Christ Church Lutheran: A Saarinen gem
Unless you’re an architecture buff, you probably haven’t heard of Christ Church Lutheran. It’s an elegant, modern church that was named one of the “31 buildings that changed American life.” And it’s right in our own backyard, located in the Longfellow neighborhood in south Minneapolis.
Kristine Carlson is the new pastor at Christ Church Lutheran in Minneapolis.
She’d heard the building was special, so when she came to interview for the job, her expectations were high. "I was expecting to be bowled over a little more right away when I drove up and walked up to it," she said.
But she wasn’t. That’s because this 1949 building isn’t showy.
Designed by Eliel Saarinen, the famous Finnish-American architect, this church doesn’t have stained glass windows, or a grand entrance, or especially high ceilings. Instead, the church has a tall bell tower and a brick box for the sanctuary. But unlike many brick buildings, this one isn’t dark.
"I’ve been in churches that were brick before," Carlson said. "And they always felt brick. They just shouted brick at you. But his one is so soft, that I think about light first when I come into this space. And then secondarily, I start to think oh, that’s brick or that’s wood."
A row of south facing windows sheds light on wooden pews.
The windows are glazed, so the light is soft and diffuse. The front of the church is defined by three architectural elements: A curved brick wall, a slit of a window and a narrow, silver cross.
Light from that slit pours across the brick wall at the front of the church.
And then the wall curves toward the congregation.
And the light follows. On Christmas morning 2006, it even dances on the faces of parishioners.
"I looked at them, looking up at me preaching at me from the pulpit and their faces were just illuminated with this light," Carlson said. "That was so powerful I stopped what I was saying in the middle. And I said I wish you could see yourselves right now you are just illuminated with this light.
Nestled among the pews are four round concrete pillars. These smooth pillars support the church’s tall ceiling and brick walls. The dark brick undulates.
"When you’re inside the nave, it feels like you’re in a cathedral," said Marianne Wargelin, a Minneapolis woman who works at the Finnish consulate in the Twin Cities. "There’s a kind of a sense of its height soaring above you so you the human being inside the church know the power of God."
In the late fifties, the congregation decided it needed more space. By this time, Eliel Saarinen was dead. So Christ Church Lutheran turned to his son, Eero, to design an addition. Eero Saarinen took the job. A few years later, he would become famous for designing the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York.
"When his son designed the addition, what he did was so Finnish, which was to create that courtyard. I think the courtyard, it just marks it," Wargelin said.
The minimalist creation includes a single bench for quiet reflection, stones and a few shrubs. The new building, completed in 1962, features offices, classrooms and the Luther Lounge, which includes an orange Hans Wegner "Papa Bear Chair" ...
... and dozens of plastic molded chairs with metal legs designed by the husband-wife team Charles and Ray Eames.
This combination of spare, serene architecture and classic modern furniture makes the south Minneapolis church a great place to visit. And many architecture students flock here see the genius of both Saarinens. But like many other urban houses of worship, Christ Church Lutheran is looking for new members.
Dick Gliem, 82, saw the church being built in 1949. Back then, Christ Church Lutheran had four Sunday services — three in the morning and one in the evening. "We had over 1,000 people that attended church every Sunday," he said. "Now if we get over 150 we’re doing good. It’s just died out in recent years."
Those attendance figures give Wargelin pause. "I certainly am worried," she said. "I realize the Longfellow neighborhood has five or six different Lutheran churches, all of which are trying some way to survive.
Pastor Kristine Carlson hopes to boost memberships and create a foundation dedicated to preserving the church’s rich architectural legacy.
Christ Church Lutheran will get its share of architectural attention in September 2008. That’s when a retrospective on the work of Eero Saarinen opens at two museums: the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Walker Art Center. (Photos by Scott Theisen)
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