Nye’s Four Years Later: The puzzles of preserving valued places

Here’s a 2015 article I wrote on losing our much-loved Nye’s Polonaise lounge and polka bar in Minneapolis. It’s updated with new photos that show what happened four years later. This article originally appeared in the May-June 2015 issue of Architecture MN

Keeping Bar: Nye’s Polonaise Room

Four Years After Demolition: Revisiting Nye’s Polonaise Room

How can we save valued places whose value is more social than architectural?

By Frank Edgerton Martin

In December 2014, many Minneapolitans were shocked by news that Nye’s Polonaise Room—Northeast’s venerable piano lounge, Polish supper club, and polka bar—would be closing in 2015.

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Many of us have indelible memories of singing Christmas carols with Lou at the piano bar, ordering our first jumbo martini straight up with a twist, and dancing to the polka band with the blind drummer. And suddenly, the Nye’s site was slated for a 189-unit apartment tower with average monthly rents over $2,000. This is not the immigrant Northeast Minneapolis of old.

Why does historic preservation often save districts like Minneapolis’ North Loop but seem powerless to protect the individual places we most remember?

Preservation focused on buildings more than memory

Early American preservation efforts focused on grand landmarks, often homes and workplaces of the rich, designed by well-known architects.

There was little concern for vernacular architecture, factories, or farms. Nomination to the National Register of Historic Places and local designation were, and still are, largely tied to association with a period of architecture or a significant person. It still shapes a lot of policy today.

 

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Nye’s Polonaise Room, Minneapolis, circa 2015 with auction announcement signs.  Photo by David Bowman |  Bowmanstudio.com

 

Ironically, because preservation law is so geared to architecture, the best legal tool we had to save the Nye’s block was to protect two of its least important buildings in terms of social memory: the 1905 harness shop (at left) and the storefront bar building that  shown above on the right.

Nye’s was originally constructed in four buildings. These structures were listed as contributing to the St. Anthony Falls Historic District (SAFHD)—the city’s first such designation, listed in 1971. The wonderful Nye’s interior wasn’t listed as contributing, because it was too young to be considered officially “historic”.

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The old Nye’s bar building survives as a re-branded new Nye’s.

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Above and below. The Nye’s new interior is filled with “Meta”  self-conscious references to the original Nye’s Polonaise along with exposed brick walls. Something the original Nye’s would have never had. Nye’s never had to seem “cool”. It was loved for being itself.

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Five Strategies to think anew

With the puzzle of Nye’s and so many other local public places, the following are preservation strategies to consider for future planning.

1. Preserve History the Way It Was

Developers sometimes attempt to bend preservation guidelines by proposing to save only the facades of historic structures, as a kind of compromise solution. To make room for the tower on the Nye’s site, the developer, Schafer Richardson, working with Nye’s owners Rob and Tony Jacob, proposed demolishing the two newer buildings and moving the harness shop westward to sit next to the other older structure—the old home of the polka bar.

This approach creates a false history—an odd rearrangement of the past guided primarily by the need to win project approval.

2. Consider Interiors and Design from the Recent Past

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A byproduct of historic preservation being too narrowly focused on exteriors is that distinctive interiors are often overlooked. So are valued places under 50 years old—buildings ranging in scale and character from Porky’s drive-in restaurant in St. Paul to early examples of modern curtainwall glass buildings.

If studied today for inclusion in an historic district, Nye’s Polonaise Room, with its unique interior and rich social history, might be considered “contributing.” But soaring property values in the area are a real threat.

3. Support Affordable Homes for Valued Businesses

Even neighborhoods as lushly historic as Georgetown in Washington, DC, are dulled by uniformly high-end retail—an almost certain outcome for the redeveloped Nye’s block despite renderings that show the old “Chopin Dining” and “Nye’s Bar” signs remaining.

Character-filled legacy businesses like Nye’s and Kramarczuk’s add to the economic value of nearby properties, but rising property values make them an endangered species. There are tax credits for rehabilitating National Register buildings and others certified as contributing to an historic district. Should we also create tax incentives to retain these businesses and encourage new ones?

4. Manage Scale

National Register listing is important for developers’ preservation tax credits, but the legal power to preserve the character and affordability of local historic districts resides with local governments.

Developers and owners have the right to close valued businesses like Nye’s in buildings that they own. But cities have the right to landmark old buildings and limit building height through spot zoning in historic districts. Massive new projects can overwhelm the legacy buildings around them—even if they are “restored”.

