Building History

“Except the Lord build the House, they labor in vain who build it.” –Psalm 127:1

Part 1: The Early Years
Part 2: New Church Home To Be Unique
Part 3: The Tower Of The Saints
Part 4: The Congregation Finds Office Space
Part 5: We Break Ground For The New Church
Part 6: We Begin To Build Our Church - Phase I
Part 7: We Expand Our New Church Home - Phase II
Part 8: Three Major Purchases
Part 9: We Expand Once Again - Phase III
Part 10: A New Look For Our Church - Phase IV

The Early Years

After nearly six years of meeting in the R.H. Johnson Social Hall, members of the Desert Palms United Presbyterian Church congregation were more than ready for a new home. Especially since, they saw other buildings rising all around them, as the new community of Sun City West took shape.

The Camino Del Sol Shopping Center was constructed by DEVCO at the southwest corner of Camino Del Sol and R.H. Johnson Boulevard in March 1980. Within two years it boasted a Safeway grocery store, a hair salon and several other businesses. Church congregations were just as eager as businesses to establish themselves as part of the new community.

The Desert Palms Long-Range Planning Committee, appointed in 1982, had done its work. On May 4, 1984, its members signed a contract with Taliesten West Architects, a subsidiary of the Frank Lloyd Foundation in Scottsdale, to design a church complex. It was to include a sanctuary, a narthex, a robe room, a mechanical room, rest rooms and temporary offices.

The cost of the new building was to be $720,863. The church received seed money to finance the first year of the church operation, including a $65,000 loan from the Presbytery and $17,920 from “other sources.”

Part 2: New Church Home To Be Unique

New Church Home To Be Unique

This was to be no ordinary church building. The project architect was E. Thomas Casey, who had worked closely in the past with Frank Lloyd Wright, widely recognized as the most famous American architect of the 20th century. Wright came to the Arizona desert in 1928, fell in love with the area, and designed several notable homes, public buildings and churches here.

Wright’s imprint is evident everywhere in Desert Palms Presbyterian Church, beginning with its basic structure. Rather than the traditional oblong shape of many church sanctuaries, the plan called for a giant, shell-shaped steel dome.

The shell shape was necessary to fulfill one of the basic requirements of the planning committee: worshippers should be close enough to the altar to feel a part of the service. None of the pew seats should be farther than 50 feet from the pulpit. This required a semi-circular arrangement around the chancel.

When originally constructed, the sanctuary seated only 420, with temporary offices taking up the rest of the space. The choir loft seated 40 members. Today the sanctuary seats 600, and the choir loft has space for 85 members.

Other design elements of the interior also set the Taliesten plan apart from that of other churches. The most significant difference was the use of natural light. The sanctuary faces north, so worshipers looking out the high windows on either side of the altar do not face the glare of the morning sun. Five triangular shaped windows, placed high around the shell, add to the natural light, while five hexagonal chandeliers provide the main illumination. The choir loft is positioned at one side of the room.

A large Celtic cross of natural wood highlights the wall behind the altar. Natural wood is used throughout the interior for pew decorations, the pulpit, communion table and baptismal font. A large skylight colored in shades of purple, yellow, orange, red and green is suspended above the altar.

Harmonizing with the angular form of the domed exterior, most of the church rooms are irregular in shape. Except for Fellowship Hall and one workroom, there are no square or rectangular rooms in the church complex. The use of natural light and natural substances throughout the building creates the impression of meeting God in the natural world that He created.

Part 3: The Tower Of The Saints

The Tower Of The Saints

Saints in the New Testament refers to believers in Christ who are living and growing in faith. Members of Desert Palms Presbyterian Church consider themselves to be counted in that number.

There is no church spire like that of Desert Palms in either Sun City or Sun City West. It soars 85 feet from the ground, and 25 feet above the church building. The three columns supporting it symbolize the Trinity. At its apex are three steel Celtic crosses, with arms welded together, forming a triangle. This represents the Trinity.

