It was Sunday night. I was busy cleaning my apartment, putting all my things in boxes as I prepared to move, when I got a call from Maggie Scanlan, my friend and frequent theater collaborator. “Walker Church is on fire,” she said, “and it’s burning down to the ground.”
I was in shock. How could this happen? I couldn’t believe it. I thought for a moment maybe it was some sort of joke, but I realized my friend was crying on the other end of the phone.
We had just done a play there. Our production of The Three Sisters closed on May 12. I had practically lived there for a month, the way you do when you are doing a play — rehearsing for hours every day and then coming each weekend to perform. Though we were only using the space for a short time- we became a part of the ecosystem of the space as different groups would come in and out- the Stop the FBI group, community meals, the church sale, Occupy meetings, and many other groups that use the space. The building itself, too, became familiar- how we had to tread carefully along the wood floor, as it creaked so loudly the audience could hear if you were off stage- how we would travel through the boiler room to get to the other side of the stage for an entrance. It was so beautiful- at dusk the whole sanctuary would be filled with a golden light through the stain glass windows, and during intermission we would go outside where the community garden was popping with life, often with various neighbors working away at it.
The night of the fire, I immediately drove to the church. I didn’t have an assignment to write a news story, but I couldn’t help myself. Maybe I just needed to see it, but I felt strange, like a gawker, standing with the large crowds as the building smoldered.
Eventually, in conversations with Jay Gabler, I decided to write a piece that included memories and thoughts from people who have used the Walker space over the years — for theater, for puppetmaking, radio broadcasting, activism, etc. If you haven’t seen it, you can read it here. Much of that work was already at my fingertips, since for the past several months, I’ve been working on a research project about theater in Minnesota in the 1960s and 1970s, and the church was a hugely important center for activity during that time period. It was a tiny bit frustrating, because as I was interviewing people for this article, I didn’t formally make recordings, relying rather on my notes, because there was a time crunch.
The more I talked to people like Sandy Spieler, Ben Kreilkamp, Bain Boehlke, and many others, the more I realized just how important that space was. Sure, it wasn’t just about a building. There were people that made that space come alive, that made it an epicenter of art, activism, and community. Now that the building is gone, I wonder where that spirit will disperse to? Will it travel to other churches, community centers, homes? Or will a church-size hole be left in our city where that spirit once resided?
I’m guessing that the work and creativity that lived there will indeed find new homes elsewhere, but it does make me think about how important space is in the equation. What was amazing about the Walker was how all the different groups shared a common energy, even if their causes and goals were different. It was a kind of magic, and I don’t think it’s so easy to create that kind of magic instantly. It takes time, and also strong leaders to make it happen.