Lessons from the late Great Metropolitan Building


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.


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.



From Memory to Memorial—a review

Cover image for From Memory to Memorial: Shanksville, America, and Flight 93 By J. William Thompson


From Memory to Memorial: Shanksville, America, and Flight 93

By, J. William Thompson


This compelling new book is a model for narrative non-fiction writing about landscape architecture,  9/11—and specifically,  how the community of Shanksville, Pennsylvania moved from grief to building a lasting memorial.

As the former editor of Landscape Architecture magazine, J. William Thompson is one of the leading design writers in the country. Moving beyond a standard magazine feature style, he builds on the fact-based storytelling tradition of Truman Capote, John Hershey, and Tony Hiss to give readers the sense that they are part of the story unfolding around them—that they are rooted in a place and community.

Starting with that September morning in 2001 when United Flight 93 crashed deep into the ground on the edge of Shanksville, Thompson traces the years as the town and the families of passengers from all over the world forged a memorial of healing and long-term acceptance.

Ever since the controversies over Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial, we have known that creating memorials that satisfy everyone is almost impossible in an increasingly pluralistic nation. There are no longer universal symbols for honor, patriotism, and heroism. And this diversity and debate played out in Shanksville.

But, Thompson’s remarkable narrative also shows how— even though Americans interpret symbols and memory differently—there are moments when we find a process to overcome old divisions and to move on.

For this reason alone, Thompson’s book deserves to become a lasting part of college reading lists for courses in design, art history, architecture, and journalism—just to name a few.


J. William Thompson,

From Memory to Memorial: Shanksville, America, and Flight 93

Keystone Press/University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016

200 pages
5.5″ × 8.5″
26 b&w illustrations/3 maps


#memorials  #memory  #9/11  #landscapearchitecture