A four-foot diameter illuminated globe, located in the triangular center of the arms represents “A friendly beacon of Light and hope throughout the world.” Two bulbs, each designed to last 25 years, provide the illumination. At night, the shape of a cross is projected in all directions.

Part 4: The Congregation Finds Office Space

The Congregation Finds Office Space

Until the new building was finished, the fledgling congregation needed a place to store its records. Long before the new edifice thrust its tower into the sky, Edward Malstrom was at work.

“We had to have office space even before the church was built,” said Malstrom, one of the charter members, who arrived with his wife, Elda in Sun City West in April 1980. As chairman of the property committee, it was Edwards’s job to find that space, and he found it in a financial office just off Camino Del Sol. “We had to start from scratch,” he recalled, “and our first purchase was a copy machine and later a computer.”

Part 5: We Break Ground For The New Church

We Break Ground For The New Church

By Nov. 18, 1984, the enthusiastic congregation held a “ground breaking” to celebrate the anticipated arrival of bulldozers and construction workers. A few shovels of dirt were turned on the church lot, which bore a sign reading: “Desert Palms United Presbyterian Church Groundbreaking.” The small congregation marched around the church lot behind a member who carried a blue banner reading “Desert Palms United Presbyterian Church Sun City West, Arizona.”

At one point there was a tall cross situated in what is now the church parking lot, said John Spaulding, a charter member. “It was 10 or 12 feet high, and there were about 100 people there for the ceremony. It was our way of marking the land where the church was going to be built. “No one knew exactly where on the lot the building would eventually be erected. So we just put up the cross in what we thought might be the middle of the area,” he said.

Part 6: We Begin To Build Our Church - Phase I

We Begin To Build Our Church

On March 23, Palm Sunday, in 1986, the official ground breaking, termed “The Real Thing” on a church bulletin, was held with 275 members present. Work began on the project in April, and a Thanksgiving and Dedication Service was held in the new sanctuary on November 16.

Rev. Arthur Dahlburg occupied the pulpit, and the choir took its place in the choir loft wearing their light blue robes, with dark blue collars, each emblazoned with a white cross.

In a letter to the congregation in the Dedication Sunday bulletin, Rev. Dahlberg wrote in part:

“We experience beauty inside God’s house wherever we are, from the pew, the choir loft, the pulpit/lectern and beside the furnishings for sacrament. We rejoice in the beauty of form and color in the paneling, decorative skylight, chandeliers and furnishings. There is beauty in the access of light.”

The congregation said, in a responsive reading: “We dedicate this house; we sense the great cloud of witnesses around us encouraging us to be faithful. We dedicate ourselves anew to the worship and service of God and the extension of our kingdom of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ throughout the world.”

The service ended with the singing of the hymn “We Would Be Building.” The small group of Presbyterians who had begun meeting in the Social Hall more than six years before, finally had their own church home.

Part 7: We Expand Our New Church Home - Phase II

We Expand Our New Church Home - Phase II

Desert Palms Presbyterian Church continued to grow, and soon needed added space. The Congregation voted on October 23, 1988 to proceed with the building of Phase II, and to award the contract to the firm of Francis A. Schulz of Scottsdale, which had supervised over 150 church and religious-oriented commissions, some of them in Sun City.

Phase II was to include sanctuary renovations, Fellowship Hall, a Chapel, and an administrative wing. Renovations to the sanctuary consisted mainly in moving the offices out of the space in the northwest section of the area to the new office wing, while filling the released space with 80 more pew seats.

Many stained glass windows, created by Phoenix resident Maurice Newport, highlight the 80-seat Chapel. The six rectangular windows depict religious themes in combinations of blues, greens and mauve transparent glass. They represent prayer, Scripture, the Trinity and Sacrifice, and the relationship of the people to Christ and the Sacraments. The Lamb of God and the burning bush are on the two trapezoidal windows on the east side of the chapel. The dove of Peace with an Olive Branch is the subject of the large round window above the altar. Six tall windows flank it.

