Breuer Centenary Celebration

*This text is from the 2001 Marcel Breuer Centenary Celebration proposal document, located in the SJU Archives.*


In 1856, four Benedictine monks were dispatched from Saint Vincent Abbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, to establish a presence in the Minnesota Territory.  They settled along the banks of the Mississippi near present-day Saint Cloud.  One year later they would found a monastery in nearby Indianbush – now known as Collegeville.

Saint John’s is a special and multifaceted place.  From its early beginnings, it has been home to Saint John’s Abbey and University, the School of Theology and Seminary and the Preparatory School.  Over the years, Saint John’s has become home to a number of other renowned institutions including: The Liturgical Press, the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library, the Episcopal House of Prayer, the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research and the Interfaith Sexual Trauma Institute.  Saint John’s is also home to the Jay Phillips Center for Jewish-Christian Learning, an Arboretum, Saint John’s Pottery, the first public radio station in the Minnesota Public Radio network and an extraordinary art and rare book collection known as Arca Artium.

Located on a 2,400-acre tract of land, the Saint John’s campus is remarkable in both its natural and architectural beauty.  It includes an extensive pine and hardwood forest, an oak savanna, a restored prairie, restored wetlands and several lakes.  The buildings at Saint John’s date from the 1860s and are arranged in a series of quadrangles and courtyards to the north of Lake Sagatagan. 

At the center of the Saint John’s campus is the Abbey and University Church, one of ten buildings on the campus designed by Marcel Breuer.  With its soaring bell banner and three-story wall of stained glass, the Abbey and University Church is among the most striking pieces of twentieth-century architecture.

Saint John’s Abbey and University

Saint John’s Abbey is a Benedictine monastic community of men who follow the 1,500-year tradition of worship and work through daily prayer and service in ministries that include education, parishes, chaplaincies and missions.  The Rule of Saint Benedict places a strong emphasis on community living and hospitality, with common prayer at the heart of the day.  The strong sense of community and hospitality strengthen the mission of the University and permeate the daily activities of the entire campus.

Saint John’s University is one of the oldest institutions of higher education in the Midwest.  From its inception, the University has valued the liberal arts as a preparation for careers of leadership in church and society.  Saint John’s University for men and the nearby College of Saint Benedict for women are partners in liberal arts education, providing students the opportunity to benefit from the distinctive offerings of two nationally recognized Catholic undergraduate colleges.  Together they challenge their 3,800-plus students to live balanced lives of learning, work, leadership and service in an ever-changing world.

Marcel Breuer

Hungarian-born in 1902, Marcel (Lajko) Breuer won a scholarship at age eighteen to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.  Leaving there after a short time, he enrolled as a student/apprentice at the Bauhaus at Dessau, Germany, where he studied under its founder and director, Walter Gropius.

“The three years that followed were most eventful for Breuer. His competition entry for a multistory housing scheme sponsored by a German magazine was widely published and admired. He perfected and patented his first tubular steel chair – the marvelous cube of air defined by leather straps and shiny metal that is known today as the ‘Wassily.’ This was followed by over fifty different pieces of furniture – chairs, tables, tea-carts – all mass-produced by Thonet Brothers . . . The conflict surrounding the design and production of his furniture eventually led Breuer to get out of the business and to hope that he would become better known for his architecture.”[1]

Breuer began his studies of prefabricated low-cost housing in Berlin in 1926.  By 1933 Breuer was in England, and several years later, at the invitation of Walter Gropius, he joined the faculty at Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD).  “The two of them revolutionized the teaching of architecture in America by introducing the Bauhaus function-based approach to design at the GSD.”[2]  Breuer served at GSD as an associate professor from 1937-1946.  At the same time he served as principal at Marcel Breuer and Associates, Cambridge.

Breuer moved to New York in 1946 to establish an architectural office.  Following this move he designed a series of homes, and in 1952 was asked to join a team to design the United Nations Economic, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) building in Paris.  Shortly thereafter, in 1953, he was selected by Saint John’s to develop its master plan.

Marcel Breuer at Saint John’s

Worship and Work, by Fr. Colman Barry, OSB (1921-1994), traces the early decision process by which the Saint John’s community engaged Marcel Breuer and arrived at a comprehensive solution to the community’s building challenge. 

“When Abbot Baldwin [Dworschak] faced the immediate need for additional space he decided, rather than making plans himself or seeking architectural advice of his own tastes, to seek consultation and joint discussion from the community at all stages of the undertaking …[3]

“Abbot Baldwin sent a letter to twelve outstanding architects of Europe and America, inquiring if they were interested in preparing a comprehensive plan for St. John’s which would embrace a hundred-year period.  The architects, who were chosen on a basis of reputation, experience in comprehensive planning, and ability in contemporary architecture, included Richard J. Neutra of Los Angeles; Walter A. Gropius of Bauhaus fame and former dean of the Harvard School of Architecture; Eero Saarinen of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan; Thomas W. Sharp of Oxford, England; Marcel L. Breuer of New York City; Barry Byrne of Evanston, Illinois; Pietro Belluschi of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Professor Rudolf Schwarz of Cologne, Germany; Herman Baur of Basle, Switzerland; Robert Kramreiter of Vienna, Austria; A. Bosslet of Wuerzburg, Germany; and Joseph D. Murphy of St. Louis.