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Above. The original proposed development placed the two historic buildings together as a kind of ornament on a tall tower and base. Fortunately, after much neighborhood opposition the owner and ESG architects developed a much better, smaller mid-rise solution shown.  Image ESG Architects

The real issue here is whether Minneapolis will enforce its own laws. If it doesn’t, developers will set the terms of the debate.

The current thinking assumes that large buildings are needed to preserve some of the old ones. “You need [to build] a tall building to have the scope to move and preserve the small buildings,” a leader of the Nicollet Island–East Bank Neighborhood Association told the Downtown Journal during the Nye’s debate around 2015.

Wrong. Recent urban history shows that any sound historic building in a booming area in Minneapolis or most cities will eventually find new life. And unique places like the old Nye’s add character and value to new residential developments.

5. Preserve Smaller Businesses and Affordable Retail Rents

The Nye’s puzzle calls for a new chapter in historic preservation, one that aims to better preserve affordability for small businesses and social memory for their customers and neighborhoods. Sometimes that means saying no to the next big tower—and working to ensure that the city does not become completely gentrified, as is happening in Manhattan, Seattle, and San Francisco.

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The original Nye’s supper club interior with glitter booths and chunk glass wall sconces. 

 

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Northeast Minneapolis is now thriving as an arts district. Many old businesses, like this bar, survive—creating a sense of layered history that themed projects can never have. Photo by the author. 

We need to create long-term economic and architectural preservation policies for historic districts that encourage legacy and small businesses to live on within future developments. Great cities find a way of weaving old and new.

Only then can we give one-of-a-kind polka bars the chance to survive—and future generations the opportunity to create new valued places of their own.

 

 

City Lighting for Character and Warmth

Finding the “Right Lighting” may be the best tool we have  to enliven the city nights

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Pillsbury A-Mill Artist Lofts at night. Photo courtesy of Schuler Shook

By,  Frank Edgerton Martin

Minnesota’s temperature extremes are hard on sidewalk paving and street trees.

But our streetscapes don’t have to be so hard on us, especially during the occasional cold and rainy days of fall and spring. There are plenty of historic precedents for urban lighting that worth remembering today.

For example, light should originate from many levels, from on high (as in the neon sign atop the First National Bank building in St. Paul) down to pedestrian-level street lamps as well as store windows and building lobby doors. Think of looking into a store window on the street and then looking upward to people walking through the glowing skyways. Light from such varied heights brings a sense of human scale and intimacy to the urban environment.

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Juster Bros. on Nicollet Avenue at night, c. 1920. Collection Minnesota Historical Society

If you look at older photos of night cities, you’ll find a rich array of light sources—vertical neon signs, globe street lamps, upper story offices—all of which harmonize with the flow of pedestrians. But it seems that we’ve forgotten such nuances of urban lighting and why it matters in a four-season climate like ours.

The latest update of the Nicollet Mall is one example. The mall now has long stretches of sidewalk that seem devoid of trees, color or even seasonal pots to make the walkways more welcoming. There’s also little in the way of lighting at ground level, such as uplit building facades or illuminated store signs.

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Christmas on Nicollet Mall. Clarence R. Chaney, 1968. This watercolor is perhaps a holiday card for the Northwestern National Bank—whose glowing red “Weatherball” at the top says warmer weather is ahead. Note the Mall’s original paired street lamps and tree lights.

One of Mall’s nicest features  used to be the strings of winter lights on the trees. They created scintillating pools of light, lending an almost magical feel during the darkest times of the year. However, the new design’s trees came with warrantees that prohibit tree lights at any time of year.

The original mall also boasted beautiful paired street lamps lit with glowing, incandescent bulbs. In the mornings and at dusk, they shone warmly on the steam rising up from the heated sidewalks.

Those street lamps and heated sidewalks used a lot of energy and proved challenging to maintain.

New Lighting Options

Forty years later, today’s more durable and sustainable lighting technologies open up new strategies for city light and atmosphere.

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Photo courtesy of BKV Group and Schuler Shook

Take the recently renovated Schmidt Brewery in St. Paul. Now known as the Schmidt Artist Lofts, BKV Group and Pfister Associates used lighting to accentuate the brewery’s crenellated tower and cornice details. They uplit the smokestack so that the inset letters SCHMIDT’s are visible from blocks away. The landmark red neon Schmidt sign atop the brewery is once again a beacon on West 7th Street—as it has been for a century.

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Above. Rear buttresses of the Pillsbury A-Mill Artist Lofts. Below. The full visual complexity and lighting Pillsbury A-Mill Artist Lofts at dusk. Photos courtesy of BKV Group and Schuler Shook.

