Leaving the Interstate 35E parkway at the Grand Avenue exit, or coming and going from United Hospital, or heading to Summit Avenue from downtown, you likely notice a small, golden-colored stone building with a steeple at the corner of Ramsey Street and Pleasant Avenue, nestled at the bottom of “the big hill.”
That building is over a hundred years old, and its exterior remains largely unchanged from when it was built. Next time you drive by, imagine it’s Christmas day in 1890.
It’s late morning, and you see a group of people in a procession approaching the brand-new structure. Following two men in the lead is a woman wearing white and carrying a white cushion, on which sits the key to the place. As they come near, they are greeted by trumpet music resounding from the steeple (Saint Paul Pioneer Press, December 26, 1890).
This is the new German Bethlehem Presbyterian Church, founded in response to the need for a German-language church in the growing city of St. Paul. The crowd includes the young, vibrant pastor of the church, Nicholas Bolt; recent immigrants from Germany; and St. Paulites who are not of German heritage but have contributed to the creation of the church. The land was purchased for $3,000 from former Governor Alexander Ramsey, who was one of the benefactors, in that he contributed one-third of the purchase price (James Taylor Dunn, “Cass Gilbert and the German Presbyterian Bethlehem Church,” Minnesota Historical Society, 1968).
Inside, the urban pilgrims enter a vestibule that opens into an oblong auditorium. The Saint Paul Pioneer Press article describes the interior: “The walls are tinted a deep rose. The entire roof’s in woodwork of light pine, supported by dark beams with angel heads, producing an antique effect. The windows are plain antique leaded glass, in a diamond pattern. The altar is a marvelous piece of antique carving, about 200 years old…. The carpet is of dark blue….”
Today, 114 years later, the interior houses professional offices, though traces of its original graceful shape are still visible from the foyer lined with historical photographs and paintings of the site. Over the years the church building has seen many occupants and served numerous purposes. Rather sadly, it served its original purpose only 24 years, Dunn notes; the need for a German-language church dwindled as new arrivals assimilated to their surroundings. The Bethlehem congregation ceased to exist in 1914, at the beginning of World War I.
Next the structure served as a theater, and in 1917 a St. Paul architects’ group, the Gargoyle Club, acquired it, then leased it in 1921 to a couple who ran an undertaking parlor there. For many years after that it served the same purpose, first as Belisle Funeral chapel, then Godbout Funeral Home, then Aaron Funeral Home. The Gargoyle Club sold the building to the latter business in 1940 (St. Paul Dispatch, July 16, 1964).
After that the old church’s uses changed drastically. In 1974 the East Side Theater moved in, and by 1976 the structure was housing the Jo Savino Dance Company (St. Paul Pioneer Press, July 9, 1976), whom the current owner purchased it from in 1980. When he took over the building, some of the funeral home equipment was still stored downstairs.
The building has been variously described as “Alpine-inspired” and “Swiss-style,” with good reason. The design was the idea of the Reverend Nicholas Bolt, the original minister, and he got the concept from his native Switzerland. Dunn describes it as “a picturesque massing of elements and textures reminiscent of the anonymous fifteenth-century mountain churches of Switzerland.” Rather surprisingly for how well it has endured over the years, the building was constructed in three short months for $8,500. The Pioneer Press article on the dedication of the church in 1890 includes the headline, “A House of Worship Which Is Unique in Construction Among Churches of the Northwest,” and calls it “an architectural gem…It is built of stone and wood combined in a quaint and pleasing manner…. Its location is especially happy in enhancing its picturesque effect.”
The article doesn’t even mention the architect, perhaps because he was just starting his career and was not yet well known. He was Cass Gilbert, who also designed the Minnesota Capitol and became nationally famous. He got his start in St. Paul, and his heritage here looms large: an estimated 150 projects emanated from his St. Paul office between 1882 and 1910, according to the October 1999 edition of the Cass Gilbert Society newsletter. Nearby Summit Avenue has been called the epicenter of Gilbert’s Minnesota legacy, and he designed more than 60 residences and four churches in the Ramsey and Summit Hill area where the German Presbyterian Bethlehem Church is. The early years, when he built the church, were among his most productive. “… these beginnings [in St. Paul] were important in the career of Cass Gilbert, for they represent what some believe to be the architect’s high period of domestic and ecclesiastical architecture” (Dunn).
“It remains today as perhaps Cass Gilbert’s most delightful contribution to St. Paul’s ecclesiastical architecture,” in Dunn’s analysis, and his opinion is given added weight by the fact that when Gilbert returned to the city years later, he wanted to visit only three buildings he had created: his former home, the State Capitol, and the German Presbyterian Bethlehem Church.
Thanks to Richard Black, owner, for sharing his collection of articles and information about the building.
July 2004, revised November 2016 and August 2018