Fellowship Hall, which includes a large kitchen and pantry, a stage, an audio-visual booth and three meeting rooms is 10,000 plus square feet, and can accommodate up to 600 people. Mini-kitchen facilities are included in meeting Room A. The cost of Phase II was $1,058,912. Groundbreaking for Phase II was held on December 12, 1989.

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Part 8: Three Major Purchases

Three Major Purchases

Three major purchases that enhanced Desert Palms’ ability to serve its congregation were added in the following three years: the Columbarium, the parking lot across 135th  street, and a new organ.

A Memorial Garden and Columbarium were constructed in 1990, together with a lovely fountain between the Sanctuary and Fellowship Hall. There is space for a total of 448 niches which was increased in 2018.

By November 1992, the congregation had expanded to such an extent that parking had become a problem. The county had, “without previous announcement,” records show, erected “no parking” signs on 135th Avenue, which runs along the west side of the church. This resulted in a loss of many of the approximately 170 street parking spaces. The church was also concerned that it could additionally lose some street parking on Stardust Boulevard, which runs along the north side of the building.

With a membership of 860, anticipated to increase to over 1,100 within two years, the church clearly had to act. The vacant lot across 135th Avenue from the church was already a dedicated church site. If another church were to purchase that property, the two churches would be vying for what little street parking remained. Therefore, on November 22, 1992 the Session approved a total price of $295,000 to buy the lot from DEVCO and improve it for parking. The Session approved financing the project through the sale of personal notes to be sold at a $3,000 minimum, a six-year maturity and an interest rate of approximately 6%. The notes were to be made to DPPC members and friends of the church.

The last major purchase was the Allen Organ in August 1992.

Part 9: We Expand Once Again - Phase III

We Expand Once Again - Phase III

Eleven years after the major church additions, the congregation found it necessary to expand even more. The 2000-2001 project included additional office space, a library, a music room, a conference room, and additional storage space behind the stage. The total cost of the project was $635,249. The church had $110,386 in cash on hand, and floated loans to the congregation at 7% to make up the rest.

The additional space was built onto the front of the building toward Stardust Boulevard. Most of the new offices have high windows, creating a more pleasing view from Stardust. A back door leads from the new corridor directly to the outdoors just outside the Columbarium. To shield worshippers from the heat, an overhang shades the entire walkway from the sanctuary to Fellowship Hall. The additional storage space behind the stage accommodates craft and quilting supplies and the church archives.

Part 10: A New Look For Our Church - Phase IV

A New Look For Our Church - Phase IV

By 2008, the church complex was showing signs of wear, and several capital projects were necessary. Air conditioner units were replaced; the sanctuary roof was repaired; a new sound and lighting control booth and a new sound system were installed; the men’s restroom was converted to a unisex facility; parking lot lights were repaired; and the main parking lot was sealed and re-striped.

But the most dramatic change by far was the remodeling of the Sanctuary. The project included painting, re-carpeting, installation of tile in the Narthex and the Sacristy, re-upholstering and reinstallation of pews, and raising of two chandeliers. The changes represented a distinct departure from the original décor. “We wanted a change from the neutral-colored interior,” said Jeannie Westerberg, a member of the color committee that worked on the changes with John Stockton, chairman of the property committee.

The committee visited other churches, looked at paint and upholstery samples, and finally decided that Desert Palms Presbyterian Church needed a brighter image. The members decided to build the new color scheme around the deep crimson of the choir robes, and to combine that color with blue. The wall behind the pulpit was painted a deep burgandy, a color the manufacturer called “garnet evening.” The Sanctuary walls were painted tan, a shade the color chart called “almond latte.” The carpeting, termed “blue shadow” by the retailer, is a tone-on-tone mixture of all three colors. The upholstery fabric, called “matisse,” also combines all three colors: garnet, blue and tan. The color committee consisted of: Charlotte Calhoun, chair; Ross Snodgrass, Barbara Heinemann and Jeanne Westerberg.

Extra spotlights were installed on two of the chandeliers closest to the front to shed more light on the natural wood cross on the wall behind the altar. The cost of the Phase IV capital improvements was $171,527, most of which came from pledges.

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