First Church of Christ, Scientist

First Church of Christ, Scientist ca. 1915, photographer unknown. [Image: UMD Martin Library]

902 East First Street | Architect: Frederick German | Built: 1913 | Extant

Three Duluth Christian Scientists began reading together in 1884 after being healed by its study. Six years later they officially organized with twenty-three charter members including A. M. Morrison, William and Mina Prindle, John W. Fee, and John W. Davis. John G. Owen served as the church’s First Reader. They established a Christian Science Reading Room in office 307 of the Pastoret-Stenson Block, across the hall from Davis’s apartment (the downtown reading room has since relocated frequently). Christian Science is a Protestant religion without ordained clergy. Two Readers conduct the Sunday service from the Bible and writings of founder Mary Baker Eddy. Members practice spiritual healing through prayer based on Jesus’s teachings and healings in the New Testament.

In 1898 the congregation built a modest wooden church at 924 East Superior Street. Five years later they moved the church to a lot at Ninth Avenue East and First Street, positioned not along the street or avenue but along the alley between Superior and First streets, leaving room along First Street for a more significant structure.

Ground was broken for that project six years later, but the basement wasn’t complete until 1911 and the cornerstone not laid until October 1912. When viewed from above, the Classical Revival edifice, designed by Frederick German, takes the form of a Greek cross, with a dome at its center. Faced in cream-colored brick, the two-story building originally featured a classical entrance portico along its First Street primary façade, topped with a pediment supported by two fluted columns and large dentils beneath the eaves.

The building’s exterior was completed in November 1913, and its dedication service was held in August 1914. At that gathering, Owen read a congratulatory telegram founder Mary Baker Eddy had sent when the 1898 church was dedicated: “May our God make this church the fold of flocks and those that plant the vineyard eat the fruit thereof. Here let His promise be verified: Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear.”

Soon after the new church opened, the Duluth Drama League purchased the 1898 building for use as its first “Little
Theatre,” which later became the Duluth Playhouse. Catholics purchased the building in 1927, split it in half, dragged it across a frozen Lake Superior, and reassembled it on Minnesota Point at 2002 Minnesota Avenue, rededicating it as Our Lady of Mercy Church. It still stands there today.

In 1945, to address defects in the parapet wall, architect Harold Starin redesigned the 1913 church’s front façade, adding four fluted pilasters to the front façade, but stripping the building of much of its original architectural character.

Karpeles Manuscript Museum, the world’s largest private holding of important original manuscript documents, purchased the building in 1993 and opened the next year; the congregation rented the building’s lower level. The congregation moved into its own new building at at 1731 North Forty-Third Avenue East in Lakeside in 1999. Karpeles remains in the 1913 building today.