Saint Thomas Aquinas Church, 920 Holley Avenue, Saint Paul Park, Minnesota
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Saint Thomas Aquinas Church
|Address:||920 Holley Avenue|
|Saint Paul Park, Minnesota|
|Historic Function:||Religious/Place of worship|
|Current Function:||Religious/Place of worship|
|Architect or source of design:||Ralph Rapson|
|Material of Exterior Wall Covering:||Stucco|
|Material of Roof:||Asphalt|
|Material of Foundation:||Concrete|
Designed by Ralph Rapson, St. Thomas Aquinas Church is located at 920 Holley Avenue, Saint Paul Park, Minnesota. It was constructed in 1969. The building represents Ralph Rapson’s interpretation of the new liturgical guidelines set forth by the Second Vatican Council of 1962 – 1965. Following the International (Modern) design style which Ralph Rapson was known for, the building embraced these guidelines through the use of modern materials. Separating the exterior façade into three distinct layers (base, window and roof) the building emphasizes a solid base with a roof structure that appears to float. This was accomplished through the use of stucco, glu-lam beams and single pane glass windows. These materials carry into the interior of the building.
History of Saint Thomas Aquinas Parish
1884 – Saint Patrick Mission Church founded in Langdon Township.
1903 – Saint Thomas Aquinas faith community incorporated. The first permanent church was built at the corner Summit and Broadway in Saint Paul Park, Minnesota.
1915 - Father Patrick J. Hart was assigned as the first resident pastor.
1934 - Father Edward S. DeCourcy became the second resident pastor.
1940 - Father James Westfall becomes the third pastor.
1949 – Present day property purchased. A parochial school was opened in September.
1950 - Father Charles Eggert became the fourth pastor. The school basement was remodeled into a worship space.
1955 – Six classrooms and office space was added to the parochial school. A new rectory was also built on the corner of Ninth and Ashland Avenues.
1964 - Father Lawrence Keller became the fifth pastor. The parish had grown to serve eleven hundred families. Building plans were drawn to build the modern day church, a convent, and a school.
1978 - Father John Fitzpatrick became the sixth pastor.
1987 - Father Tim Wozniak became the seventh pastor.
1994 – The church was made handicap accessible. The roof was replaced, the HVAC system was upgraded, and the church carpeting was replaced.
1999 - Father Greg Esty became the eighth pastor. A long range feasibility study and plan was titled “Faithfully Planning Our Future” commenced to determine future program and facility needs.
Saint Thomas Aquinas Church followed two design premises. First it was to meet the new liturgical design guidelines set forth by the Second Vatican Council of 1962 – 65:
1. Churches should not be a form of the past, but ever open to embrace newer forms of artistic expression.
2. Church décor should be noble and simple rather than sumptuous. It should reflect truth and authenticity so as to instruct the faithful and enhance the dignity of the sacred place. The plan of the church and its surroundings should be contemporary.
These reforms defined the role of art and architecture in the contemporary church. Additionally, the proposed design had to satisfy two requirements set forth by Saint Thomas Aquinas Parish. First, it had to fit within the parish’s master plan from the early 1960’s. Secondly, it had to make use of an existing foundation designed and built in 1967 by the architectural firm Behm, Sullivan and Associates.
The Effect of Baby Boomers and White Flight on the Catholic Church
From 1940 – 1960, the Catholic population doubled in the United States. Catholic schools saw the largest increase in enrollment since the Council of Baltimore. The G.I. Bill allowed hundreds of thousands of war veterans the opportunity to attend institutions of higher learning. This led to the creation of the middle class in the United States. Catholics were assimilating into mainstream American society. According to Chester Gillis in his book Roman Catholicism in America, “(The 1960’s) was the period when Catholic culture reached its apex.”
