Just over a month ago, a couple friends and I went into the Bethlehem Lutheran Church in North St. Louis. The trip inside was a first for each of us, despite this place being on the local urban exploration “map” for a long time. Only a few weeks before that, while sitting on a portfolio review committee at Webster, a former of student of mine presented photos taken in the same space, artful shots of fashion in this long-abandoned space. All the proverbial signs were in place to finally make the trip to Hyde Park.
The exterior of this North Side church was impressive enough, a big, strong, brick building visible for blocks around. Walking around the building’s interior, though, was really quite amazing. The church had taken a considerable beating from the elements over the years, though the once-evident beauty still (at times successfully) fought to shine through. A recent snowfall had left ice liberally scattered throughout the building, including some stairwells that lead up to the steeple. Gaping holes were visible in the roof. Post-congregant human beings had made appearances and left marks, too, in the form of graffiti writings of varying degrees of sympathy towards the building’s plight. The big stained glass windows existed, still pretty much intact. And what a gorgeous collection they were!
Unfortunately, this is being written in the past tense. Over the past weekend, the building suffered a wall collapse and demolition is now a certainty, instead of a foregone conclusion. The best hope, at this point, is that some of the details could be saved, though that’s even doubtful, considering the wreckage that’s visible in photos this Monday morning.
On our trip, we all chatted about the fact that none of us had ever really been hurt on one of these day trips. We’d never had a shoe punctured by a nail. We’d never suffered cuts on a rusted window panes. While friends and fellow travelers had fallen through floorboards, even that likelihood had been something we’d never experienced first-hand. For some reason, we were really talkative about this subject on that afternoon; it’s something that we’d talked about before, but it seemed to dominate our conversation this time out. Maybe the old building was speaking to us on that Sunday afternoon, telling us that we had this trip only and that we’d better enjoy it. And that we better enjoy our health on these journeys.
The North Side’s lost a real landmark, a victim of changing demographics, of weather, of civic neglect and of the simple fact that a building this big, this open, this centered in a still-disinvested community will always be a challenging fixer-upper. It was a good to see it one first/last time. With respect: RIP, Bethlehem Lutheran Church.