“In the course of his letter of invitation to these twelve architects Abbot Baldwin stated: We have been working on a master list of needs and find that among the principal requirements are: a much larger church, additional monastic quarters, a library, a guest house, and an administration building. Once a successful master plan has been achieved, we will go ahead with a considerable part of it. The church, we feel, would probably be given priority . . . Although this present proposal concerns the comprehensive plan only, we are most interested in building a church which will be truly an architectural monument in the service of God . . . The Benedictine tradition at its best challenges us to think boldly and to cast our ideas in forms which will be valid for centuries to come, shaping them with all the genius of present-day materials and techniques. We feel that the modern architect with his orientation toward functionalism and honest use of materials is uniquely qualified to produce a Catholic work. In our position it would, we think, be deplorable to build anything less, particularly since our age and our country have thus far produced so little truly significant religious architecture. 

“To everyone’s surprise all the architects . . . answered with considerable interest. Five of the architects were then invited to Collegeville to confer and to see the problems at firsthand. These five were Gropius, Neutra, Byrne, Murphy and Breuer. Their visits during that spring of 1953 and the resulting discussion were a liberal and educating experience in architectural concepts for the community . . . open meetings were held in which the relative merits of the different architects were discussed, and on the following day the building committee and senior council were asked by the abbot to list the five architects in their order of choice. A large majority selected Marcel Breuer because, as Abbot Baldwin stated: ‘He struck us as being not only an outstanding architect, but a simple, straightforward, sincere and rather humble person.’ “[4]

The Work Begins . . .

Abbot Baldwin reported that on January 28, 1954, after eight months of preparation, Breuer brought the drawings, models and books for the comprehensive 100-year plan before a meeting of the monastic community.  Shortly thereafter, it was announced that an addition to the monastic quarters would begin in the spring of 1954 and a church would follow.

“There was an immediate reaction from all sides.  While there was considerable unfavorable private reaction to some features of the contemporary and functional designs, the public and professional response both in the United States and abroad was enthusiastic in support.  Maurice Lavanoux, editor of Liturgical Arts, called Breuer’s comprehensive plan ‘truly a milestone in the evolution of the architecture of the Catholic Church in this country.’ “[5]

The plan was featured in many magazines in the U.S. and abroad and the models were displayed in several U.S. cities.  After the completion of the monastic wing in 1957 – the close of the Saint John’s Benedictine’s first century in Minnesota – the Abbey and University Church was immediately begun.  Construction lasted from May 19, 1958 to August 24, 1961. 

“The revolutionary design and artistic character of this church, planned and constructed before the liturgical decrees of Vatican Council II, were unquestionably pathfinding in American Catholicism . . . Dr. Horton Davies, professor of liturgics in the School of Divinity, Princeton University, declared: ‘This is the best church building in the United States.'”[6]

After the completion of the Abbey and University Church came the construction of St. Thomas Hall (1959); Alcuin Library (1964); Peter Engel Science Center (1965); three additional student dormitories – Saints Bernard, Patrick and Boniface Halls (1967); the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research (1968); and the Bush Center for the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library (1975).  The original Breuer designs set the style for a creative complex for Saint John’s Preparatory School (1962) and the Warner Palaestra Recreation Center (1974), designed and modified by architect Val Michelson, former associate of Breuer.

In the years which followed the Saint John’s project, Breuer and his firm were responsible for a number of architectural masterpieces including the United States Embassy, The Hague, 1958; Hunter College Library, New York (with R.F.Gatje), 1959; IBM Research Center, La Gaude, Var, France (with R.F.Gatje), 1961; U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Washington, D.C. (with H. Beckhard), 1963/68; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (with H. Smith), 1966; Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, Washington, D.C., (with H. Beckhard), 1966; Third Power Plant and Visitor’s Center, Grand Coulee Dam, Washington State (with H. Smith), 1968/77; and the Hubert Humphrey Building, Washington, D. C. (with H. Beckhard), 1977. 

Marcel Breuer died in New York City on July 1, 1981.

Saint John’s Celebrates Marcel Breuer 

To honor and celebrate the centennial of the birth of this extraordinary architect, Saint John’s will sponsor a series of events beginning this fall.  Five major events have been planned for the nine-month celebration: (1) 40th Anniversary of the Abbey Church Dedication, October 24, 2001; (2) Public lecture by Robert F. Gatje, November 14, 2001; (3) Public lecture by John Wesley Cook, April 24, 2002; (4) Opening of an Exhibit about Breuer at the Saint John’s Art Center, May 22, 2002; and (5) Breuer Architectural Symposium, June 20-23, 2002.  All lectures and the exhibits will be free and open to the public.

