MacDonald & Mack Architects preserves Christ Church Lutheran, a National Historic Landmark and modernist icon designed by Eliel and Eero Saarinen.
exterior of Christ Church Lutheran chapel

The exterior of the chapel is simple, with little in the way of decoration. 

Project Christ Church Lutheran, Minneapolis, MN

Architect MacDonald & Mack Architects, Minneapolis, MN, Angela Wolf Scott, AIA, LEED AP, Principal in Charge

Hidden away in a Minneapolis residential neighborhood, Christ Church Lutheran is one of the nation’s first modernist churches and an extraordinary example of twentieth-century ecclesiastical architecture. Designed by Eliel Saarinen, the chapel is adjacent to a later addition designed by his son, Eero Saarinen.

The chapel was completed in 1949, and is considered by many to be Saarinen’s masterwork. From the outside, it is unassuming, a steel frame clad with bricks of varying colors and an eighty-eight-foot tall bell tower crowned by an aluminum cross. A glass-enclosed partition connects the tower to the nave.

The interior of the chapel is finished with rose-colored Chicago common brick. To enhance the acoustics of the sanctuary, the brick walls undulate gently, reducing echoes while amplifying the sounds of the congregation. The wall at the front of the sanctuary is curved and washed lightly with white paint. It is adorned with a simple aluminum cross. Natural light streams through a hidden glass partition, illuminating the chancel.

interior brickwork of Christ Church Lutheran

The brick walls of the nave undulate gently, reducing echoes while amplifying the sounds of the congregation.

“Saarinen knew exactly what he was doing with the composition, form, and materials,” says Angela Wolf Scott, AIA, principal in charge, of MacDonald & Mack Architects. “He knew how all of that fit together to meet the needs of the congregation. It is a space designed for humans—simple, quiet, and lovely.”

A single-story hallway connects the sanctuary to the 1962 addition, an education wing designed by Eero Saarinen that sits on the other side of a landscaped courtyard. Known for his bold futuristic designs, including the St. Louis Gateway Arch, Eero choose to pay homage to his father’s work. The single-story building is constructed of brick, identical to that used on the church. Floor-to-ceiling windows mimic the design of the nave and provide a view across the courtyard to the chapel. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 2009, Christ Church Lutheran is the only building where the work of father and son can be seen side-by-side.

Christ Church Lutheran bell tower

View of the bell tower.

A Deteriorating Bell Tower Launches a Significant Preservation Effort

In 2007, the church became concerned about the deterioration of the bell tower. Corroded metal, eroded mortar joints, and spalled brick was visible on all four sides. MacDonald & Mack Architects was hired to examine the building, assess the masonry and windows, and mitigate damage caused by water filtration and underlying structural issues.

Will Stark, a preservation planner and member of the congregation, recognized the danger posed by the deteriorating bell tower. In 2008, he was one of the founders of the Friends of Christ Church Lutheran, an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the church and sharing its history.

Christ Church Lutheran nave

The nave provides seating for 600 parishioners. The high clerestory walls of the nave give way to single-story wings that create a more intimate space.

Stark died from pancreatic cancer last summer, leaving behind an extraordinary legacy. “Will was the glue that held so much of the recent preservation work together,” says Wolf Scott. “He organized and spearheaded projects, gained consensus for approach and work, managed the big picture, wrote and tracked grants, and led the fundraising efforts.

Under Stark’s leadership, the Friends received funding from the National Park Service’s Save America’s Treasures initiative. As a stipulation of the grant, construction documents were reviewed and approved by the State Historic Preservation Office and the National Park Service. It also requires future work to be reviewed and approved by the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office.

The deterioration of the bell tower was caused largely by its structural reinforcements, which were integrated into the masonry joints every three courses. As the mortar aged and cracked, water seeped through and started to rust the metal reinforcing. The expansive force of rusting, referred to as oxide jacking or rust burst, broke the surrounding mortar and brick.

