed senior pastor, Amy Aitken, put the rumors to rest: "We intend to be here for good."

Aitken, an Irvine native, added that "nothing is in stone yet," but said the sanctuary itself — the five-story-high tower, iconic among all of Costa Mesa's architecture — isn't going anywhere. Rather, the church's leadership intends to hire a restoration company.

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"It's a beautiful piece for the community," Aitken said. "We're sitting in the heart of the city."

"It's definitely an icon," added Mary Ellen Goddard, a Costa Mesa Historical Society archivist and former Daily Pilot columnist. "For people, it doesn't matter that it isn't their church. It's the church that signifies that part of town and people's identity with that."

First United, in addition to being one of Costa Mesa's most recognizable landmarks, is one of the city's few structures eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.

'Influential' place

Lee Ramos has been attending the church for decades. It has been an influential place in his life and, in 2013, it's where he chose to announce his candidacy for Costa Mesa City Council.

Standing inside one of the tiny rooms stacked within the sanctuary's five-story tower, he recalled how he used to attend Sunday school there. Those rooms, because of modern-day fire codes, are now off-limits.

Ramos recalled how many city leaders of yore — council members, school board trustees — found common ground as they attended services.

He noted that it's still a popular place for weddings, but that maybe it can offer more. First United, Ramos said, could host concerts, banquets.

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First United has always had its place in the Costa Mesa community, Ramos added, "and it will again."

Parking struggles

In May, a Chinese congregation of Methodists left their longtime home at First United and moved to Irvine.

The decision slashed a portion of First United's activity, though according to church officials, even though it has never returned to its peak numbers, it hasn't been empty all these years.

The church hosts an adult literacy group and mental health nonprofit. For some time, about 1,200 12-step recovery program participants passed through First United each week, but that will soon change.

Later this month, the church is cutting the program, Aitken said. She said the influx of people continually "stressed" nearby businesses.

"That was just a tremendous amount of impact," she said.

First United continues to struggle with parking, church leaders said. It only has 19 spaces.

"That's about all we can handle right now," Aitken said.

For years, First United relied on handshake deals for its attendees to park next door at 1901 Newport Plaza and The Triangle.

But now those properties, once full of vacancies, are bursting at the seams. The extra parking is gone.

At 1901, a Saddleback Church campus moved in earlier this year. An estimated 1,200 people came to the megachurch's first service in February.

Though leaders vow to restore First United's main sanctuary, there are other buildings on the property whose fate has yet to be decided. They fear that they may be too costly to restore.

For Aitken and Ramos, First United is at a crossroads, deciding where to go next.

"The church is looking to rebuild," Aitken said, "looking to renovate and go through our options."

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