Photo Essay: Inside A Saarinen-Designed Church in Minneapolis
Learn how two generations of Saarinen architects left their mark on a small Minneapolis church in an unassuming residential neighborhood. #SavingPlaces #SacredPlaces #Architecture
No one could blame any members of Christ Church Lutheran who thought Eliel Saarinen would decline their invitation. After all, the internationally known architect was at the peak of his career in the 1940s, and here they were, asking him to design their small Minneapolis church.
But Saarinen said yes, possibly drawn by his background as the son of a Lutheran minister as well as the request of the pastor, the Rev. William Buege, for “an honest church.”
In 1949, Christ Church Lutheran’s ethereal sanctuary—a vessel for Saarinen’s warm, approachable version of Modernism—hosted its first service. It turned out to be one of the Finnish American architect’s last buildings; he died the next year.
Christ Church Lutheran flourished, as did the career of Saarinen’s son, Eero, who dazzled the public with his swooping Modernist designs for structures like the St. Louis Gateway Arch and Dulles International Airport.
When the church was ready to add an Education Wing in the late 1950s, its members again approached a Saarinen at the top of his game—and he again agreed.
Eero accepted the low-profile project because he wanted to make sure the addition would complement his father’s work, and the quietly elegant Education Wing (completed in 1962, a year after Eero’s death) does just that.
In this unassuming residential neighborhood near the Mississippi River, the Saarinens wielded simple materials, space, and sunlight like the masters they were. They created an atmosphere of exquisite sensitivity to the needs and possibilities of the human spirit.
Even in a building where every space and surface has been carefully wrought, the sanctuary (shown at top and above) stands out. Eliel Saarinen designed the 600-seat space without any parallel surfaces, which enhanced its acoustic qualities.
A floor-to-ceiling pine screen conceals the window that lets sunlight wash over the altar, and an undulating brick wall absorbs sound. Spun-aluminum lighting brings out the rose-colored brick's soft texture.
In a letter to architectural historian Rolf Anderson, who penned the site’s successful National Historic Landmark nomination in the late 2000s, Rev. Buege wrote: “I felt that the building always demanded your best.”
Today, the thriving church still prizes the architects’ influential design. It received a $130,000 capital grant and a $3,000 planning grant from the National Fund for Sacred Places—a collaborative program of the National Trust and Partners for Sacred Places—in 2017–18, and works with the nonprofit group Friends of Christ Church Lutheran to preserve and maintain the building.
Christ Church Lutheran volunteers regularly prepare meals for a city shelter and perform other service work. The church rents space to a Montessori school and a Finnish-language school and even contains a lower-level basketball court in the Education Wing, used by the local community.
The Friends group gives free architecture tours of the building once a month. Highlights include a collection of furniture by Midcentury Modern icons such as Charles and Ray Eames, Jens Risom, Harry Bertoia, and others.
Shown are a selection of photographer Wing Ho's images of Christ Church Lutheran, taken for Preservation magazine.
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