I’ve always marveled at those who’ve never visited Saint John’s and yet seem to know so much about it. My most recent experience of this took place just last week, in the middle of a retreat I was giving outside of Philadelphia. During a break, one gentleman came up, introduced himself, and immediately launched into high praise of the Abbey and University Church. He was from Boston, and though he’d never been to Saint John’s, he’d heard about it from his son, an architect.
The son, also from Boston, had been engaged to a woman from St. Paul; and when he and his groomsmen, also architects, flew to Minnesota for the wedding, they put one request to the father of the bride. Would he please organize a side-trip to Saint John’s so that they could see this wonder?
Through the years busloads of architects and designers have made the pilgrimage to see the church, Alcuin Library, and the other campus buildings that together comprise the largest concentration of Breuer buildings anywhere in the world. Alumni might also be surprised to know that school, senior and professional groups arrive with such regularity that tours of the church are a daily occurrence through much of the year. All of this bears out the observation of Abbot Baldwin Dworschak, who dryly noted that “no one ever came five hundred miles to see Mary Hall.” He didn’t mean to disparage that venerable building. He merely meant to point out the obvious: the church is a jewel with an international reputation.
Abbot Baldwin was abbot during the planning of most of the buildings at Saint John’s that came from the creative imagination of Marcel Breuer and his colleagues. Then, as the first spades of dirt began to turn, the stunning character of the designs began to stir the imagination. Even the critics had to concede the dynamism of the structures that emerged.
Those buildings have weathered the decades well. Still, it’s fair to say that many if not most students today walk past them without appreciating the challenge it took to conceive and build them. To them they are merely part of the landscape, but they never fail to stun the professional eye, as one friend of mine noted on his first visit to campus last fall. He’s built hospitals and high tech buildings literally around the world, and when he stepped into the church he gasped, “We’d never even bid on a project like this!”
Breuer’s work at Saint John’s has emerged as a singular contribution to modern architecture, and a recent grant from The Getty Foundation to Saint John’s Abbey has served to underscore that. In a program to promote the preservation of unique works of modern architecture, the foundation last year awarded a grant to fund a master plan for the long-term preservation of the church. In doing so the foundation cited the character of the structure, and it also noted the significant representation of Breuer’s work at Saint John’s. Not only was the grant intended to spark the preservation of the church, but it is meant to serve as a template for the preservation of the other Breuer buildings at Saint John’s and Breuer buildings around the world.
How significant is the grant from The Getty Foundation? First, it was an invitation-only competition, which meant that researchers at the foundation had done the preliminary sifting for appropriate sites. Furthermore, the award to Saint John’s was one of only twelve given last year, of which three went to American institutions. In short, this was a reminder that we should never take these treasures for granted.
A few years ago a friend from southern California visited, and I was anxious to show him our church. His religious community was about to build an entirely new complex, in Romanesque style. I wondered about his reaction to the modern style at Saint John’s, but his response was enough to reassure me. “My goodness, you’ve got it right. You built for 500 years!” That, says The Getty Foundation, is what they thought too.