The touch of a human hand

by Joseph A. Taylor
Tile Heritage Foundation
Photos by Brad Benn

On the Mississippi River’s east bank, set among the high-rise buildings of the University of Minnesota, rests Grace University Lutheran Church—a refined example of the Late English Gothic Revival style. The strategic location at the corner of Harvard and Delaware Streets was chosen in 1914 by two Swedish-American church groups, under the unifying leadership of Rev. C.A. Wendell, specifically to attract and serve university students.

Local architects Chapman & Magney designed the building, dubbed the “ablest and most progressive architects in this part of the country.” Regarding the architects’ proposal for a 50 x 108-foot brick and reinforced concrete church, “the design is a work of art and requires no little artistic taste for immediate appreciation.” The architects designed the building’s ornamental interior with handmade tiles as an aesthetic complement to the exposed brick, choosing Moravian tiles from Doylestown, Pennsylvania, which were designed and produced by Henry Chapman Mercer.

Mercer was born in 1856 to a wealthy eastern family, and followed an unconventional path in life as a tilemaker. According to historian Vance Koehler,“Mercer did the unexpected and pursued a career dedicated to history.” In reaction to the mechanical means of making tiles from clay dust that was popular at the time, Mercer used wet, plastic clay, pressing it by hand into plaster molds not unlike medieval craftsman had done in Europe centuries before. Favored by many in the architectural community, Moravian tiles quickly became equated with the Arts and Crafts movement, with Mercer as one of the movement’s principal proponents.

For Grace University Lutheran Church, the architects chose Moravian tiles that were reproductions of medieval designs from ecclesiastical sources—among them, the great cathedrals of Europe. In addition to the designs, the skilled workmanship involved in production is apparent, and each tile exhibits uniqueness. As Mercer himself stated, “Art needs the touch of a human hand, its failings as well as its skill.” It is the humanity with which each of these handmade tiles is imbued that elicits a silent reverence in this sanctuary, the primary purpose in a house of worship.

Grace University Lutheran Church.  Est. 1916.

Close up of pavement tiles at the altar of Grace University Lutheran Church made by the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, 1916.

Handmade Tile Association
34 Thirteenth Avenue NE
Minneapolis, MN 55413

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