Righteous renovations


Throughout Minneapolis, historic churches sit nestled in bustling neighborhoods, adding architectural character, cultural interest and an intriguing glimpse into the city’s early history.

What makes history, of course, is the passing of time, which can take its toll on aging buildings. In response, four Southeast Minneapolis churches have undertaken, in recent years, capital improvement projects. In each case, church members have made sizeable financial investments to restore and update their buildings to make them safe, comfortable spaces for worship, as well as pleasant gathering places for the community.

Prospect Park United Methodist Church

Established in 1902, Prospect Park United Methodist Church sits at the foot of Tower Hill, across the street from Pratt Community School. According to Pastor Nancy Victor-Vangerud, the church’s location creates a strong feeling of neighborhood connection, as if it sits in the middle of a bustling marketplace.

To build on that community connection, the congregation decided last year to undertake a multi-stage building renovation, updating the 1914 building to better meet the physical and spiritual needs of the congregation and the surrounding community.

The first step was to make the church fully accessible by adding an elevator and renovating the front entryway. (The church’s previously handicapped-accessible ramp led through a back door.) Victor-Vangerud said the renovated entry allows everyone to come in the same door, demonstrating the congregation’s commitment to accessibility and hospitality.

The renovations included some unexpected repairs, as well, due to an act of God. Last August, lightning struck the church and the roof caught fire, resulting in damage from the fire as well as water from the responding fire trucks.

The church is currently in the second stage of its project: installing a new kitchen to support the many social events — including dinners, musical performances and weddings — that the church hosts.

In the third stage of the project, scheduled to begin this June, Victor-Vangerud says the church will be “realigning our sanctuary design with our theological values.” That means redesigning its traditional sanctuary to allow for more flexibility, accessibility and creativity in how the space is used. About one-third of the pews will be removed and the table, pulpit and baptismal font will be brought into the middle of the sanctuary, symbolizing, said Victor-Vangerud, “that everyone is welcome at the table.”

The total cost of the project is estimated to be about $450,000, which is being paid for by a small loan and funds raised by the 150-member congregation through a successful capital campaign.

First Congregational Church of Minnesota

Established in 1851, First Congregational Church, at 500 8th Ave. SE, is one of the oldest churches in the city. Its 1888 building, with its dramatic soaring steeple, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The challenges of maintaining a historic building became clear, however, when a 2003 building assessment showed the church needed major repairs, both for safety and architectural preservation.

In addition to needing to replace half of the roof, repair decaying skylights, and tuckpoint the façade, the congregation learned the church’s valuable stained glass windows needed to be painstakingly restored after suffering serious deterioration from heat and moisture.

To make the building more accessible and welcoming, the congregation also decided to build a new entrance on Eighth Avenue Southeast, which would include an elevator.

To pay for the renovations, the congregation undertook a three-year capital campaign, with 105 households contributing to a total of $660,000. Work on the building began in summer 2006 and will run through this spring.

According to Paul Fate, chair of the building committee, the church’s historic designation presented unique challenges because the new entrance had to be approved by the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC). Designed by architect Bob Mack, the entry had to match the building’s architectural style but also be somewhat distinct, so it would not be mistaken for part of the original building.

Fate said the congregation’s investment in its building “was a signal not only to ourselves but to the neighborhood and the larger community that we care about being a good neighbor and investing in the area.”

University Lutheran Church of Hope

According John Lauber, co-chair of the building committee, University Lutheran Church of Hope, 601 13th Ave. SE, began its project in June 2006. following an order from the city’s fire marshal to install sprinklers in the building’s education wing, which houses Peers Enjoying A Sober Education (P.E.A.S.E.) Academy, a high school for students recovering from chemical addiction.

The congregation decided to use the opportunity to improve the building for the congregation and the community groups that use it. Church members got feedback from residents, students and city officials and then undertook a series of building improvements, including creating better meeting rooms, improving lighting, and updating bathrooms. Because the church regularly hosts homeless families, it also added showers.

“It wasn’t a dramatic transformation of the building, but it made the space a lot more functional,” said Lauber. The renovations were completed in October 2006 at a cost of $1.6 million, $600,000 of which was raised by a capital campaign to which 156 households contributed. The balance was financed through a new mortgage.

Despite the financial sacrifice, Lauber said the congregation strongly supported the project. “Like a lot of churches, our membership has been on a slow decline and part of the discussion was, can we be a real presence in the neighborhood or are we going to erode away?” The congregation’s response, he said, showed that “the commitment to the community was clearly there.”

Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church

By far the most extensive project is that of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, which is in the midst of a three-stage renovation expected to cost $4 million. Located at 1 Lourdes Place near the Mississippi riverfront, the church is the oldest continually used church building in Minneapolis, dating from 1854, when it was built by the First Universalist Society. In 1877 the building was purchased by French Canadian Catholics, who added the bell tower and made other changes to give the church a French Provincial look.

Like First Congregational and University Lutheran, Our Lady of Lourdes expanded its project off of city-mandated renovations — in this case, storm-water separation.

The first phase, in 2006, involved the lower level and included renovating the bathrooms and the kitchen, adding a new flash freezer for the church’s famous meat pies and installing energy-efficient boilers.

The second, in summer 2007, included redoing the roof, replacing bad stones on the exterior, adding new storm windows and removing the front grotto, which had deteriorated and become unsafe. According to Rosanne Hull, parish business administrator, the front of the church now looks like it did when the church was built.

The third phase, which should be completed by Labor Day 2008, will focus on the interior, including adding sprinklers and air conditioning, additional seating, improved lighting and restoring some of the building’s original architectural elements.

Like First Church, Our Lady of Lourdes was required to follow specific HPC recommendations. For example, Hull said the church had to rebuild a small chimney that appears on early photos of the church, even though it hadn’t been used for years.

The project is being paid for by $3 million in donations to the church’s endowment, including what Hull called “a very generous bequest.” To make up the balance the parish has raised $671,000 so far, with money coming from 237 members as well as 198 nonmember contributions, which Hull said reflects the attachment that many people feel to Our Lady of Lourdes, either from family connections or from a commitment to historic preservation.

Church member Richard Dirlam said the parish “is really proud of its heritage and the old-world character of the space,” but that members are also very committed to updating the church to make it an appealing space for current and future worshippers. Hull agreed, saying, “This is all to serve the active life of the parish.”