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Famous church in Minneapolis neighborhood
By Marianne Combs
Minnesota Public Radio
August 22, 2002


Christ Church Lutheran sits on a corner in a residential neighborhood of Minneapolis. The church isn't well known to Minnesotans, but it's quite well known to architects. In fact the American Institute of Architects lists Christ Church Lutheran as one of 31 buildings that changed modern life.

Exterior of church
Christ Church Lutheran stands in a residential neighborhood of Minneapolis.
(MPR Photo/Marianne Combs)

At the end of World War II, Christ Church Lutheran needed a new building. Their plan was a bold one. They would ask world famous architect Elial Saarinen to design a modern structure. Christ Church's current Pastor Al Neibacher remembers the daring of his predecessor.

"He came back to the building committee and suggested Elial Saarinen's name," he said. "And there was an architect on the building committee. And the architect said, 'Well you'll never, ever be able to persuade him to do the design. And if you could persuade him to do the design, you would never be able to afford him.' So the pastor, William Buege, flew to Detroit and twisted Saarinen's arm, so to speak. And (he) agreed to the project."

Saarinen designed a very modern building, with unadorned brick walls. In the main hall bricks form vertical waves like ripples on a pond. Pastor Neibacher says at first, the congregation gave the new church mixed reviews.

Main hall
The brick on the interior walls of the main hall form vertical waves, like ripples on a pond.
(MPR Photo/Marianne Combs)

"The old-timers who were here when I first got here, told me that many in the congregation were just very very upset at both the design and the building. It looks like a box, they said. And as soon as the first picture appeared - I can't remember if it was Newsweek or Life magazine - they suddenly liked the church quite a bit," he said.

Christ Church gained national attention. The American Institute of Architects has recognized the church in its new book, Structures of our Time: 31 Buildings that Changed Modern Life. In conjunction with the book, there are now guided tours for the public.

Neibacher says the congregation has dwindled over the past 50 years, to a fraction of what it was when Saarinen designed the church. He worries about the building's future.

"I grew up in New York City, ... (and) there was a wonderful little ... church down the street from me," he said. "And they went bankrupt and they sold it to a disco. And I had visions of something like that happening way down the pike maybe here."

Modern gargoyle
These "modern gargoyles" are displayed on an exterior wall of the church.
(MPR Photo/Marianne Combs)

Ten years ago, the church's roof was leaking. The repair cost $150,000. Neibacher says if that happened today, they couldn't afford the repairs. The budget barely covers program costs with nothing set aside for major repairs.

Mary Body sits on the Christ Church preservation committee.

"We've had some water damage," she says. "The gym floor has been re-done numerous times. We really need a restroom on the first floor - there are no restrooms on the first floor. You can tell this was built by men architects."

Body says the church needs a new pipe organ and air conditioning in the offices. The price tag for improvements to the building is $5 million. That's a lot of money for a church with about 400 members. So the committee wants to solicit help from foundations, architectural organizations, and maybe even the Finnish Embassy. Body says the understated power of the Saarinen design is too precious to lose.

"I used to go to a gothic church. My father was a Lutheran minister," she said. "And the gothic churches are beautiful. I love the cathedrals of Europe and all the symbolism that I see in that. But we went church shopping and came in to this church, and it said something totally different to me. The simplicity of it speaks to me - it lets you kind of be very peaceful and quiet in your heart."

The Christ Church Lutheran will host the exhibit, "Structures of our time - 31 Buildings that Changed Modern Life," and offer guided tours of the church to the public through Sept. 8.

More Information
  • Christ Church Lutheran
  • The Octagon Museum More on the Structures of our Time: 31 Buildings That Changed Modern Life exhibition