Then there’s the Pillsbury A-Mill. Lighting consultants Schuler Shook joined forces with BKV Group and Pfister to install angled uplighting celebrating texture and depth of the 138 year-old rough limestone walls, a characteristic that’s generally lost at night. In the rear, they dramatically backlit the supporting buttresses to create a sense of layering and shadow.

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On the A-Mill’s roof, Schuler Shook introduced bursts of color by lighting the old rooftop water tower. Visible from the Third Avenue Bridge, the water tower’s  LED warm white and blue night colors complement the historic neon Pillsbury sign nearby.

Creating Transparency

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Circa 1980 winter night on the original Nicollet Mall showing the glow of paired street lamps, white lit street trees, and the transparency of an overhead skyway.

While building walls make great surfaces for lighting, we sometimes need to see into a building — through windows and lobby doors. Being able to get a glimpse inside a building adds a sense of depth and movement as we walk along street at night.

“We try to design storefronts and buildings where the light from inside can leak out,” said Brady Halverson, a landscape architect with the BKV Group. “Transparent storefronts and pools of light at doorways help to create a sense of arrival.”

Variety and temperature

Good architectural lighting also takes color tones and directionality of light into consideration.

“When you install a lamp at the middle of your living room ceiling, you get a blanket of light without highlights or darker spots,” explained architect Peter Pfister of Pfister Associates. But “if you light the room with table lamps and focused spotlights, you get more varied and inviting spaces layers of light,” he said.

Beyond of light sources, Pfister argues that the “temperature” of light “affects the mood of a street.”

Measured in Kelvin degrees, lighting temperature doesn’t gauge how hot or bright a light source seems, but its place along the color spectrum.

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Photo courtesy of BKV Group and Schuler Shook.

For example, the wall lighting at the A-Mill and Schmidt Brewery ranges from 2,600 to 3, 000K degrees, creating warmer yellows.

Yet many parking lot and street lamps are calibrated at the higher temperatures of 4,000 to 5,000 K—casting much colder, stark light that reaches into the blue end of the color spectrum.

Many people assume safety concerns require such light intensity. But lighting designers show us how security and brightness can be achieved with warmer light tones, how strategically poised spotlights can highlight beautiful old walls—and how glowing colors create a rainy nighttime atmosphere meant to be experienced and not just endured.

Frank Edgerton Martin

(An earlier version of this article appeared in the Star Tribune, March 20, 2019)

#wintercities  #architecturallighting

 

Lessons from the late Great Metropolitan Building

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Historical Drama

A new volume from Larry Millett charts the history of an architectural landmark whose demolition sparked the preservation movement in Minnesota

Metropolitan Dreams:
The Scandalous Rise and Stunning Fall of a Minneapolis Masterpiece

By Larry Millett. University of Minnesota Press, 2018

Review by Frank Edgerton Martin.  Architecture Minnesota, March/April 2019

 

The year 1956 was a fateful one for downtown Minneapolis: The Minneapolis Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) approved a plan to renew the Gateway District—the city’s entire 19th-century business and commercial core north of Fourth Street—and the Minnesota Highway Department announced plans to build massive freeways into the city and in a canyon ring around downtown. The HRA confirmed that most of the block that was home to the landmark Metropolitan Building would be included in the renewal district and be demolished.

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Larry Millett’s excellent Metropolitan Dreams: The Scandalous Rise and Stunning Fall of a Minneapolis Masterpiece begins by immersing readers in the booming Minneapolis of the 1880s. A principal character in the story of the Metropolitan was Louis Menage, a real-estate broker who built a beguiling empire of paper investments and mortgage fraud. On his way to becoming the Bernie Madoff of the 1880s, Menage founded the Northwestern Guaranty Loan Company and hired architect E. Townsend Mix to design a grand headquarters for it.

Millett describes how the Northwestern Guaranty Loan Building (the original name of the Met) appeared both old and new when it opened in 1890. Its heavy, Richardsonian Romanesque stone exterior and corner turrets expressed the architectural past, while inside its 12-story light court, seven elevators, and soaring steel structure celebrated modern technology.

But glories can be fleeting, and in 1893 Menage’s crimes caught up with him. His fall began with charges of sweeping fraud and ended with financial collapse and his temporary escape to Guatemala—all of it national news. Thousands had been swindled.

Seventy years later, the destruction of Menage’s landmark was also marked by dishonesty. From 1957 to 1962, the HRA distorted building-condition assessments, exaggerated concerns that potential Gateway District investors had about the old building, and ultimately forced out the owner—who tried to save it—before the HRA purchase was complete.