With increased wealth and the availability of V.A. and F.H.A. housing loans coupled with the rising use of the automobile, suburban America exploded. Among others, middle class Catholic whites fled to these newly created areas. Previous small towns near big cities including Saint Paul Park, Minnesota, experienced population explosions. Local parishes responded by embarking on large scale building campaigns. According to the Saint Thomas Aquinas Parish history webpage, they had grown to serve eleven hundred families. Building plans were drawn to build the modern day church, a convent, and a school. Saint Thomas Aquinas Church and the surrounding compound represent how the Catholic church responded to American society after World War Two.
Effects of the Second Vatican Council on Church Philosophy and Design
Pope John Paul XXIII commenced the Second Vatican Council in 1962 to discuss a wide range of concerns classified under the category of “The church and the World”. The council was to be an aggiornamento, an opening of the windows to let a fresh breeze blow the cobwebs out of the church’s many nooks and crannies. It was attended by twenty-six hundred bishops and four hundred advisors.
Focusing on shifting church doctrine towards a greater appreciation for the immanence of God instead of the transcendence of God, the council radically altered all aspects of the religion. Mass could now be spoken in the vernacular tongue instead of Latin. There became a greater appreciation for Catholics of color namely the black community. Pastors now faced the clergy when administering mass. Prior to the council, they said mass to the wall in front of the high alter with their backs turned to the congregation. Railings were removed from the high alter. Exterior church design requirements were loosened.
According to Chester Gillis in his book Roman Catholicism in America, “The years immediately following the Second Vatican Council were a period of experimentation.” Saint Thomas Aquinas Church reflects this period of experimentation in building form and interior design. The high alter lacks a railing. The sanctuary design and pew layout fluctuates from the traditional arrangement. Instead of being placed perpendicular to center processional, which was also the center of the church, the pews form a three sided square around the high alter. The main processional is placed off-center from symmetrical middle of the church. The building is also designed following contemporary design principles including: no exterior artwork or decoration, lack of a cross on the church roof, and locating the main entrance towards the interior of the property instead of towards the street. The church represents the new ideals instituted by the Second Vatican Council in both built form and changed mass rituals.
Behm, Sullivan, and Associates Church Proposal
Ralph Rapson wasn’t the first architect hired for the commission. According to Father Lawrence Keller, the pastor of the church during the design and construction of the building, at one time the entire project was at risk of failure. This was for a variety of reasons. The parish originally hired Behm, Sullivan and Associates. They designed and issued a complete set of construction documents. According to Ryan Connolly in his architectural thesis titled Ralph Rapson’s St. Thomas Aquinas Church: Three Portraits of Building, “For reasons that are disputed, Behm, Sullivan and Associates completed construction of the foundation of the basement church, but never finished the building.” Father Lawrence Keller expands, “The former firm of designers, engineers, and architects had dissolved and moved away. The parish had little money left over. The church basement was complete with no plans for the remainder of the building.” Father Keller explains how these problems led to the hiring of Ralph Rapson through the following quote, “When you are in impossible trouble, call the most eminent and respected man in the area. That’s when you need the best, so I called Ralph Rapson.” Rapson was hired in 1967 to design the remainder of the building.
Ralph Rapson Biography
Ralph Rapson earned architecture degrees from the University of Michigan and the Cranbrook Academy of Arts in the 1930’s. Shortly after graduating from Cranbrook, he worked with Eero Saarinen at his architecture firm. His academic career includes teaching positions at the New Bauhaus in Chicago and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was the head of the Architecture School at the University of Minnesota from 1954 – 1984. He closely followed Bauhaus design principles, as evidenced by an interview he did in 2007 with Dwell magazine in which he said, “Practically all the work I’ve done is not too far off from Bauhaus principles.” These principles are evident in Saint Thomas Aquinas Church through the following: lack of ornaments on the exterior façade and within the building, the use of structure as a major design theme and the footprint of the building being dictated by the interior use of space.
Exterior Building Description
According to the liturgy of the Second Vatican Council, “Churches (should) not be a form of the past, but ever open to embrace newer forms of artistic expression.” Following the International (Modern) design style, Saint Thomas Aquinas Church fully embraced the Second Vatican Council’s recommendation. The church used stucco, glu-lam beams and single pane glass windows for the exterior envelope. The primary façade, facing the center of the block instead of the street, emphasizes a solid base with a roof structure that appears to float. Separating the exterior facade into three distinct layers (base, window and roof) Ralph Rapson used the International (Modern) design style to deliver a unique liturgical building.
