In November 1966 Duluth’s First United Methodist Church held the first service in the congregation’s new building, a stark, modern structure located at one of the highest points in the city. The congregation had previously occupied a massive stone Gothic Revival church built in 1893 near downtown Duluth. By the middle of the twentieth century the congregation had outgrown the old building and many members of the congregation had moved out of downtown. When they drove in for Sunday services, the scarcity of parking was increasingly a problem. The new church sits on an expansive site 600 feet above Lake Superior, one mile north of downtown, with ample space for the congregation’s cars. (Upon completion of the new church in 1966, the old brownstone church was purchased by the Duluth Clinic and demolished in 1969.)
The new church was designed by Pietro Belluschi, who had just finished a fifteen-year tenure as Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT when he turned his attention to First United Methodist. Based in Portland, Oregon, Belluschi was a leader in the development of modern architecture in the United States and his religious buildings, in particular, reflected his interest in moving beyond the materials and methods of the International Style. His church in Duluth has been described as “a copper pyramid resting on a reinforced concrete ziggurat”—a description that reflects Belluschi’s interest in imbuing modern architecture with weight and monumentality. The base of the building is a series of multi-level platforms that support a massive square sanctuary block, which, in turn, supports the pyramidal copper roof structure. Ornamentation is minimal in keeping as much with Methodism’s traditions as with modernism’s. The shape, scale, and prominent siting of the building provide all the visual interest that is needed. At the corners of the sanctuary, tall, narrow, stained glass windows break up the massive granite-faced concrete walls. Around the base of the copper roof pyramid a series of triangular windows provide interior light and exterior visual interest. A tall cross rises from the peak of the roof. Several other strategically placed windows provide light for various offices and meeting rooms in the building.
In a city that has several landmark churches, First United Methodist Church stands out because of its bold design and prominent setting high above the city and Lake Superior. Known locally as the “coppertop church,” it is visible from almost everywhere in the city. A local landmark since its completion, it remains one of Minnesota’s most striking mid-century modern churches.
Hanson, Linda. “Topping Off the Coppertop.” Duluth News Tribune, February 13, 1998.
Scott, James A. Duluth’s Legacy, Vol. 1: Architecture. Duluth: City of Duluth Department of Research and Planning, 1974.