Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Minneapolis uses a rare building opportunity to more fully engage with the surrounding community

By Joel Hoekstra

Fueled by a tidal wave of European immigration, Christianity was on the rise in the U.S. when Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church opened its doors on 12th Street and Nicollet Avenue in 1897. Preachers and scholars alike predicted that the next 100 years would be known as “the Christian Century.” Westminster’s congregation, established in 1857, signaled its intention to endure well beyond the 20th century by hiring the firm of Sedgwick and Hayes to design a Romanesque edifice reminiscent of a European cathedral.

Over the next 100 years, churchgoing rose and fell in the U.S., mainline Protestant denominations experienced a decline in membership, and many city churches followed their flock to the suburbs. To remain relevant, Westminster fostered connections with the downtown community, creating partnerships, hosting concerts, and, in 1980, launching its now famed Town Hall Forum lecture series focused on timely topics of public interest. Increasingly, their Sunday worshipers came not from the neighborhood but from more distant places, driving in from the suburbs, small towns, and even western Wisconsin. “We draw from a 60-mile radius around downtown Minneapolis,” says the Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen, who has served as senior pastor at Westminster for more than two decades. “People are committed to this place and its ministry.”

Blessings rained down upon the congregation over the decades, but as the 21st century wore on, one problem persisted: a lack of parking. To accommodate congregants arriving by car, the church contracted with local ramps a few blocks away, but the solution was clearly imperfect. So, when the property next to Westminster went up for sale in 2013, church leaders were quick to accept a gift from a generous congregation member and bought the property with an eye toward parking expansion. The project became so much more.

To help plan the project, the church hired James Dayton Design, a Minneapolis firm with a wide range of notable projects in its portfolio. Founder Jim Dayton had family ties to the congregation: After Westminster’s second church, located at Eighth and Nicollet, was heavily damaged by fire in 1895, Jim’s great-grandfather, George Draper Dayton, persuaded the congregation to relocate farther south, to a site that would be outside the city’s nascent commercial district. Building at 12th and Nicollet, he argued, would put the church in a more residential area. (Downtown has since expanded, of course, and now encompasses even 12th and Nicollet.)

Jim Dayton unexpectedly passed away at the age of 53 in February. His legacy is one of fostering collaboration and vision, and of using innovative design to create thoughtful spaces that serve clients well and contribute positively to the community. Hart-Andersen credits the architect with leading the congregation through an expansive process, creating a vision and a resulting project that is truly impactful and future-focused. “The congregation began to see itthis as a once-in-a-century opportunity for Westminster,” says James Dayton Design principal Rob Hunter, AIA. “What could this space do for the future of the church and the community?”

As discussion moved forward, several themes emerged: The church needed a large gathering space that could accommodate new forms of worship, community events, concerts, dinners, and more. It also needed more fellowship and community partner space and improved facilities for its youth, who represent the future of the Presbyterian faith yet were relegated to a basement space. Finally, the metaphorical “walls” of the church needed to melt away if the congregation truly wanted to engage the community.

In sum, the addition needed to pay homage to the original building yet allow the congregation to move beyond it. The limestone landmark would always offer protection and sanctuary; the new building needed to convey transparency, welcome, access, and engagement.

The 45,000-square-foot, two-story addition by James Dayton Design honors the historic church by taking its materials and reinterpreting them in a contemporary way. Limestone used in the expansion, for example, echoes the church exterior but is honed to be smoother and visually lighter. A sculptural bell tower is constructed of lead-coated copper, the same material as the copings and decorative elements on the historic structure. Colorful dichroic glass walls provide a modern take on stained glass.

The expansion also defers to the original architecture by stepping back from the street on both sides. Narrowing the footprint had the added benefit of creating room for a landscaped plaza along Nicollet and a park-like green on Marquette. The two outdoor spaces make the addition even more inviting in spring, summer, and fall. “Westminster has focused its mission on being a ‘telling presence in the city’ since 1857,” says Hunter. “Jim’s goal was to create an open, welcoming, and communicative design reflecting this mission and Westminster’s contemporary values while remaining respectful of the historic church.”

Visitors entering through the underground parking garage ascend by elevator or the beautiful Trinity Stair, a triangular open staircase that’s lit by an enormous round skylight during the day and by an elegant blown-glass chandelier at night. Visitors can also access the building on foot from Nicollet Mall, via a drop-off entrance on Marquette Avenue, or through a second-floor skyway connected to the Millennium Hotel.

Whereas the church’s sanctuary can accommodate only certain forms of worship, the new Westminster Hall is a flexible space with movable chairs and no fixed orientation. Used for contemporary worship as well as concerts, weddings, dinners, and rental events, the acoustically superior room is clad in Anigre-wood panels with leaf-patterned cutouts. Hart-Andersen says that he and Dayton spent considerable time talking about the number of trees that are referenced in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. The shade, comfort, and protection of trees became an important motif for Dayton, and Westminster Hall is intended to feel like a “clearing in the forest,” says Hart-Anderson.

Across the hall, a youth room and a recreation room serve Westminster’s kids and teens. Fitted with lockers and sofas and filled with natural light, the former is a space where kids can kick back, while the wood-walled and -floored recreation room was designed to accommodate everything from yoga classes to pinewood derbies. Occupying most of the second floor in spaces designed to meet their unique needs are the Westminster Counseling Center and St. David’s Center for Child and Family Development, two of the church’s community partners.

Hunter says the project was simultaneously exciting and deeply humbling. “Working on a church is in many ways like working on a house,” he says. “It’s very personal. You have to be very respectful.”

But Hart-Andersen notes that a church is also the kind of house that should be open to everyone. He likes the generous use of glass throughout the facility. “It allows the church to look out to the city, and the city to look inside the church,” he says. “It reminds us that our futures are connected.”

The effort to dissolve physical barriers to connection has also resulted in some policy and staffing changes at the church, the pastor says. Previously, access to the Westminster facility was restricted; you had to ring a buzzer to be allowed in, except on Sundays. Now, everyone is welcomed into the building for warmth, for a cup of coffee, or to store their bags for a few hours. “The building is open to all, and people use it in a lot of different ways,” says Hart-Andersen. “We’re still learning how to meet people’s needs in the best way possible, how to engage with the community and fulfill our mission. This building helps us do just that.”

Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Client: Westminster Presbyterian Church
Architect: James Dayton Design, Ltd.
Principal-in-charge: James Dayton, AIA
Project lead designer: James Dayton, AIA
Energy modeling: AKF Group
Landscape architect: Hoerr Schaudt
General contractor: Mortenson Construction
Size: 45,000 square feet new, 22,000 renovated, and 110,000 of underground parking
Cost: $54 million
Completion: December 2017