Occupying the southeast quadrant of the city block owned by the parish, the building is rotated 45 degrees from the street grid. The main façade or entrance faces the center of the block. The square building measures approximately 155’ on the sides and is roughly 32’ tall. The four facades are similar in composition and materials. The first layer consists of stucco applied over expanded metal lath. It is lightly textured, painted white, and lacks any visible expansion joints or weep screeds. The second layer is positioned twelve feet into the base. It consists of rectangular single pane ribbon windows. They are separated with two inch metal mullions. The third layer consists of a glu-lam roof structure that is composed of two girders, eight massive beams, and twenty three purlins. The massive knotty douglas glu-lam roof structure cantilevers past the ribbon windows twelve feet on all four sides of the building aligning with the outermost portions of the stucco base.
The main façade is distinguished from the others by a series of recesses pushed and pulled from the stucco base. Ralph Rapson used the form of the building to create entrances within these recesses. This feature maintains the impression of three distinct layers.
The first layer is formed from one inch thick stucco applied over light gauge steel framing through the use of expanded metal lathe. Measuring thirteen feet in height, it cants into the building approximately six inches from the base towards the ribbon windows. The entire base appears to be floating nine inches off the ground when in actuality it cantilevers approximately one foot from the continuous foundation. The foundation utilizes standard concrete masonry units (CMU) nominally measuring 8”x8”x16”. A standard 3/8” concave mortar joint bonds them.
A distinct rhythm created through six buttresses protrudes from the base and forms five equally spaced bays. With the exception of the second to right bay, the bays utilize store front windows which span the entire opening. The glass is single paned supported with wood window casings. Wood cross members are located 42” high off the exterior concrete plaza to satisfy safety/code requirements. The main double hung entry doors are located in the bay second from the left. These two doors along with the secondary entrance doors are solid core and covered with a wood veneer that mimics the glu-lam beams found in the roof structure. They also lack an exposed header or lintel and measure 42” wide by nine feet tall. Two secondary entrances, one in the leftmost bay and the other in the rightmost bay, are identical to the main entry doors except they are single left handed swing doors. The second-to-right bay is solid and protrudes from the façade to align with the cantilevered glu-lam roof structure.
The second layer is composed of ribbon windows which are set approximately twelve feet into the first layer. The single pane glass panels are rectangular in shape and are held in a place with a 5/8” glazing stop. Metal mullions, which are wider than the glazing stop, are painted black, emphasizing the verticality of this layer. X bracing connects the corners of the window frame, providing lateral support. The corner windows join to form a ninety degree angle with the corner mullion set inside the glass. Clear elastomeric caulking prevents moisture from entering at this juncture. A double glu-lam lintel (header) spans across the entire ribbon window. This is supported on six poured-in-place freestanding cylindrical concrete columns evenly spaced across the façade. They are visible through the ribbon windows but are placed inside the building. This header also forms one of two girders which carry the entire roof structure.
The third layer is composed entirely of glu-lam members which form a square structure that cantilevers from the ribbon windows twelve feet over the base. Eight beams span perpendicular to the double girders which carry twenty three evenly spaced purlins. Metal flashing (end caps) painted black cover the ends of the eight glu-lam beams to prevent water from entering them through capillary action. The edge purlin aligns flush with the sides of the end beam, forming the roof fascia. Roof edge trim measuring eight inches tall runs along the top portion of the fascia. It is painted to match the beam end caps. Knotty pine tongue and groove boards run perpendicular to the 23 purlins and act as both an exposed soffit and the roof decking. In between the eight beams above the roof girder single pane glass windows are used to enclose the exterior envelope. The metal pipe, running vertically between the roof and the protruding bay below, is a rainwater downspout transferring water from the roof of the building to the ground.
