Minnesota Architecture: St. John’s Abbey Church

Today's selection for our Celebrating Minnesota Architecture series seems both modern and timeless as it approaches its 50th anniversary.


St. John's Abbey Church

Image courtesy of Chris Hudson

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Chris Hudson, who has quite a bit of experience with architecture, brings us this nomination:

As the editor of Architecture Minnesota magazine, I've had the good fortune of seeing a great many Minnesota landmarks up close, and far and away the one that's made the deepest impression on me is Marcel Breuer's Abbey Church at St. John's. Not a surprising choice, I know. This image by photographer Paul Crosby captures both the breathtaking volume of the interior and how that monumentality somehow becomes intimate with the rich texture and patterns of the board-formed concrete. I could sit in this church for days.

St. John's celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Abbey Church's dedication this fall. On the one hand, it's hard to believe anything so thoroughly modern could be a half-century old. On the other, this landmark has the air of timelessness, of something much older.

The St. John's website has this to add:

The Saint John's Abbey and University Church was designed by the Hungarian architect and former member of the Bauhaus, Marcel Breuer (1902-1981). Mr. Breuer joined Walter Gropius at Harvard in 1937 and worked there as an associate professor until 1946. On his own in New York, Breuer saw a practice that had been essentially residential finally expand into institutional buildings with the UNESCO Headquarters commission in Paris in 1952.

In December 1950, Abbot Baldwin Dworschak, OSB, newly elected sixth abbot of Saint John's, made a bold and visionary decision resulting in what one art historian has called "a milestone in the evolution of the architecture of the Catholic Church in this country." He contacted twelve prestigious architects -- among them was Marcel Breuer. Abbot Baldwin asked the architects to submit a comprehensive building design for the second century of Saint John's.

As part of his specifications, Abbot Baldwin required a design for "building a church which will be truly an architectural monument to the service of God." He explained, "The Benedictine tradition at its best challenges us to think boldly and to cast our ideals in forms which will be valid for centuries to come...."

The monks of Saint John's Abbey chose Marcel Breuer. On January 28, 1954, he brought the drawings, models and books for the comprehensive 100-year plan before a meeting of the monastic community. Shortly thereafter, it was announced that building an addition to the monastic quarters would begin in the spring of 1954 and a church would follow. Construction of the church lasted from May 19, 1958, to August 24, 1961.

Thanks to Chris Hudson for his nomination. Have you got a building you'd like to in our Celebrating Minnesota Architecture series? Send a photo along with your nomination to mcombs@mpr.org.