A Labor of Love

Linden Hills church finds creative use for 150-year-old neighborhood tree

LINDEN HILLS – The old oak tree had stood at the intersection of 42nd Street and Sheridan Avenue since, well, before the intersection even existed. When it was just a sapling, the nearest avenue would have been a muddy cowpath called Richfield Road. It grew into a tree as the Civil War was being fought, and provided shade years before Edison would invent the light bulb and more than a century before we’d come to grasp the concept of global warming.

And so it came as troubling news when the congregation at St. John’s Episcopal Church learned its building expansion would require taking down the tree, estimated to be about 150 years old.

“We started brainstorming plans for how to make it ‘relive,’” said Bill Peterson, chairman of St. John’s building committee.

Soon, they had their solution: to resurrect the tree as a conference table for the church’s new library, part of its 4,000-square-foot, $1.5 million expansion project called “Imagine St. John’s.”

One day after church, the congregation gathered around the tree and acknowledged it with a blessing ceremony, recalled St. John’s Rector Mariann Edgar Budde.

With the hard decision behind them, then came the hard work.

On a hot July day last year, almost 50 volunteers ranging in age from teenagers to seniors, gathered at the church, along with some professional help to bring down the tree.

From midmorning until evening, volunteers worked in 30- to 40-minute shifts in the sweltering heat.

“With the tree gone, there wasn’t a lot of shade,” Peterson said.

Workers used chainsaws to cut the tree into four sections, each weighing about 2,000 pounds. Volunteers took turns, four or five at a time, carefully rolling the massive sections with specialized tools to a ban saw set up on the site.

After going through the saw, what was left was piles and piles of heavy, 2-inch thick boards stacked around the yard. It took two people to lift one of the boards, all of which had to be loaded into a trailer, then into a kiln, then back into the trailer, and then finally to Peterson’s garage in Southeast Minneapolis.

That’s where much of it remained last month, as Peterson worked on the conference table.

“This wood just has gorgeous figure,” he said, pointing out patterns in the boards.

A pair of 9-foot-long planks stretched across a long work table. Peterson lathered wood glue on one spine before clamping the pieces together. After being sanded, scraped and finished, the section will make up one quarter of the 9-foot-by-30-inch table.

Sustainable growth

The 104-year-old church started as a small worshiping community on the shores of Lake Harriet, Budde said. When the congregation purchased land up the hill from the lake, members carried the structure up to its current location. The current stone sanctuary was built in 1911.

Budde said it’s always been a community of modest means, and as a result its history has been measured in small, piecemeal expansions. Today, it has about 220 households as members, about half of whom live within a couple miles of the church.

It’s new addition started with a conversation about accessibility, Budde said.

“Accessibility is more than just sticking an elevator in somewhere,” she said. “It has to do with graciousness and hospitality throughout the building.”

As they conceptualized how people should get from one end of the building to the other, they also addressed the church’s lack of space.

“There was no graceful way to get around the building, and we just needed more space,” Budde said.

Though space could be more available in the suburbs, Budde said they were committed to staying in their location in the city. Still, they didn’t want to expand their structure into something too big for the neighborhood.

“That just wasn’t an easy debate,” Budde said. “We, as a community, struggled for all sorts of reasons with the expansion Š The tree sort of symbolized that: what would be lost for the sake of our future?”

They aren’t mindless to the environmental costs. They’ll be planting trees to offset the loss of the oak tree, Budde said.

“I have a sense, too, that there’s going to be renewed energy in the congregation around issues of environmental steward[ship],” she said.

The church has been blessed by having members possessing the right skills and connections to preserve its connection to the tree, Budde said.

In addition to the conference table, some of the tree will be incorporated into trim in the building. And every family that contributed to the capital campaign is going to receive a cutting board made from the oak.

Budde said they’re also looking into whether they could hire a carver to create a baptismal font out of the remaining wood.

“It feels like it’s still with us. It’s just in a different form,” she said.

Peterson unscrewed the clamps squeezing the boards against the glue. The next step was sanding, and then sending them along to another contributor who will further refine the surface.

“I’m trying to think long term on this and not be in a hurry,” Peterson said. “It took the tree 150 years.”


Reach Dan Haugen at 436-5088 or dhaugen@mnpubs.com.