Steepled brick churches built in the 19th century stand practically within field goal range of the new Minnesota Vikings stadium soon to rise in downtown Minneapolis.
The nearly billion-dollar project has the churches considering what their own options might be. At least one church is looking at potential redevelopment.
Three churches located within a few blocks of the existing stadium are some of the earliest houses of worship in the Twin Cities, but they do not have historic designations. That means they could be demolished to make room for parking, residential or other development related to the stadium.
Minneapolis officials and preservationists say any such move would face an uphill battle.
"When you ... see those buildings, it's like stumbling upon a gem," said Elizabeth Gales, president of Preserve Minneapolis. "These churches ... tell an important part of the history of Minneapolis. I think it is worth looking at that area and those properties, and asking are there things here that are historic that we should want to preserve for our future?"
So far no developers have approached the city about acquiring and developing church property near the stadium site, said Chuck Lutz, the city's development chief.
But First Covenant Church, at 810 S. 7th St., is considering tearing down a 1950s-era addition to make room for parking or other development, according to city planners.
"We've had some preliminary conversations with the Covenant church people," said Lutz. "They're developing some plans for their property, which may include some parking that could be stadium-related. Maybe looking at doing some housing over there."
First Covenant's lead pastor, Dan Collison, said in an e-mail that the church "is currently in an array of conversations with and related to the Minnesota Sports Facility Authority and the stadium project. There is very little that I am able to publicly talk about at this time, however."
The other churches also realize change is coming, though they don't foresee leaving their downtown homes anytime soon.
A design for the stadium is due in March; the Vikings hope to break ground in October and open in time for the 2016 NFL season.
Churches look to future
Built in 1887, First Covenant Church was designed by one of the leading architects of the day, Warren Hayes. It's also one of the largest sanctuaries in the city, seating about 2,500 people, Gales said.
Like other old churches near the Metrodome, First Covenant was built to serve the area's burgeoning Swedish immigrant population. As demographics changed and more people left the area, church membership declined as well.
Built in 1883, Augustana Lutheran Church once claimed more than 1,000 members. That number had dwindled to about 75 last year when the congregation sold its building on 11th Avenue S. to its next-door neighbor, Hope Community Church.
Hope's building, dating to 1895, was overflowing with its congregation of nearly 1,400. When Augustana approached Hope about selling its property, Hope seized the opportunity and bought it below market value, said Steve Treichler, senior pastor at Hope.
"We will use both buildings on Sunday mornings and eventually both sanctuary spaces on Sunday mornings," Treichler said. "Eventually, our hope and aim is to build a building in between the buildings and that would pull it all together."
Treichler says city planners have indicated they want churches like Hope to remain in the neighborhood. "We're planning for the future to stay here," he said. "But things could change. Things change quickly. Our plans are to stay."
Same goes for Bethlehem Baptist Church, 720 13th Av. S., which dates to the late 1800s, though its current sanctuary building was built around the 1990s.
Sam Crabtree, executive pastor at the church, doesn't foresee the church selling or vacating its property anytime soon. Like other churches near the stadium site, Bethlehem works to help immigrant communities and needy residents in the neighborhood.
"We just think [it would] be harder for us to pursue our mission, which is to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things, for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ, if we're farther from the 'all peoples,'" Crabtree said.
The case for history
Historic designation would make it less likely that the old churches would be demolished or significantly altered.
But Beth Elliott, a downtown city planner, said that just because churches are not designated historic "doesn't mean it wouldn't be tough to tear down."
"We would like to see development, but I would say in most cases it's going to be on the surface parking lots near the transit stations," Elliott said. "So there's never been an assumption that particularly the churches or other significant buildings should be torn down. It's more about in-filling the areas in between."
Gales, the preservationist, said the churches have the potential to be listed as historic.
"Local designation is where we feel the teeth are for protection because you can't just demolish a historic resource," she said. "You have to prove that there is no other alternative when it's locally designated."
For now, Gales said, "We're just asking the city and developers to be a little bit more thoughtful before the storm ahead ... really think about what these properties bring to the fabric of the city -- whether it's cultural and social and religious."
Rose French • 612-673-4352