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Church becomes historic landmark

Brian Johnson
Dolan Media Newswires

Minneapolis – In the late 1940s, when Christ Church Lutheran was under construction, the story goes that some Longfellow residents weren’t sure what to make of the funky new structure rising up in their neighborhood.

“There was little about it that said ‘church’ to anybody,” said the Rev. Kristine Carlson, the church’s current pastor. “But the minute it was finished, its influence was explosive. … Its design was influential all across the country.”

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of the Interior agreed, selecting Christ Church Lutheran as one of nine new National Historic Landmarks, a designation that goes only to historic properties of “exceptional value in representing or illustrating an important theme, event or person” in the nation’s history.

It’s a rare honor, befitting such venerable sites as George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate and gardens near Alexandria, Va. All told, fewer than 2,500 historic places in the nation are designated as National Historic Landmarks, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The church “is a major public asset,” said Thomas Fisher, professor and dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Design. “There are a number of people in our field who, when they come through the Twin Cities, want to see it. There is a tour value to it.”

Finnish-American architect Eliel Saarinen designed the original sanctuary, which opened in 1949. Church officials subsequently hired his son, Eero Saarinen, to design an education wing, which opened in 1962.

The sanctuary/addition is noteworthy, in part, because it represents the combined individual works of the two esteemed architects, according to Fisher. Both projects were completed within a year or so of the architects’ deaths: the elder Saarinen died in 1950 and Eero died in 1961.

Christ Church was Eliel Saarinen’s last project, Fisher said, and “it was the last project he worked on with his son, who was also very famous.

“Father and son had worked together early, but Eero at the time this was done had moved on to have his own firm. So as far as I know, it was the only one where the son came back and added to his father’s work, which is part of its significance.”

Fisher added that it’s “widely considered to be one of the father’s best projects in terms of its design. He had done a few churches and this one was sort of a culmination of his work. And it has been wonderfully maintained and preserved.”

In announcing the award, the U.S. Department of Interior described Christ Church as “one of the most celebrated works by Eliel Saarinen, who was among the nation’s most acclaimed architects and architectural educators of the 20th century.”

“Through his adept use of materials, proportion, scale, and light, Saarinen created the Christ Church Lutheran building with great dramatic effect and architectural impact, yet one that also retained a human scale and possessed a feeling of serenity and repose.”

In 1977, the addition – which holds classrooms, a lounge, a sky-lit atrium, and other facilities – won a “25-year award” from the American Institute of Architects. The award goes to designs that “have stood the test of time,” according to the AIA.

Churches were just a small part of the Saarinens’ work.

Other Saarinen designs, individual or as a team, include the Chicago Tribune Tower (Illinois), Crow Island School (Illinois), General Motors Technical Center (Michigan), TWA terminal at JFK Airport (New York), Dulles International Airport (near Washington, D.C.) and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

Eliel Saarinen was very well known at the time he designed the Christ Church, Fisher noted, explaining that that he came to the United States to run the Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based Cranbrook Academy of Art, which he also designed.

Saarnien, the son of a Finnish Lutheran pastor, designed everything in the new Christ Church, from the pews to the baptismal font, Carlson said. The result was a worship space that has earned praise from people of all faiths.

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