Lacking ornamentation normally associated with traditional Roman Catholic Churches, Ralph Rapson relied on elements of the building to distinguish the entrance. The three stacked layers form a design language that rely on common materials to create a spectacular worship building. Indeed, Ralph Rapson satisfied the Second Vatican Council’s request to design a modern church building that didn’t mimic forms of the past.
Interior Building Description
Lacking ornamentation, the asymmetrical worship space utilizes a nave offset one bay from the main centerline of the building. Commencing at the double hung solid core doors in the second from the left bay of the main façade, the twelve foot wide nave ends at the high alter. Raised above the exposed aggregate concrete floor approximately 28 inches, it is rectangular in shape and grounded against the southeastern wall of the building.
Modeled after the Chapel at Ronchamp, the interior chapel utilized interior grade stucco on expanded metal lathe to form curvilinear walls. Located in the western corner of the building, its importance is based on the juxtaposition of its curvy shape against the regimented squareness of the building. Inside, six pews face southeast toward a wooden worship bench constructed from oak planks. The interior wall elevations mirror the exterior elevations in both materials and makeup. The three layers carry into the interior of the sanctuary. The first layer, composed of stucco on the exterior, is used as the interior wall finish material. Painted white and lacking control joints, it reinforces the heavy base of the building. Lacking windows and ornamentation at eye level, it forces parishioners to watch the religious events occurring on the high alter. A black steel base acts as baseboard providing a visual separation between the floor and wall.
Ribbon windows compose the second layer. They are designed, constructed, and appear exactly as they do on the exterior facades. Emitting ambient light on all four sides of the building, they provide a steady source of illumination. Located thirteen feet off the exposed aggregate concrete floor, views to the exterior are limited.
The glu-lam roof structure defines the third layer. Supported by poured in place freestanding cylindrical columns, the glu-lam structure free spans the entire sanctuary. Cantilevering twelve feet over the ribbon windows and base, they continue uninterrupted from interior to exterior. They also prevent direct light from entering the sanctuary. Framing the ribbon windows, they serve as interior trim pieces hiding construction joints and shim locations. Encircling the high alter, drapery, cloth, and a statue of Christ hang from the glu-lam structure. This is the only interior ornamentation within the worship space. The geometric layout of the girders, beams, and purlins create rectangular spaces within the ceiling. Finished with knotty pine tongue and groove boards, the ceiling rests above the structural grid of the roof structure.
The exposed concrete aggregate floor reinforces the connection between floor, column, and roof. Control joints connect the six columns underneath each girder together. Perpendicular to these control joints, the other direction of joints begin at the baptistery and extend to the other side of the building representing the beginning of the Catholic Initiation.
Church furnishings, include pews, benches and alters, were designed by Ralph Rapson for exclusive use within the church. Systematically arranged in straight rows along three sides of the high alter, the walnut stained wooden pews are constructed from oak planks and seat fourteen hundred worshippers. Both the high and chapel alters were designed and built out of glu-lam to provide a visual and aesthetic connection to the roof structure.
Alterations to the Building
According to Ryan Connolly’s architectural thesis, Ralph Rapson’s St. Thomas Aquinas Church: Three Portraits of a Building, there have been twenty-six changes to the original building design. Only four of the changes have affected the original aesthetic design intentions. Connolly explains, “When organized by impact on the design, the most significant are not from pragmatic necessity, but from aesthetic changes. Rapson’s theological design choices have been fractured.” The four critical changes include interior stucco and columns painted, carpet added to aisles and sanctuary, walnut stain removed from the pews and the baptismal font changed. These changes have negatively affected the overall design concept of the building.
The original colors of the interior stucco and columns were a warm earthy tone. They were painted white in an attempt to freshen and clean them. According to Connolly, “The whitish (color) and eggshell sheen seem to look oddly institutional.” The interior of religious structures are meant to immerse parishioners in a relaxed yet ritualized environment. Dark colors represent a sense of awe, mystery, and amazement that reinforce the religious experience. The color change compromised this experience.
