Lutherans in the Twin Cities

The congregation as holy space

Christ Church Lutheran gains recognition as historical site

Susan Roth, national register historian for the Minnesota Historical Society, addressing the congregation of Christ Church Lutheran (ELCA), Minneapolis, during the celebration of its designation as a National Historic Landmark, said, “This is an evening worthy of an ‘alleluja.’” This German Lutheran congregation enthusiastically agreed.

Christ Church Lutheran was organized as a mission in the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis in 1911. By 1926 congregants had identified the desired site for a permanent building, but the Depression and World War II delayed construction.

After the Second World War, the German congregants chose not to construct the Gothic building they had envisioned before the war, according to the Rev. Kristine Carlson, Christ Church Lutheran’s current pastor. In humility they decided to find space that presented a different message, she said.

In the mid-1940s, under the leadership of the Rev. William Buege, noted Finnish-American architect Eliel Saarinen was selected to bring a modernist style to the project. Reflecting on the selection, Buege said, “I asked [Saarinen] if it were possible in a materialistic age like ours to do something truly spiritual. He soon showed me.”

At the celebration, the Rev. David Wangaard of the Minneapolis Area Synod office, offered, “God’s people have always needed to have sacred spaces — to know peace, love, and joy.” Christ Church’s unique architectural contribution brings many different people through the doors, 85 percent of whom are non-members, he added.

When it was time to add an education wing, Eliel’s son, Eero Saarinen, was invited into the project. Thomas Fisher, dean of the College of Design of the University of Minnesota, explained that Eero “understood what [his father] was saying, that buildings must honor and represent their neighborhoods.” He added, “There is no better representation in the United States of the bringing together of father and son”

While there are 2,470 listings in the national register, with about 100 houses of worship, Christ Church Lutheran now is one of the few congregations with a Historic Landmark designation, the highest recognition given to an historical property, according to Dena Sanford, architectural historian for the National Park Service. The designation is completely “honorific,” she explained, and the federal government cannot instruct the property owner about how to use the property.

But Rev. Carlson explained how it is used. “This building does not let you stay here; it does not keep us. It literally sends us out to our neighbors,” she told the assembly.

Roth lauded the congregation for maintaining “this priceless architectural treasure.” Paraphrasing 2 Timothy, she said, “You have fought the good fight; you have run the good race.”