Historic site or hindrance? St. Paul church is caught in a battle between the past and the future

St. Andrew's Church might escape destruction if its neighborhood advocates can convince St. Paul that it is a historical site.

St. Andrew's Church might escape destruction if its neighborhood advocates can convince St. Paul that it is a historical site. Save Historic St. Andrews

For months, Como Park has been at war with itself, all over an old church building that hasn’t had a congregation in nearly a decade.

St. Andrew’s Church -- a monolith of brown brick and bright orange tile -- was built in 1927, shut down by the diocese in 2011, and, in 2013, adopted as a makeshift gym and cafeteria space for the burgeoning Twin Cities German Immersion School, a public charter built right next door.

But now the school is packed. Exceeding even the administration’s expectations, its student population has grown from 330 in 2013 by more than 200 students, and it’s expected to swell to 600 strong in by 2021. Computer labs are being converted into classrooms, students are getting paraprofessional help out in the hallways, and the marble floors and sharp corners of the church building are proving to be a less than optimal gymnasium space.

So, school leadership decided last spring to tear down the church and make room for more educational space.

There was just one problem: The residents of Como Park haven’t forgotten St. Andrew’s Church, and that building, they say, is special to them. It’s where some of them grew up, got married, taught, and prayed. They formed the Save Historic St. Andrew’s group and vowed to stay its destruction.

At first, that looked like a hopeless prospect. In June, the school board voted 6-1 to tear down the building. They weren’t about to spend $170,000 a year on the care and keeping of an old building that didn’t even make a good gym. Demolition was scheduled for next summer.

But now, things just might be looking up for the Save Historic St. Andrew’s crowd. On Monday night, the St. Paul Heritage Preservation Commission voted to designate St. Andrew’s a “St. Paul Heritage Preservation site,” as requested by a coalition of community members.

This has been the secret weapon in the back pockets of the Save Historic St. Andrew’s group all along. There was no question that the building had historical significance to them. But if they could get an expert opinion that it was of historical significance to St. Paul, then there was a much better chance it would be protected from the will of the school. They have the notes of architectural historian Larry Millett, who called the building “one of St. Paul’s best period revival churches,” to back them up.

It all came down to three and a half hours of public comments. The church crowd accused the school crowd of coming into their neighborhood and trampling all over their heritage. The school crowd accused the church crowd of valuing a pile of “bricks” over their kids’ education.

At last, the commission voted in favor of historical designation 8-1.

“Honest to God, it kind of felt like David and Goliath,” Save St. Andrew’s member Marietta McCullough says. For about seven months now, she and her group have been meeting every Sunday for about two hours in an effort to save the church. After Monday night’s decision, she’s “cautiously optimistic,” but she has no illusions that the school will take this lying down.

“Moving one more step in the direction of historical designation really worries me,” school director Ted Anderson says. As a public charter, he says, they operate on a thinner margin than St. Paul Public Schools, and they really can’t afford to be the keepers of an old empty church -- historical or not. Anderson often hears people talk about how much they like “driving past” St. Andrew’s. It’s less charming, he says, when you’re cooped up inside of it.

“All we want to do is be a good school,” he says. Instead, they’re “being portrayed as the big bad villain” for wanting to do away with a building that “the community and parishioners abandoned long ago.”

The commission’s decision was far from the final step in this process. Next, the preservation question will have to go before the St. Paul Planning Commission, then the State Historic Preservation Office, and, finally, the St. Paul City Council.

McCullough had no idea her fight to protect St. Andrew’s was going to last this long. She shudders to think how long it could still last. She’s determined to see this through.

“You have to stop sitting back and letting other people do things,” she says. She knows the school crowd feels just the same way. And in the end, she knows one thing is true:

“Probably nobody’s going to be 100 percent happy with how this ends.”