Why no one saved an old church

A team from Bobbi Hepper Olson’s architectural firm begins to illustrate the church at 3rd and Walnut St. today.  She’s been willing to take on this task a discount in the name of historic preservation. I have also reached an agreement with a doctoral student at the University of North Dakota to write a short history of the building and its congregation. We’ll publish the study of the church and the drawings of the building with the support of the Grand Forks Community Land Trust and the Cyprus Research Fund at the University of North Dakota.

Stay tuned for some photographs

While it feels good to do our part in preserving the memory of this building, it has troubled me that the building itself cannot be saved. I have heard the proximate causes for the decision to “mitigate” (in local lingo) the building which range from the lack of parking, to structural problems, the difficulty bringing the building up to code, and the idea that many people “tried hard enough” to save it.  These causes, however, all seem to me to be temporizing, ex post facto justifications for the decision to demolish the building. After all, zoning and code variances exist to allow historic neighborhood to retain their character and structural problems in wood-framed structures rarely pose insurmountable problems (farmers, for example, often re-roof dilapidated barns).

I’d like to offer three observations on why this church is not going to be saved. Most of these have come from conversations with Chris Price, the doctoral student who is working to document the church and its congregation.

1. The church is hidden. The church sits on a one-way street with mature trees that obscure its steeple. The church lacks any substantial setback from the road or sidewalk which makes it difficult to distinguish from the residential buildings surrounding it. Car traffic down these roads can easily pass the church without noticing it. In fact, most people I tell about the building do not even know that it is there and many say that even when looking for it they pass it by at first without noticing. These Google Street View screen shots make the point better than my description.

This picture shows the view from along Walnut Street. The church is the last building on the right.


This picture show the view from along 3rd where you can notice the steeply running parallel to the telephone poll just right of center.


It hasn’t helped, of course, the church has remained empty since 1997 so not only is it occluded from view physically, but also socially. My wife and I walk along Walnut to get to restaurants downtown and for a traveller down Walnut on foot, the church is a distinct landmark.

2. The church shares its basic fabric with the neighborhood. Unlike almost every other church in town, the 3rd and Walnut church shares its basic fabric with its neighborhood.  The church is wood-framed, has a steeply-pitched roof and domestic style windows, and sits on a standard parcel of land. At sometime in the last 50 years, aluminum siding was added covering its original wood siding and further blending it with updated domestic architecture in the area. The church makes only one concession to pretense: its English Steeple.

While local residents have done all they can to preserve the domestic architecture of the Near South Side, there is a clear and common preference for monumentality.  After all, many people see the monumental buildings and more elaborate homes as defining the historic character of neighborhoods. The everyday character of the church and its easy blending with the more modest, turn of the century domestic architecture make it part of the fabric of the community while also paradoxically making the building less unique in terms of its preservation value.

3. The social and economic character of the building and its congregations. For this observation, I credit Chris Price who observed that the wood-framed churches in Grand Forks built around the turn of the century were predominantly immigrant churches. They typically served newly arrived Scandinavian congregations rather than the earlier Anglo settlers of the area.

These congregations tended to have less access to community wealth and to meet in wood-framed structures at the time when many of the more established groups had begun to upgrade their churches to stone or brick (or at least stone or brick facing on wood frames).  The modest parcel of land nestled amidst residential buildings and without much pretense for monumental presentation not only reflected the religious values of the austere, low-church Hauge Synod Lutherans, but also reflected the limited access to resources.

Even today, the church stand amidst modest dwellings many of which are now rental properties and its appearance and location set it apart from the more monumental churches in the community. At the turn of the century, such “neighborhood style” churches served new congregations which eventually abandoned them for more monumental churches as these groups established themselves in the community. In many cases, the old wood-framed churches were turned over to new arrivals or Christian groups just as today. In fact, the oldest standing church in town was originally build to house the (apparently) well-to-do Christian Science congregation in Grand Forks, and today houses a substantial Pentecostal congregation (who, in turn, has out grown the building and will move on to a new building in the near future).


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