Westminster Presbyterian Church: historic preservation counts

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December 3, 2002 // UPDATED 1:34 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Bette Hammel
Bette Hammel

Downtown churches have long resisted Minneapolis' demolition mania. Now, one congregation expands and successfully marries past to future.

As a city that prides itself as the state's leading banking and commerce center, Minneapolis has always wanted to present a modern face, with towering skyscrapers on the skyline and bustling business owners making deals in the skyways.

Modern architecture helped create the image, and local architects responded to their clients' wishes. Minneapolis became known as the "tear down, build up" city.

Luckily, the Warehouse District with its blocks of roomy old brick buildings hung on. Smaller businesses began moving in, pleasantly rehabbing these structures. It proved to be a good lesson for the city. People began to say, "Why don't we save our old buildings anymore? They are part of our history."

Now we seem to be turning the corner on the historic preservation issue, especially since the Milwaukee Road Depot's splendid renewal at South 3rd Street and Washington Avenue.

And even through the worst of the tear-down eras, most of the city's historic churches have remained intact and, in fact, improved.

One successful recent renovation was just finished by Westminster Presbyterian Church, 81 S. 12th St.

The original building, designed by Charles Sedgwick in 1897 in the English Gothic style, features paired towers that have dominated the corner of 12th and Nicollet. When lit up at night and viewed from Peavey Plaza, the building, with its rugged gray stone faade, takes us back to the days of merry old England.

Over the years, the congregation has taken very good care of the church, with special thanks to leading citizens such as the Daytons, the Bells and the Mondales. In 1998, the sanctuary was beautifully restored by Minneapolis architects Collins Hansen.

As membership continued to grow, the church needed more space, including a more convenient entry and reception area, improved parking, new fellowship hall, nursery and classrooms -- which meant building a full-scale addition.

Architects Leonard Parker Associates were commissioned to study the needs and design a state-of-the-art education and program facility. After two years, construction was completed this summer.

Recently, I toured Westminster with one of the principal architects, Francis Bulbulian. I was pleased with the way the new 45,000-square-foot addition fits right in with the old -- particularly on the 12th Street side where the stone exterior seems to match the existing rock. The original stone was Minnesota blue limestone, according to head church administrator Sam Cook, but the new Lanin stone from Wisconsin is very similar.

One of the best touches the architects added was another Gothic tower for a new entrance on 12th and Marquette (which is handy to nearby parking ramps). Bulbulian said it grabs the corner of the block as sort of an interpretative Romanesque -- or, as Leonard Parker put it, "We wanted to join it together but also make a gesture towards the future."

Inside we walked into a large new gathering space set off by the original stone wall of the old church, now looking like a garden wall. Here, the architects cleverly enhanced the space by bringing in daylight through new skylights. Large windows on the 12th Street wall give members a good view of the city.

The tile floor, in royal blue and burgundy, matches the original slate in the chapel and is continued in the adjoining space, an art gallery and social area named for former pastor Elizabeth Haller, who was also an art collector. Currently, visitors can view a collection of advent art in the gallery.

Fortunately for the architects, there was available land behind the church on Marquette, providing a few parking spots. "We inherited a 1950s building which had been their education building and forced people to enter from the back through a minimum vestibule," said Bulbulian.

Demolishing that building gave the church more room for lobby space and staff parking, while members use underground parking via 11th Street. For this new entry and enlarged vestibule, designers installed a large reception desk and attractive lounge area with new royal blue carpeting, while saving the original fireplace oak wall. Nearby is the original chapel, now restored and gleaming. Down the hall, the early Sunday School room designed in prairie-style by Purcell Feick and Elmslie in 1911 is nicely preserved. Over the fireplace hangs a fine work of art inspired by Elmslie, an elongated Apostolic clock in polished brass designed by local artist Philip Larson.

The public is welcome to tour Westminster, including the addition and the sanctuary, said Cook, on Sunday mornings, or from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

It's a good way to see how this church preserved its history and yet brought in the services today's churchgoers expect. "Restore what's there, and build for the future," the congregation told the architects, who more than fulfilled their mission.

I think this is an ideal motto for our city as it heads into a new year where, hopefully, we will do better in preserving and recycling our best old buildings that still mean a lot.