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
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.
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.
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”.
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
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”.
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.
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.