Carpet was added to the interior of the church to reduce noise. The seamless transition between exterior and interior leading to the high alter made evident through the continuous exposed aggregate concrete sidewalk and flooring was lost. The ritualistic and important processional is weakened through this addition. Additionally, it violates common rules in interior church design. Built of Living Stones quoted by Connolly expands, “Without a meditative dimension, Christian architecture risks reducing the mystery of divine presence to a comfortable domesticity.” Ralph Rapson understood this religious design parameter and planned accordingly. He omitted fashionable residential features of that time period, such as carpet, for these reasons.
Designed to contrast the glu-lam members of the roof, the walnut stained pews were designed to recede into the worship space. Due to excessive wearing of the walnut finish, the pews were stripped. They were refinished to match the color of the glu-lam roof structure. According to Connolly, “The pews were designed precisely not to match the roof and the lack of contrast between them decreases the power of each.” The pews should be returned to their original color to reestablish the contrast.
According to Connolly, the change to the baptismal font “represents the most egregious change to the building in its nearly forty year history. Its removal is detrimental to the architectural experience of the building and the theological connections that are implied in its design.” The baptismal font represents the journey of Christ through the waters of baptism. The original baptismal font was replaced with a mobile font constructed from oak and plastic. Its removal violates two important aspects of Christianity: the salvation of man and cleansing of sins. The entire design of the church leads parishioners from the outside world into a religious one, promising forgiveness of sins both literally and metaphorically. It also violates the entire concept of Ralph Rapson’s design.
Saint Thomas Aquinas Church represents not only a high point of Minnesota Modernist architecture, it showcases one of the styles most prominent architects. Ralph Rapson designed numerous notable buildings throughout Minnesota such as: the original Guthrie Theater, Cedar Square West, and Rarig Center for the Arts. Of his notable buildings, Saint Thomas Aquinas Church arguably is the most intact. With the exception of four hazardous cosmetic changes, the building is a holistic representation of his design vision. In order to preserve his vision, the four harmful aesthetic alterations must be reversed.
Of the four alterations, three can be reversed fairly easily. The interior stucco walls and columns should be repainted to match the original color of the dyed stucco.
Installed to reduce noise shortly after the church opened, carpet provided a simple and cost effective solution. The carpet should be removed. In order to mitigate the increase in noise, sound dampeners such as panels could be placed in strategic locations throughout the church. This would restore the prominence of the processional and high alter set against a solid concrete floor.
The pews were originally stained a dark walnut color to contrast the lighter colored glu-lam roof structure. The human eye is drawn to contrasting images and colors. The juxtaposition of the pews and glu-lam roof structure emphasizes the importance of each within the worship space. Both are called out as being important during the worship experience. The pew represents the physical connection one has with their religion. Worshippers can literally touch an item inside the house of worship. They also remind parishioners that they are merely earthbound humans. The glu-lam roof structure is designed in a similar manner as ancient Gothic Cathedrals of Europe. Gothic Cathedrals used height and scale to represent the power and awe of god. Ralph Rapson overcame common laws of gravity such as: the twelve foot cantilevered roof overhang, and the 155’ rafter span to inspire those feelings today. In order to regain this sense of awe, the pews should be restriped and finished to their original walnut color.
According to Connolly, “The baptismal font is a central element to the liturgical experience.” It reflects the Christian’s journey through the waters of baptism to the alter. Recognizing the importance of this piece, Ralph Rapson provided explicit architectural drawings describing its design, materials, and location. It was permanently attached to the high alter. The interior layout was designed around the journey, along the processional, to this piece. In an effort to bring it closer to the parishioners, Saint Thomas Aquinas parish replaced the original baptismal font. The new baptismal font is mobile, smaller, and constructed out of wood. It violates the entire argument and layout of the interior design. It must be replaced. Unfortunately the original one was thrown away. A church liturgist confirms this with the following “One of the workman who removed it asked if he could take it and reuse the wood, I said yes.” In order to restore the design language of the interior of the church as designed by Ralph Rapson, a replacement must be built according to original plans.