“There was no good way of dealing with it,” says Wolf Scott. “We couldn’t leave the structural reinforcements in place, so we put together a treatment philosophy that called for us to do as little as possible while mitigating those things that would cause ongoing damage to the tower. We specified that the masonry contractor repoint the entire tower, removing the mortar to a depth of two inches or until they found the reinforcing in every third course.”

The masonry contractor removed most of the metal reinforcing and replaced every single spalled brick. “If we left bricks without their faces on the tower, water could get into the reinforcing,” says Wolf Scott. “We needed to make the tower as water resistant as possible.”

The restoration of the tower was completed in 2011. Wolf Scott then developed a Historic Structure Report that documents the building’s history and current condition and outlines treatment recommendations.

whitewashed wall inside Christ Church Lutheran

The whitewashed wall at the front of the sanctuary is adorned with a simple aluminum cross. Natural light streams in from a hidden glass partition, illuminating the chancel.

Defining a Preservation Philosophy for Christ Church Lutheran

Since the restoration of the tower, the church has completed several major projects, including accessibility upgrades, structural repairs, courtyard and landscape restoration, roof repairs, masonry and hardware restoration, and extensive stormwater management and waterproofing. Modifications to the organ room and restoration of the organ screen were completed, and a new organ, designed and built by Dobson Pipe Organ Builders, was recently installed. A landscape master plan and design for a new columbarium are currently underway. But it was the recently completed restoration of the baptismal font that defined the preservation philosophy for Christ Church Lutheran.

“The baptismal font is the entire building in one little piece,” says Wolf Scott. “It is every struggle, every philosophical question, every material question—everything embodied in one object.”

Designed by Eliel Saarinen, the gently-curving, mirror-finished baptismal font plays with light that reflects off the sides of the vessel and dances with the water. But the mirror finish was pocked and deteriorating, and the plating substrate was corroded.

“The question that kept coming up is when there’s a conflict between keeping the integrity of the fabric and keeping the integrity of the design—when the design is the thing that is significant—how do you resolve it?” says Wolf Scott.

The Minnesota State Preservation Office felt that the baptismal font needed to be repaired. Midwest Art Conservation Center experimented with different techniques, but these efforts sacrificed Saarinen’s original design.

courtyard and fountain at Christ Church Lutheran

An outdoor arcade and single-story hallway connect the chapel to the education wing, and creates a small landscaped courtyard with raised planters and a central fountain.

“The baptismal is just lovely and it’s the heart of the church,” says Wolf Scott. “There are so few instances where modern religious architecture has a chance to shine and show iconography, and this basin nailed it! But if we lose that mirrored finish, and you’ve got all these pockmarks, and it’s still deteriorating, then what are we doing this for?”

Today, the repaired basin is housed in the church’s archives. “We got consensus that we are not conserving the fabricator’s work,” says Wolf Scott, “we are conserving Saarinen’s work.”

Replacing the basin was more challenging than anticipated. Modern processes used to create a mirrored finish didn’t have the same effect as the original, and there were several barriers with substrate materials. After experimenting with base metals, finish metals, and finishes, the baptismal font was reinstalled in October 2018.

“It takes a village to do work like we’ve done here,” says Wolf Scott. “There’s an incredible village at Christ Church Lutheran.”

Key Suppliers

Structural Engineer Mattson Macdonald Young Engineers

MEP Engineer Dunham Engineers (Historic Structures Report) Nelson Rudie and Associates (Construction Projects)

Landscape Architect Nathan Anderson

Civil Engineer Anderson Engineering

Contractors Macpherson Towne Co.; Watson Forsberg Co.; Jackson and Associates

Objects Conservator Midwest Art Conservation Center

Awards + Designations American Institute of Architect’s 25-Year Award (1977) & U.S. National Register of Historic Places (2001) & U.S. National Historic Landmark (2009) & Minnesota Preservation Honor Award (2012)

Significant Grants Save America’s Treasures & Minnesota Historical and Cultural Heritage Legacy Grant

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