In 1890, Montgomery Schuyler, a New York journalist who was also a leading architecture critic, ventured west to Minneapolis and St. Paul to look at what the two booming young cities had to offer. He found much of architectural interest, but was particularly struck by an unusual church in St. Paul.
Built just a year earlier, the People’s Church bore little resemblance to the traditional Gothic and Romanesque churches then common in the Twin Cities and across the United States.
Located at 235 Pleasant Av. just blocks from St. Paul’s Seven Corners neighborhood, the church challenged orthodoxy in every respect, beginning with its architecture, which Schuyler said seemed to “typify in brick and stone the wild, free theology of the West.”
Whether the church’s peculiar building did indeed reflect theology gone wild was an open question. Schuyler, however, was right about its highly unconventional design, which was the work of St. Paul architect J. Walter Stevens.
Essentially a three-story brick box, the church, which lacked a tower or steeple, offered little in the way of religious symbolism. It looked more like a clubhouse or school than a place of worship.
Its lower walls, breached by three tall arched entrances, were especially odd, with blocks of white stone embedded at random in courses of dark brick. The building’s low-slung hip roof, adorned with a collection of small dormers beneath a central cupola, was equally strange.
The heart of the church was an auditorium that took up the upper two floors. This hall was among the largest of its day in St. Paul, with seating for 2,500 people. A variety of smaller meeting rooms, offices and a kitchen occupied the ground floor.
The man behind the building, which was purportedly the largest Protestant church in the country, was the Rev. Dr. Samuel G. Smith, a dynamic preacher who developed a large and enthusiastic following in St. Paul. He had started out in the Methodist Episcopal Church, but broke away in 1887, in part because he was unhappy with its policy of rotating preachers from city to city. Smith wanted to stay in St. Paul and did so by establishing what he called his own church.
The congregation Smith attracted was so large that services initially were held in the old Grand Opera House on Wabasha Street in downtown St. Paul. By 1889, however, Smith had raised enough money to build his new church on Pleasant. (His timing turned out to be excellent. The Grand Opera House burned down in 1889.)
Smith wanted to create a church that would “restore the primitive simplicity of the gospel of Jesus Christ,” according to a recent article in Ramsey County History magazine by the Rev. Philip J. Ramstad, who attended the People’s Church in the 1930s.
Smith’s charisma and preaching style made him an ecclesiastical star, and the congregation grew steadily under his leadership. The church building, meanwhile, became one of the most popular halls in St. Paul for all manner of lectures and special events, and it attracted many well-known speakers. Mark Twain stopped by in 1895 to tell a few tall tales. In 1901, Winston Churchill, then 26 years old, gave a talk that did not involve blood, sweat, toil or tears.
Not long after Churchill’s appearance, the church suffered the first of two devastating fires. That blaze, in January 1902, heavily damaged the auditorium and burned through the roof. Smith and his congregation quickly rebuilt. The auditorium was redone in the Arts-and-Crafts style while the original roofline, with its picturesque dormers, was replaced by a simpler arrangement.
Up from the ashes
By 1910, the People’s Church had 1,500 members and remained among the city’s biggest Protestant congregations. Smith, who seems to have had a bottomless reservoir of energy, not only tended to his congregation but also found time to serve on the St. Paul School Board, teach sociology classes at the University of Minnesota and write five books.
The church he founded was filled to capacity on March 7, 1912, when he celebrated his 60th birthday. The occasion drew numerous dignitaries, including the governor of Minnesota and the president of the university. Unfortunately, Smith did not have many more years to live. He died of blood poisoning in 1915, just a few days past his 63rd birthday.
After Smith’s death, the People’s Church went into decline, slowly losing membership under subsequent ministers who must have lacked Smith’s magnetism. By 1937 the congregation was down to only 222 members, who struggled to maintain its large building. A year later, the members voted to merge with Highland Park Congregational Church in St. Paul, and the People’s Church was no more.
Even so, the old church building appeared destined for a new life when it was purchased by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis for use as an education center. But just a few months later, on Good Friday of 1940, fire once again raced through the church, leaving it in ruins.
Had there been no fire, the building might have survived another 20 years, but probably not much longer. Most of Pleasant Avenue, a handsome old street that ran beneath Summit Avenue’s bluff-top mansions, was swept away for Interstate 35E in the early 1960s. Today, cars speed over the place where a mighty preacher once presided over a church like few others.
Larry Millett is an architecture critic and author of 14 nonfiction books and eight mystery novels. He can be reached at larrymillett.com.