How the Great Depression Preserved the Historic Wesley Center
I recently had the opportunity to tour the Historic Wesley Center in downtown Minneapolis. The former home of the Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church now houses 8 nonprofit groups and hosts outside events. The Historic Wesley Center nonprofit, was formed about a year ago to preserve and protect the building after its viability as a church had expired.
When funds are available, the church has maintenance and restoration work completed such as repairing the original stained glass windows or restoring rooms to their original design. Preparation work has been completed to prepare the building for air conditioning someday. Historically the church was cooled by bringing large blocks of ice into the basement and blowing air over the blocks to force cool air through the vents.
The church was built in 1891 for the Methodist Church and designed by local architect Warren Howard Hayes. He designed the building in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, common during the time period. The exterior is a granite base with quartzite walls and sandstone trim. The cost of quartzite necessitated using common brick on the interior which can be seen in the attic.
Hayes designed all of his churches with a similar layout. He believed in creating a connection between the sanctuary and the reception hall, thus large fold up doors separate the two rooms. Additionally, the Sunday school rooms were placed in the balcony above the reception hall with tambour doors that roll up to allow the children to watch the activity in the sanctuary. The only problem with the design was if anyone within the Sunday school rooms needed to leave, they had to roll up the entire door.
During the 1920's, the growing congregation began designing a new building to replace the first church. The grand vision was for a skyscraper church, an emerging trend at the time. The saving grace for the 1891 church was the stock market crash and ensuing Great Depression. With limited funds, the skyscraper church building was stopped in its tracks. Instead, the congregation built the Temple Building, a 12 story office tower next door. The irony is the Temple Building was demolished to make room for the new Minneapolis Convention Center while the 1891 church is still standing today.
Perhaps the most interesting piece of the building is hidden in the walls. The church placed a memorabilia box within the walls when completing construction, however did not record where it was put. During the 100 year anniversary of the building, architects probed the walls to find its location. Hidden behind the cornerstone, they were able to unearth the copper box which had coins, a bible, a Hamline University pamphlet, the architects business card, and picture of the 1891 congregation. The 1991 congregation added their own mementos to the box and placed it back behind the cornerstone for the next generation to find.
Preservation takes many forms. It can be an active effort to stop demolition or it can be as simple as lack of funding to build a new structure in its place. The Historic Wesley Center has been saved by both forms. The Great Depression saved it from demolition plans the first time and active efforts today are programming it for new uses into the future.