The Un-Cloister

Volume 49, Issue 1 :: By Thomas Fisher, Assoc. AIA

A neighborhood church opens itself up to its neighborhood by employing some sensitive landscape design.

The new entry garden at the corner of Portland and Grotto streets is a gesture of welcome.

The new entry garden at the corner of Portland and Grotto streets is a gesture of welcome.

Cloisters have a long history in religious architecture, places closed to the outside world, places of seclusion. And so, when Unity Church-Unitarian in St. Paul, Minnesota, took down the cloister that it had erected in the 1960s and opened up the corner of its urban site to the diverse neighborhood around it, it sent an important signal not only to the community, but to the congregation as well.

“The cloister had a lot of problems,” says Paul May, an associate principal of the architecture firm for the project, Miller Dunwiddie. “It created a long, cold entry into the sanctuary and had a few steps, so it wasn’t ADA compliant.” But, in addition to its functional flaws, “the cloister walled off the community,” says the church’s Executive Director Barbara Hubbard, “with stone walls and solid, red doors facing the street corner.”

Site Plan

Site Plan (click to view)

Like all buildings, churches reflect the temper of the times in which they’re built, and Unity’s architectural evolution illustrates the point. The church’s sanctuary—a yellow-limestone, gable-roofed structure with a corner steeple marking the original entrance—was completed in 1906, the year that its designer, Thomas Holyoke, set up his own practice after working for nearly 20 years for the renowned St. Paul architect, Cass Gilbert. In 1921, the congregation added a parish hall, and in 1923, a chapel, both designed by Holyoke’s firm. Those buildings, in a restrained English-Gothic style, created an L-shaped structure, with a lawn facing the street corner like those of the late-19th and early-20th century houses in the surrounding neighborhood.

While St. Paul did not experience the degree of disinvestment and abandonment that other cities its size faced after the 1950s, the neighborhood around Unity did change, and after a fire in the sanctuary in 1963 the church turned to one of its members, Richard Hammel, a founding partner of the Minneapolis architecture firm HGA, for the rebuilding. The cloister went up as part of that renovation. It enclosed the corner of the lot and created, intentionally or not, a fortress-like feel, with blank stone walls along the streets and with heavy wood doors and exaggerated metal hardware that, while echoing the English Gothic appearance of the original building, only reinforced the cloister’s medieval castle-like character.

The closed appearance of the building, though, did not reflect the openness of the congregation, long known for its community outreach and social-justice work. And so, some 50 years after the cloister went up, the congregation decided to take it down as part of a master plan prepared by Miller Dunwiddie. In its place, they asked the architects to design a new welcoming and inviting entry, while improving functionality and accessibility, achieving environmental sustainability, and upgrading the building’s infrastructure. They wanted something that, as May says, “would be a beacon to the neighborhood.” In that, they certainly succeeded.

Down came the blank stone walls and in their place the architects created a gently sloped walk that provides a accessible entrance at the level of the main sanctuary and parish hall, with benches for viewing new garden space and a new remembrance fountain. Yellow limestone, matching that of the original building, clads the garden walls and the piers framing the new glass entryway. Rather than appearing to need a password to get into the former cloister, you now follow a curving path up to a lobby whose tall glass windows help you feel a part of the place even before you have entered.

The new entry gallery interior continues the sense of being inside and outside at the same time. Its glass wall curves around the original entry tower, echoing the curve of the ramping walk outside, while a wood trellis brings the tall lobby space down to human scale and partly shades the windows, while reinforcing the garden-like quality of the outdoor space. Even the floor of the lobby, with its variegated porcelain tile, responds to the similarly hued pavers in the walk outside. “We wanted to reach out to the community,” says Hubbard, “and be seen as a viable partner” with the diverse neighborhood around the church. In taking down its walls and opening up its entrance, the congregation has sent that message, loud and clear.

The Unitarians have a long history of supporting significant architecture, be it Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois, or Louis Kahn’s First Unitarian Church in Rochester, New York. But this denomination also has a healthy skepticism of the highly ornamented and visually overwhelming enclosures that have characterized the architecture of other faiths. You can see that simpler and humbler tradition at work in St. Paul’s Unity Church. “We wanted to return the church to what it was,” says project architect Jean Turck, and in doing so the architects have reminded us of what the Unitarian church—thankfully—still is.

Director of the Metropolitan Design Center at the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, as well as the Dayton Hudson Chair in Urban Design, the author is also a former dean at Minnesota.