The Puzzles of Preserving Valued Places

This is an article that I wrote about our much-loved Nye’s Polonaise lounge and polka bar in Minneapolis. The fate of this threatened place touches on social equity, gentrification, local character…and really whether historic preservation matters. It appeared in the May-June 2015 issue of Architecture MN   Click on text to link to article.

Keeping Bar: Nye’s Polonaise Room

Keeping Bar: Nye’s Polonaise Room

THE PROPOSED REDEVELOPMENT OF THE NYE’S SITE IN MINNEAPOLIS SPURS COMPLEX PRESERVATION QUESTIONS. AMONG THEM: HOW CAN PRESERVATION GUIDELINES ADDRESS PROPERTIES WHOSE VALUE AND SIGNIFICANCE IS MORE SOCIAL THAN ARCHITECTURAL?

By Frank Edgerton Martin

Last December, 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, ordering our first jumbo martini straight up with a twist, and dancing to the polka band with the blind drummer. As of now, the Nye’s site is slated for a 189-unit apartment tower with average monthly rents over $2,000. This is not the immigrant Nordeast of old.

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

Ironically, because preservation law is so geared to architecture, the best legal tool we have to save the Nye’s block is to protect two of its least important buildings in terms of social memory: the 1905 harness shop and the storefront building that bookend the property. (Nye’s is composed of four connected buildings.) These structures are 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 isn’t listed as contributing, because it wasn’t yet historic in the 1970s.

And then there is the question of scale. In a strongly worded statement in February, the advocacy group Preserve Minneapolis noted that the city had updated SAFHD building guidelines in 2012 to address development pressures in the area. Section 10.58 states that building height in the district should not exceed four stories, with some exemptions possible for projects up to 10 stories. If the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission and the Minneapolis City Council approve this 29-story tower with a parking-garage base, they will render the local preservation guidelines meaningless. And there will be an immediate jump in value (and development pressures) for neighboring low-rise buildings such as those that house Punch and Bibelot.

With the puzzle of Nye’s before us, 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, proposes demolishing the two newer buildings and moving the harness shop westward to sit next to the other older structure—currently home to the polka bar. This idea is even worse than saving the old facades in place because it 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 (demolished in 2011) to the Lutheran Brotherhood Building in downtown Minneapolis (razed in 1997), the latter a pioneering curtain-wall design by Perkins + Will. If studied today for inclusion in an historic district, Nye’s Polonaise Room, with its unique interior and rich social history, would surely be considered “contributing.” In decades past, the case was harder to make.

3. Create 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. Enforce the Guidelines: National Register listing is important for 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. The real issue here is whether Minneapolis will enforce its own laws. If it doesn’t, developers will set the terms of the debate. “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 recently told the downtown Journal. To the contrary, history shows that any sound historic building in a booming area in Minneapolis will eventually find new life.

The Nye’s puzzle calls for a new chapter in historic preservation, one that aims to better preserve affordability and social memory. 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 and San Francisco.

Attracted by the area’s affordability and creative identity, the next generation of Nordeasters is making new economies where older ones have faded. Such resilience happens in cities that offer affordable places in which to live and run small businesses. We need to create long-term economic and architectural preservation plans for our historic districts and enforce the laws intended to protect them. Only then can we give one-of-a-kind polka bars the chance to survive and future generations the opportunity to create valued places of their own.

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