A south Minneapolis Lutheran congregation won a victory in its effort to sell its old church, after a City Council committee declined to shield the property from possible demolition.
Messiah Lutheran Church is trying to sell its former worship space at 2500 Columbus Av. S., a Gothic Revival building designed by famed architect Harry Wild Jones. It’s also a neighbor of Children’s Hospital, which knocked down another church to build a parking ramp 10 years ago.
Preservationists recommended that the City Council’s zoning and planning committee give the former Messiah Lutheran Church historic status, but members voted unanimously Thursday to reject it.
“The purpose of historic preservation is to give buildings a fair trial. This is not a fair trial,” Bob Roscoe, architect and preservationist, said after the meeting.
Backers of the designation argued it is worth protecting as one of the few unaltered Minneapolis churches designed by Jones, who is perhaps best known for the Lakewood Cemetery Chapel and Butler Square building downtown. A study also found the church, which opened in 1917, was important in the history of the city’s Swedish community.
But the congregation, which moved to a new space in 2008, says it can’t keep up with the cost to maintain the structure. The potential for the historic designation was scaring off potential buyers, notably Children’s Hospital, which had made an offer on the property, according to church leaders.
“It’s a beautiful sanctuary, but so many parts of the building are crumbling — especially the exterior — it’s becoming unsafe,” said Randi Church, president of the Messiah Lutheran Church Council.
Thursday’s vote, if upheld by the full council next week, makes the building more vulnerable to demolition or alteration. Church said Children’s was interested in tearing down the building, though a hospital spokeswoman said it had no “specific plans” for the property.
Messiah may still find a buyer interested in reusing it as a church, Church said.
“We’ve had a lot of people come through with the intent to repurpose,” he said. “And that is the main will of the congregation.”
Council Member Abdi Warsame, who represents the area and made the motion to reject the historic designation, said he respects the wishes of the congregation.
“I could understand the significance of it to be a historic site,” Warsame said. “But I felt it was unfair to the congregation, to the parish, to the owners, to the people that actually have kept it all this time.”
Messiah was a religious hub for many Swedish immigrants in the city at the turn of the last century, according to a study presented to the city. Its parishioners included the Youngdahl family, which count a former governor and congressman among their ranks, the study said.
After their old church burned down, Messiah commissioned Jones to build a new one in south Minneapolis for $35,000. One of the more striking aspects of the interior is the array of wooden trusses supporting the ceiling.
“The wood in that church is absolutely spectacular,” said Sue Hunter-Weir, a member of the city’s heritage preservation commission, who nominated the property for designation.
“Of his remaining churches, most of them have been altered beyond recognition,” she said.
Messiah moved into a Lutheran Social Service building nearby in 2008. Pastor Louise Britts said a Mennonite group had been renting the church, but Messiah released them from their lease after a boiler broke in October.
The building has also been host to Narcotics Anonymous groups, a quilting group, and a small, predominantly Hispanic congregation, Britts said.
The future of the building remains unclear.
Children’s said in a statement Thursday that Messiah had approached it several years ago about buying the church.
“At that time, even though we had no expansion plans, we made an offer to purchase the property for potential future use and to maintain the safety and security of the neighborhood,” the statement said. “Having a vacant building is not beneficial to the neighborhood and we are committed to keeping our patients and community safe.”
The statement says Children’s withdrew its offer after the designation study was launched, “and that is where we stand today.”