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.

 

 

From the Archives: Optimizing wind and water in Beirut

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Designed by VJAA of Minneapolis, the student center at the American University of Beirut is a brilliant response to climate, topography, and precedents in urban form. 

 

FABRIC ARCHITECTURE  September 1st, 2012

The Charles Hostler Student Center at the American University of Beirut.

In arid climate cities, the way people use architecture and urban space changes with the time of day. Fabrics for shading, screening and evaporative cooling can be part of sustainable strategies to make these microclimates more comfortable. Throughout the Middle East, such commonsense tools have long been part of garden and architectural vernaculars.

Designed by VJAA, the Charles Hostler Student Center at the American University of Beirut is a masterful blend of historic Mediterranean urbanism and modern technologies. In its winning AIA design award submission, VJAA, Minneapolis, Minn., wrote that in Beirut, social activities “migrate” vertically and “condense” at various locations throughout the day. During the hot sunny hours, shop owners and families tend to use lower shaded spaces. At night they migrate to the rooftops.

Inspired by the city and the classic Beirut house that steps down hillside sites to catch sea breezes, VJAA designed the Hostler Student Center as a 3-D system of courtyards, passageways and roof gardens. Shading, breezes and the radiant cooling effects of water are all optimized in this 19,000m2 project.

An earlier campus master plan by Sasaki Associates Inc. had called for a large student building facility fronting a similarly large open space. But the VJAA team sensed that more fine-grained urbanism and local materials might offer lessons for energy conservation and comfort, both indoors and out.

At both the American University of Beirut (AUB) and Tulane University’s new Lavin-Bernick Center for University Life VJAA used metal mesh scrims to create cascading water walls offering both evaporative and radiant cooling benefits. Yet while Tulane’s water walls are set inside a large public gathering space, Beirut’s falling water is outside.Both projects merit comparison for the similarity of their student center building programs and theircontrasting climactic conditions.

 

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Whereas summers in New Orleans, La., are hot and humid, Beirut’s semi-arid summers are typically hot and dry. There are cooler temperatures with some rain in December and January, but, for the most part, outdoor campus spaces are quite habitable for most of the year if their form and orientation can make the most of breezes and allow for user “migration” with the sun.

Founded in 1866 to offer an American style liberal arts education, AUB is located on a dense 30-hectare (73 acres) urban campus sited above the ocean that cascades down to the Corniche, Beirut’s grand oceanfront boulevard. In response to this unique microclimate and Beirut’s urban traditions, VJAA broke up the center’s program of athletic facilities, café and auditorium, creating a cluster of five buildings along courts and passages that could optimize changing breezes and shade.

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Working with climate engineer Matthias Schuler of Transsolar, VJAA organized the buildings around a series of radial “streets” oriented toward the Corniche to catch the sea breezes. The campus’s steep topography promised many creative opportunities for responsive design. During the day, air cooled by the shaded portion of the tree-covered campus drops down toward the sea along the radial streets creating a flushing effect with cool air. At night, winds from the Mediterranean flow upward through the campus. Cisterns are located to capture winter rainwater for later summer use; gray water from building systems is recycled for irrigation.

Making use of the campus location, VJAA draws seawater from the nearby ocean (piped from 30m below the surface) into a central plant that provides chilled water for radiant cooling at the pool, gymnasium, squash courts and café. After desalinization, seawater offers radiant and evaporative cooling for the two cascading water walls similar to those used inside Tulane’s student center.

 

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VJAA designed two large 6m wide by 7.7m high waterwalls to employ metal mesh panels for cooling the outdoor terrace level. Like fountains in Persian gardens and courtyards, Beirut’s two outdoor waterwalls (made of stainless steel mesh scrims) guide smooth broad “sheets” of falling water. Their cool mist radiates outward into seating areas and, when the dew point is high, the walls’ lower temperature can reduce surrounding humidity by condensing water out of the air like an ice-filled glass on a summer day.

In its proposal for the AUB’s new student center, VJAA argued that the best architecture grows out of understanding local climate and its effects on human activity. “The project is as much about human behavior, collegiate life and even politics, as it is about questions of architectural form.”

 

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VJAA’s student center projects in New Orleans and Beirut teach us that fabric solutions in shading and water walls are only one part of a larger design strategy integrating site, seasons and daily weather. VJAA’s deep understanding of arid climates and architecture is almost certainly the reason it was awarded this student center project in an international competition. When time-tested local solutions are combined with new products and technologies for ventilation, cooling, heating and water capture, great gathering places can be built that draw people at different times of day simply because they are so inviting.

Fabric Architecture Contributing editor Frank Edgerton Martin’s report on Tulane University’s water wall appeared in the Jul/Aug 2012 issue.