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

davenport iowa park

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

Humble Buildings Shape the City

Fewer than 5% of American Buildings are designed by architects. Here is a 2018 story I wrote on why these vernacular buildings are so important.

 

In praise of the humble midsize buildings that make the Twin Cities special

Ordinary, midsize buildings don’t often draw praise, but they make
our cities lively, livable and adaptable. 

Urban skylines are defined by soaring skyscrapers and landmark buildings visible from afar, but it’s really the smaller, humbler buildings around them that shape a city.

The IDS Center in Minneapolis and the State Capitol in St. Paul are civic signatures, designed by celebrated architects. But far more important in our daily lives are the commercial buildings — the stores, apartments, warehouses and offices — that originally filled out our downtowns and lined our main corridors like Lake Street and University Avenue.

IMG_1851

University Avenue NE in Minneapolis 

Urban planners call these structures “fabric buildings,” a term largely unknown to the general public. It’s time we learned what they are and just what they offer.

Virtually all of St. Paul’s Lowertown and the North Loop in Minneapolis are filled with two- to six-story buildings. Some are nondescript, but many were designed by architects and exquisitely detailed. Their real beauty is apparent when you see them together on the streets they frame. Although these commercial buildings were originally designed for manufacturing and warehouses, they have proved highly adaptable.

Lake Street in Minneapolis is a multigenerational case study in fabric buildings and their lasting importance.

Starting around 1890, Lake Street’s stores, offices and, eventually, car dealerships grew to create a rich architectural ensemble, which made the stretch from Uptown to the Mississippi River a great place for car “cruising.”

By the 1950s, young people found an evening of magic in Lake Street’s continuity of neon, bright storefronts and sidewalk vitality — all stemming from the perfectly ordinary buildings, theaters and small businesses that thrived there. Taken alone, these buildings were nothing special, but together these fabric buildings became a destination.

(The same could be said for Grand Avenue in St. Paul, which remains a shopping, business and restaurant hub today.)

But in the 1960s, places like Lake Street and University Avenue began to lose buildings to parking lots that fronted gas stations, muffler repair shops and banks — all of which were set back from the street, creating eerily exposed environments for pedestrians. On Lake Street, some blocks had so many parking lots that the street lost its unique draw and urban feel.

In the 1980s, cities encouraged economic revival through drive-up, one-story office and business parks, also with front-door parking. St. Paul transformed the Midway area with big-box stores such as Target, which was set even farther back from the street. This new chapter in commercial architecture ignored the lure, the continuity, the sense of community created by fabric buildings.

Catching up with the past

Fortunately, during the past 20 years, planners in the Twin Cities have grown to appreciate fabric buildings as affordable locations for small businesses, and their collective density draws visitors and enriches the pedestrian experience.

Both Minneapolis and St. Paul now encourage developers to learn to re-use fabric buildings and build new structures up to the sidewalk, just as they were a century ago.

There’s also a wave of new multiunit residential projects in the cities and older suburbs that function like fabric buildings. Because building codes allow less expensive wood construction up to five stories, many new apartments and condos are four to five stories tall, creating areas with buildings that are consistent in height and form.

And because of the need for housing, parking lots are being filled with new buildings that complement the older surviving buildings. The North Loop, Central Avenue NE., the 29th Midtown Greenway and Lake Street are filled with new examples.

American cities are starting to grow in population for the first time in 50 years. Thousands of old fabric buildings can be repurposed for the digital era, offering millennials an alternative to the postwar suburbs where many of them grew up.

But even more important, these buildings offer variety — in architectural period and style and in adaptability.

Great cities will continue to preserve and build architectural landmarks. But we also need to preserve and build a humble kind of architecture. We can never try to save all, or even most, of the fabric buildings in our cities. We are, however, finally learning how much they matter as cities evolve with every generation.

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

Two Suprises: 1. Penny Postcards were an early kind of Photoshop and 2. Los Angeles was once a great streetcar city

dbdaf99380468e246dc36d08ffd3c5dc

Postcard circa 1908. It’s hard to believe that downtown Los Angeles could be so urbane and romantic under a painted-in postcard full moon. This image comes from the time of “The Great White Way” when downtowns were brightly illuminated by the invention of the electric street lamps—shown here as Beaux Arts styled globe fixtures. 