Though out of style in the 1950s, the Met was one of the finest surviving light-court skyscrapers in the country, and noted architects including Ralph Rapson and Philip Johnson came to its defense. For the HRA, the problem all along was how the building looked in a city that was insecure about its image. In the HRA’s view, it was easier to build a new image with modern architecture. Metropolitan Dreams is a relatively short yet rich civic history that brings this cast of fallible human characters to life with relevance for today.

 

 

New England on the Praire

My new article for the Star Tribune—introduces a book that I’m writing on the settlement of the Great Plains and the overlay of Euro-American landscape aesthetics on land  quite recently inhabited by Native Americans

Beauty spots were likely born out of a desire to mimic East Coast village greens and wooded glens here on the prairie. Postcards of the parks, though often retouched with color and perhaps even edited to remove flaws, document an early and earnest civic pride.

Towns like Litchfield, Le Sueur, Owatonna and Mankato were eager to let the world know about the civilized public parks they had to offer.

Many town parks grew up along rivers and lakes, including Mankato’s Sibley Park, which boasted a racetrack and deer park. Located on the banks of the Minnesota River, it became a popular destination. But it wasn’t the only one in the area.

 

Blessed with blufflands, Mankato had beauty spots with sweeping river views, but also more urbane locales, such as Lincoln Park in downtown, and a Lovers Lane.

In Bemidji, the beauty spot was a lakeshore parkway that linked its downtown Carnegie Library to the state teachers college, which would later become Bemidji State University.

Shelter on the plains

In much of western and central Minnesota, geographic features tend to be subtle. Without dramatic river bluffs, dense woods or lakes, townspeople constructed local landmarks, many of which were reminiscent of their pasts.

In railroad towns on the prairie, such as Litchfield, residents carved out a sense of local character by creating formal town parks. They installed formal, linear walks and planted a canopy of trees, then used the surrounding buildings to create an urbane sense of enclosure.

Across the Upper Midwest, even the smallest towns built parks, with formal iron fountains imported from the East Coast and bandstands for summer concerts. Like Litchfield’s beauty spot, they served as sheltering public spaces that contrasted with the open prairie.

 

Olivia copyAuthor’s collection

In Renville County, the small town of Olivia planted a grove of trees as its early town park. Less costly than an ornamental park with formal fountains, the canopy of trees offered a rare place of enclosure and shade. The linear layout of the trees and central path to a wooden bandstand established a sense of order on the open land.

Higher aspirations, growing towns

A generation later, in the City Beautiful and Beaux Arts eras (1900-30), Midwestern towns began to build even grander, neoclassically inspired parks with pergolas, performance halls and amphitheaters.

Owatonna’s Central Park boasted a Craftsman-style bandstand and linear walks converging on an ornate, two-tier iron fountain.

In Red Wing, Broadway Park was nestled between churches and the neoclassical Sheldon Auditorium (one of the state’s most beautiful theaters). The triangular space was furnished with stone benches, planting beds and a fountain pool sheltered by a curving pergola. Now named John Rich Park, it remains one of the most beautiful small civic spaces in the country.

Borrowing from Europe

Many of the state’s oldest small town parks were, and continue to be, beautiful expressions of public space. But these beauty spots — many of which offered the reassurance of familiar landscapes — forced a European aesthetic on a “frontier” that had been inhabited for millennia.

Far away from larger cities, Minnesota’s small towns staked out a claim to settlement with remarkable works of landscape architecture and design. The towns’ founders were creating public parks for what they hoped would be a growing number of citizens, but they never understood the native cultures that came before them — people with a different sense of beauty and promise in the land.

Frank Edgerton Martin is a consulting writer for architecture and design firms and a historic landscape preservation planner.

 

 

 

Streetscapes: Celebrating Minnesota architecture

Streetscapes: Celebrating Minnesota architecture

 

 

 

Small town parks—Rusticity

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Many 19th century midwestern towns created their own “beauty spots”—interpreting and highlighting the landscape according to the aesthetic ideals that they brought from the east coast and from Europe. This Rustic Bridge in Davenport, Iowa brings the 18th century English ideal of the “picturesque” to the American prairie. 

The circa 1910 postcard is from a book project that I am working on concerning the imposition of Euro-American landscape aesthetics on midwestern landscapes as Native American cultures and their understanding of the land were systematically displaced. 

Also picturesque, Chester Park preserves the northern Minnesota boreal forest in Duluth.

Chester Park Duluth