Council of Independent Colleges Historic Campus Architecture Project


St. John's Abbey and University Church

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Institution Name: Saint John's University
Original/Historic Place Name: St. John's Abbey and University Church
Location on Campus:
Date(s) of Construction:
1953-1961original construction (McGough Company, St. Paul, contractor) Breuer, Marcel
Designer: Marcel Breuer; McGough Company, St. Paul (contractor)
Type of Place: Individual building
Style: Modern/post-WWII, Other (Glossary)
Significance: architecture, religion
Narrative: see below
References: see below
Foundation: poured form-cast concrete
Walls: poured form-cast concrete
Roof: poured form-cast concrete
1961-present (2006)chapel (monastic and university church; also lectures and concerts)

Together, St. John's Abbey and St. John's University are home to eleven projects by the noted modernist and Bauhaus educated architect Marcel Breuer (1902-1981). The most significant of these buildings for both architectural and religious reasons is the Abbey and University Church, designed in 1953-1958 and built in 1959-1961. It is considered by some architectural historians to be one of the two most significant post-WWII churches in the world (the other being Le Corbusier's chapel at Ronchamp, France). It prefigured the churches of the post Vatican II Catholic church by surrounding the altar with the choir stalls of the monks and the pews of the congregation. This eliminates much of the decoration of earlier churches and re-emphasizes the significance of the congregation, focusing its attention on the centrality of the liturgical action in congregational life.

Technically, the church, built about the same time as Breuer's headquarters building for UNESCO in Paris, uses cast concrete in forms that eliminate the distinction between structure and enclosure. The folded walls are the structure as well as the enclosure. The folded structure of the walls and ceiling allow for a large open space unhindered by structural posts and available for freedom in planning the functions of the space.


Abbey Church [St. John's University]. Historic American Buildings Survey photographs. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior/ National Park Service, n.d.

Dober, Richard P. Campus Architecture: Building in the Groves of Academe. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996.

Dober, Richard P. Campus Planning. New York: Reinhold Publishing Corp., 1963.

Fisher, Thomas. "The Benedictine's Bauhaus." Architecture Minnesota 28 (January-February 2002): [26]-29, 50-51.

Gatje, Robert F. Marcel Breuer: A Memoir. New York: Monacelli Press, 2000.

Hyman, Isabelle. Marcel Breuer, Architect: The Career and the Buildings. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2001.

Nelson, Charles W., and Father Vincent G. Tegeder. St. John's Abbey and University Historic District, National Register of Historic Places designation report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior/ National Park Service, 1979.

Pinney, Gregory W. "'Joe Hall' Moved: Sentiment and Economics Mix to Save 1923 Dorm at St. John's." Minneapolis Star and Tribune, August 29, 1992, 2B.

Stoddard, Whitney S. Adventure in Architecture, Building the New Saint John's. New York: Longmans, Green, 1958.

Young, Victoria M. "Modernism and Monasticism: Marcel Breuer's Designs for St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, MN." Casabella 67 (October 2003): 28-39, 101-03.


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Last update: November 2006