Before the tall towers, there were spires.
The oldest photos of cities show steeples reaching high above the streets, aspirations refined to a single moment where the physical world ends and the sky begins. Now stone and steel dwarf the downtown churches.
In Lower Manhattan, Trinity Church nestles like a small sleeping creature in the palm of the surrounding structures; in Chicago, a great practical city, there’s a Gothic church atop a 20-story skyscraper, so you can get in your trading and your worship in one efficient address. In Minneapolis, churches dot the edges of the downtown core, reminding you that these precincts were once residential.
In St. Paul, it’s different. On one hill is the brilliant St. Paul Cathedral, the summation of affluence and glory, permanence and authority. On another hill sits the State Capitol, a dome of a different creed. They stand above the city, and together give St. Paul its silent but potent distinction: The sacred is present, as much as the secular.
It’s a theme that extends to downtown, where you’ll find some remarkable churches that give the street a gift no office building could provide. A storefront can give you a Subway. A church can give you the sublime.
You don’t have to be religiously inclined to appreciate them, any more than one must believe in the divinity of Ramses II to appreciate the Pyramids. Each has a style, and each style is a lesson. Here are three downtown St. Paul churches that have architectural and historical merit.
The Church of the Assumption (51 W. 7th St.), dedicated in 1874, is the oldest church downtown. The double spires are meant to recall the Ludwigkirche in Munich, and perhaps some German immigrants saw the resemblance, but it’s plainer; the Munich church is clad in shining stone while the Church of the Assumption has the sober hue of a somber winter sky.
The gray limestone’s sedimentary layers provide a short visual history of deep time, and the irregular weathering gives the impression of a building carved out of a solid block by wind and water. It sits back from the street, apart but not aloof. It has the simplicity of 19th-century frontier buildings, straightforward and practical.
Walk a few blocks, turn left on Cedar, and you travel a quarter-century. Central Presbyterian (500 Cedar St., completed circa 1899) is a late-period Romanesque building, massive and solid as an elephant in repose. This is the building of an era of wealth, proud to show what it can accomplish.
Walk next door, and 10 years pass — but everything’s changed. The Church of St. Louis, King of France (506 Cedar St.) was finished in 1910. By then the Romanesque style was gloomy and passé. The new style rejected the brooding mysticism of the Romanesque. Just as Renaissance Italy chose the old styles of Rome to express its cultural confidence, so did Americans in the early years of the 20th century. A brash assumption, perhaps, and typical of the nouveau riche, but American architecture was blessed and tempered by artists of exquisite skill who equaled the Old Masters.
The architect of the church was Emmanuel Masqueray, who also gave the city the St. Paul Cathedral. Who better to design the Church of St. Louis than a Frenchman?
Open it up
The exterior is just the public face, of course. Each of these buildings is like a gift-wrapped box holding an unexpected treasure.
The Church of the Assumption is being renovated. In the postwar era, that often meant replacing the old Rococo exuberance with crisp, sleek, modern interiors. Nearer my God to Mies, if you wish.
I don’t know what the interior looked like before, but the renovations, so far, have produced a space that feels like a lungful of clean Alpine air. The church looks twice as big inside as it does from the outside, and it has a Nordic practicality that concentrates attention on the altar.
Central Presbyterian has the semicircular arrangement that was in vogue for a while, a great daunting balcony that cuts the space in half and provides the pastor with two groups of the flock to address. It’s a hard thing to describe, but think of it like this: The room has lateral weight.
Unlike the churches with narrow naves that channel the energy up, the space spreads and sprawls on the plain of human habitation, with astonishing stained-glass windows blaring out the message from above. It takes you a while to figure out what’s missing: pictures. The stained-glass designs are nonrepresentational abstractions, a literal example of the mind of man translating the light from the sky into beautiful forms. The only human form is a small picture of Jesus on the wall of the back, lit with a humble bulb.
The interior of St. Louis’ is a surprise, simply because it’s so French. The descriptions of the Stations of the Cross on the wall are in French. The color scheme is royal. The architecture is early 18th-century classicism with some Renaissance excesses, and you feel as if you’ve been teleported to a pre-revolutionary arrondissement.
When you pass these silent, stolid buildings, you might hear music — the great deep chord of devotion struck by the men and women who made these buildings possible.
After the hands lift from the keys, the sound rises and lingers. It’s hard for the human ear to discern the moment when it passes into silence, any more than the street-level eye can find the spot where the steeple yields to the sky. It’s a reminder: Every building has a melody. Supply your own lyrics, if you like. But now and then, slow down, read the score that’s written in the stones, and listen.