December 10, 2018

A new, welcoming narthex is building community in Palo Alto

Injecting 21st-century modern into a historic mid-century modern church
Palo Alto, California, sits on some prime real estate. The city, the birthplace of Silicon Valley, is tucked in between Facebook in Menlo Park and Apple in Cupertino. Stanford University resides within its borders. In this world, computer whizzes are aplenty, tech start-ups are the norm, and housing prices are sky high. This is the home of the ELCA's Grace Lutheran Church.

Grace is a congregation of growing young families and young adults. These members have a strong sense of identity as Lutherans, and they're looking for an authentic Lutheran liturgical experience.

The congregation started up in 1951, and 1961 saw the completion of the sanctuary, a perfect example of mid-century modern architecture and a historic building for the city of Palo Alto.

Yet, the narthex started as a "small, dark space," the congregation's pastor, the Rev. Matt Smuts, lamented. "It encouraged people to leave. We needed a space that encouraged people to stay."

The congregation, with some 450 members, draws in close to 200 folks for two Sunday worship services. "Many of our members may be driving more than 20 minutes to attend Sunday worship," Pastor Smuts says. "We want them to stay around for a while and chat."

That desire for fellowship precipitated the need for an enhanced welcoming space. The congregation turned to the Mission Investment Fund to help make that new space possible.

MIF's Church Building Consultant Anne Gerrietts was called in early to offer suggestions for the new narthex. "We were in regular contact with Anne," Pastor Smuts says. "She was a huge help to us."

The city of Palo Alto was another constant contributor to the process. Because the mid-century modern church has historic significance in the city, city planners were quite involved in the new building addition.

What resulted was a beautiful, 21st century modern space ample enough for congregants to mingle after worship. A built-in coffee bar brews up hot coffee purposely served in porcelain cups. "That requires folks to stick around," Pastor Smuts laughs. "They can't walk out with coffee to go." His goal is to offer more edibles— doughnuts, bagels, fruit and more—all in an effort to encour-age members to stay. Glass walls open out onto an expansive patio. A library with books for kids and adults is off to the side.

The new narthex is adjacent to an updated parking lot—another site governed by the city of Palo Alto regulations. The city mandated sophisticated drainage solutions in the parking lot, with strategically positioned sections of sod acting as holding bins for rainwater—water that must be filtered before entering the city's storm system. That proved to be a complex and expensive addition to the congregation's project.

The new narthex is accomplishing what the congregation set out to do. "Now, people are lingering," Pastor Smuts says. "We're having meaningful conversations after worship. Folks are building relationships with other members, and we're building community.

"Now I'm going home 30 to 40 minutes later than I used to do, and I consider that an accomplishment!"