Overall, the exterior of the church appears to be in excellent physical condition. The foundation lacks any visible cracking and the mortar between the CMU’s appears to be intact. The exterior stucco needs to be patched in a few locations due to exposed expanded metal lathe. If left unchecked, the stucco will continue to spall due to the expanded metal lathe corroding.
Saint Thomas Aquinas Church satisfies two criterion for nomination in the National Register of Historic Places.
Criterion B: Properties that are associated with the lives of persons significant in our past.
Criterion C: That embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or that represent the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values, or that represents a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction.
Criterion B: Ralph Rapson was the preeminent architect in Minnesota from 1954 -1990’s. His professional trajectory took two paths; educator and practitioner. As the head of the Architecture School at the University of Minnesota from 1954 – 1984, he influenced two generations of architectural students. He also reshaped how architectural education was taught. He introduced thematic studios that explored the limits of professional activism. These were oftentimes titled advocacy, experimental city, and so forth. This continues today. He was also an advocate of hiring practitioners as adjunct faculty to teach design studios. He felt a blend of academic and practicing architects teaching students would produce a well-rounded student.
Ralph Rapson was a world renowned architect with designs built across the world. Known for his modernist style of design, he utilized Bauhaus principles to shape buildings oriented to the users. A receiver of many awards including numerous AIA awards, his peers respected and admired his work.
Criterion C: Saint Thomas Aquinas Church has design characteristics that connect it to two sub styles of modernism; New Brutalism and Structural Expressionism. New Brutalism buildings are characterized by a mass of heavy concrete that is imposed on the ground. The first layer of the exterior elevations consist of stucco over expanded metal lathe. Though it isn’t concrete, the exterior mimics qualities of the materials. Instead of resting on the ground, the heavy mass appears to float. By removing it from the ground, Ralph Rapson draws attention to this connection. Typical of the style, window and door locations are cut out of the mass.
Structural Expressionism is defined as a building that uses its framework as a defining aesthetic expression. Saint Thomas Aquinas Church utilizes a glu-lam structure that supports the roof. It is left exposed on the interior and exterior of the building. Not only does it support the roof, it acts as an ancient gothic cathedral. Similar to gothic cathedrals, it uses its massiveness and the beautiful yet purposeful expression of structure to create awe and wonder.
The building represents high artistic values prevalent of the catholic church during the 1960’s – 1970’s. According to the new liturgical guidelines set forth by the Second Vatican Council of 1962 – 1965 as discussed earlier, the building is a modern interpretation of a church. It directly followed the guidelines set forth. The building utilized a sense of truth and authenticity in the use of materials. Common materials such as wood and concrete were used. Designed as a contemporary building of its time, it reflected modernist ideals of the 1960’s. This is no different than church design form years prior. Churches constructed during the 1000’s – 1250’s reflect gothic design principles whereas churches from the 1300’s – 1600’s were built following renaissance ideals. Saint Thomas Aquinas Church was built in 1969 following modernist ideals prevalent during that period.
The church also instructs the faithful in religious practice. According to architect Ed Kodet, “Saint Thomas Aquinas Church would be a fine example of liturgical architecture if it were built today. The overall space reflects and inspires worship. The church has all those things that make architecture great.” Ed Kodet states the church possesses formal and aesthetic qualities that inspire and instruct the faithful. Most notably, the roof structure creates a sense of awe from the massive beams and its appearance of floating into space.
Memories and stories
I was introduced to this building through a Historic Building Preservation class at the University of Minnesota. I was curious about the building and decided to visit it in the Fall of 2011. Driving through the neighborhood I didn't see a building that resembled a church. Driving east along 10th avenue, all of a sudden it appeared. Curious for a closer look, I spent the next ninety minutes walking around the building staring at it in disbelief. A wedding was commencing with the groom groomsmen waiting outside the entrance. They didn't seem to care that I was staring at the building. I'm guessing that the church draws several visitors like me. The building is an amazing piece of architectural and engineering design. Timothy Fuller
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