NIMBY-ism at the original shopping mall

Here’s my commentary on a article in the Star Tribune about a suburban icon. This conflict exemplifies how many Americans hide their prejudices with superficial arguments. And they often come out when suburbs grow more dense.

Southdale logo

Original Southdale Logo from when the shopping mall opened in 1956. Alvin Lustig, the graphic designer, often worked with Southdale’s architect Victor Gruen. 

Edina leaders, residents at loggerheads on future development

City weighs its evolving footprint against residents’ resistance to apartment towers near Southdale.

By Miguel Otárola Star Tribune

The proposed seven-story 7250 France Avenue apartment tower has been redesigned several times, and it continues to draw opposition from surrounding ne

The proposed seven-story 7250 France Avenue apartment tower has been redesigned several times, and it continues to draw opposition from surrounding neighborhoods.  DJR Architecture.

Commentary

Miguel Otárol’s recent article tells a classic story of NIMBYism coupled with public ignorance of urban and transit history. It’s a story happening all over the country.

Victor Gruen, the architect of Southdale, the world-famous original shopping mall in Edina, Minnesota, envisioned a suburban future when people could walk and find “culture” with active street life.

Southdale Center exterior, Edina, MN c1956

Southdale in the late 1950s

He originally hoped to design such shopping centers in city neighborhoods with density and transit, but the 1950s/60s market did not support that.

Now it does.

The Southdale district today is a prime inner-ring redevelopment area where empty-nesters, the young, and the elderly can all live together…strengthening the district’s stores, and linking to Bus Rapid Transit or other options. Rather than creating more car traffic, such Transit Oriented Development is the best way to reduce it in the future. But some neighbors foresee doom. And, worse, declining property values.

Hidden Motives

Mixed-use, three-to-five story projects reduce sprawl, driving times, and create more tax revenue. So why the frenzied neighbor outcry?

They proclaim the looming threat of greater traffic. The loss of trees. Children read from written scripts at public meetings—claiming to like trees more than buildings.

But the real issue here is not traffic or any kind of greenery in a commercial area richly paved with asphalt. As this Star Tribune article documents, traffic has dropped “from an average of 14,500 vehicles a day on 70th Street west of France in 1996, to 9,200 in the same area in 2015, according to city numbers.”

Across the country, “traffic” is the argument of choice against any kind of change. It’s made by those with little knowledge of urban history, real estate economics, and planning innovations nationwide. For them, the only life worth living is the one they have.

But what these neighbors really fear is change itself.

They fear the social implications of greater density. They fear that people who don’t look like they do might move in close by. They fear the implications of economic access to their realm.

Urban Economics

In one of the most affluent metropolitan regions in the world, Twin Citians can no longer expect to live in close-in suburbs on large lots without any kind of added density.

When it opened in the late 1950s, Southdale lay right at the city’s southern edge, surrounded by farms and woodlands. Now, the region’s southern boundary is 20 miles to the south. That’s the real reason we have traffic.

Democracies and vibrant economies offer people choices—options in residential design, neighborhoods, and how to move around. Our free discourse concerning future growth breaks down when we use outdated claims to mask our deeper fears and prejudices.

We Like our Neighbors

I know many Minnesotans who actually want more neighbors. They’ve even formed an advocacy group here in Minneapolis appropriately named—Neighbors for More Neighbors.

With any luck, other towns will form their own chapters soon. And let’s hope that Edina, Minnesota—might be one of them.

 

Southdalelight

One of Southdale’s original Sputnik era light fixtures. Some of these vast parking areas can be filled in with new housing, creating the kind of suburban village that Victor Gruen envisioned.

 

[UPDATE: On June 5, the following day, the Edina City Council by vote rejected the housing project.]

Neighbors for More Neighbors:

https://medium.com/neighbors-for-more-neighbors

#n4mn

 

#Southdale

#Victorgruen