40th Anniversary of the Abbey Church and University Dedication

The celebration of the Breuer Centenary will commence on October 24, 2001, which is the 40th anniversary of the dedication of the Abbey and University Church.  This event celebrates the planning and construction of the Abbey and University Church and we expect people from around the region to travel to Collegeville to celebrate with us.  The public program will include tours of the Church, a late afternoon liturgy and an evening social, dinner and program. 

The evening program will consist of a panel of architects, contractors and members of the monastic community who were involved in the design and construction of the Saint John’s Abbey and University Church, including Hamilton Smith, Assistant Architect on the Church; Valerius Michelson, Clerk of the Works and Church Project Representative; Larry McGough, President and Chairman of McGough Companies, Contractor; Abbot John Eidenschink, OSB, Co-Chair of Church Building Committee; and Robert F. Gatje, Breuer Partner.

“Remembering Marcel Breuer” presented by Robert F. Gatje

Architect Robert F. Gatje will present the first Breuer lecture on November 14, 2001.  Gatje, a native of New York, studied architecture at Cornell University.  After traveling on a Fulbright Scholarship, he began a 23-year working relationship with Marcel Breuer, 11 of which were as his partner.  From 1987 to 1995, Gatje worked with Richard Meier, becoming his partner in 1990.  His book, Marcel Breuer A Memoir, was published in 2000.

“Art, Architecture and Sacred Space” presented by John W. Cook 

John Wesley Cook, President of The Henry Luce Foundation, will give the second Breuer lecture on April 24, 2002.  Cook received his undergraduate degree from Baylor University, and MDiv, MPhil and PhD from Yale University.  Prior to becoming president of the foundation, Cook was the director of the Religion and Arts Program at Yale University.  

Opening of the Breuer Exhibit

Saint John’s will open a major exhibit of Breuer’s work at the Saint John’s Art Gallery on May 22, 2002, the day that marks the centenary of the birth of Marcel Breuer.  The three-month-long exhibit, which includes photographs, models, drawings and furniture, will be open to the public, and will be open extra hours during the Breuer Symposium in June.  We are at present contacting other universities and art institutes about the possibility of exhibiting components from this show in their galleries.   

Breuer Architectural Symposium

The culmination of the nine-month celebration will be a three-day symposium, from June 20th to June 23rd 2002, planned in cooperation with the Minnesota chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The opening event of the symposium will occasion the presentation of the Colman J. Barry Award posthumously to Marcel Breuer by Saint John’s Abbey and University.  The annual award, given in honor of Fr. Colman Barry, OSB, the eighth president of Saint John’s University and the founder of Minnesota Public Radio, recognizes individuals who have made significant contributions to religion and society.  Guests for the award ceremony will include Breuer family members, former architectural partners, community leaders, symposium attendees and friends of the Abbey and University. 

The symposium will feature lectures by architects, historians, scholars and authors.  Examples of topics include: Design Engineering and Construction of the Abbey Church; The Use of Granite at SJU; Working in the Shadow of Breuer; New Modernism; Bauhaus; Technology: Concrete and Stone; Minnesota’s Modern Architectural Masterpieces; Breuer’s Domestic Designs and Furniture; The Life of Marcel Breuer; The Work of Marcel Breuer; Breuer’s Religious Architecture; Art and Architecture; Lighting and Glass (including Stained Glass); Living and Working with Architectural Designs; and Architecture and the Environment.  We have already confirmed several speakers and over the next weeks we will continue to hone the list and invite additional presenters.  

A number of the symposium presentations will be open to the public, and guided tours of the Breuer buildings will be offered.  We anticipate that about 300-400 people will register for the symposium and many hundreds of others will come for specific lectures and events.

In addition to the above events, Saint John’s is developing a site on the World Wide Web dedicated to Marcel Breuer at  The site, which includes a biography, a listing of major works, photographs and information about Breuer’s work at Saint John’s, as well as listings of resources and links, will be completed in the early fall.

In response to the letter about the possibility of a Breuer Centenary celebration at Saint John’s, Marcel Breuer’s widow, Mrs. Constance Breuer, wrote, “I should, of course, be most honored to be connected in any way to the Breuer Centenary…  I am deeply touched and filled with happiness for Lajko…  My husband would be moved and thrilled by your remembrance of him and by your honoring his work.” 

[1] Robert F. Gatje, Marcel Breuer A Memoir (New York: The Monacelli Press, 2000) 13-16. 

[2] Gatje 28.

[3] Colman J. Barry, OSB, Worship and Work (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1993) 336.

[4] Barry 336-337.

[5] Barry 337.

[6] Barry 345-346.