Frank Lloyd Wright at 150

Here is my new June 2017 article for the Star Tribune on how Minnesota made a lasting impact on Frank Lloyd Wright—even though he couldn’t stand our architecture.  #Wrightego  #unbridledego   #Southdale

Frank Lloyd Wright’s surviving Minnesota structures are a tribute to his foresight and his legacy


Frank Lloyd Wright designed few buildings in Minnesota, but they proved to be essential to his career and his legacy. 

STAR TRIBUNE FILE Frank Lloyd Wright designed several iconic structures in the state, including the Elam house in Austin.

In November 1956, Frank Lloyd Wright visited Minneapolis to give a talk on his optimistic design philosophy and the “Mile High” skyscraper he planned to build in Chicago.

Local boosters took the internationally celebrated Wright, then 87, on a tour of the city’s newest architectural landmarks.

Things did not go well.

Wright complained about the harsh climate, called the new Prudential building near Cedar Lake a “desecration of a park area,” and said that most of downtown Minneapolis should “be blown up, and only a few tall buildings left standing with room enough to cast a shadow.”

We know this because Minneapolis Star reporter Frank Murray interviewed Wright along the way and covered his speech to the Citizens League.

What may have shocked Minnesotans most was Wright’s outright rejection of Southdale, the first enclosed shopping mall in the country, which had recently opened.

“Who wants to sit in that desolate-looking spot?” Wright is quoted as saying. “You’ve got a garden court that has all the evils of the village street and none of its charm.” (To read the original story, go to

During that visit, Minneapolis Tribune photographer Paul Siegel took an iconic portrait of the master: Wright draped in tweeds, with soaring Space Age birdcages of architect Victor Gruen’s Southdale behind him.

Wright may not have taken to the Twin Cities, but he nevertheless made his mark here — building structures that expressed his vision for the future of American cities.

Wright’s Fall and Rise

Genius has its privileges. And Wright, who would be 150 years old this year, was clearly a genius of design with a healthy ego.

Starting with his apprenticeship with the brilliant architect Louis Sullivan in the late 19th century, Wright invented several original American design styles over the next 60 years, including the geometric beauty of the 1905 Unity Temple in Oak Park, Ill., the sweeping horizontality of the Robie House in Chicago in 1910, and, ultimately, the all-white Guggenheim Museum in New York City, which opened in 1959.

His first decades were promising and by 1920, Wright was known worldwide for his public projects, such as the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. But with the rise of Modernism and the Bauhaus School of design in Europe, he fell from the architectural leading edge.

Beginning with the Depression in 1929, his practice and income slowed to a standstill. Wright relied on the tuition and labor of his students at Taliesin in Spring Green, Wis., to survive. They cut wood, grew crops and lived as a nearly self-contained community.

Then, in June 1932, University of Minnesota professor Malcolm Willey and his wife, Nancy, invited Wright to design a home in Minneapolis’ Prospect Park neighborhood that could be a “creation of art.” Wright responded with a long, narrow, 1,200-square-foot design that he called Gardenwall. It came in over its $8,000 budget, but not by much. (Groups can tour the red brick and cypress home, at 255 SE. Bedford St., by making an advance request at

Though small, the Willey house was a turning point in Wright’s career because it became a prototype for the Usonian House, a vision for the American home that Wright would promote for the rest of his life.

Wright also designed the Elam house in Austin, Minn., a direct descendant of the Willey House. Completed in 1952, it boasts five bedrooms, three soaring fireplaces and massive limestone walls.

Larry Millett, author of “Minnesota Modern: Architecture and Life at Midcentury,” described the 4,000-square-foot Elam house as “by far the largest of Wright’s 10 Minnesota houses” and a “superb example of his work.” The home is one of a handful of Wright’s roughly 400 surviving houses where you can stay overnight, in this case by booking its 820-square-foot guest house (

Gas Station as Social Hub 

The Park Inn Hotel in Mason City, Iowa, is the only Wright hotel that survives today, and you can stay there, too.

Completed in 1910, the project combined stores on the street level with a bank and a 42-room hotel. It became a prototype for Wright’s renowned Midway Gardens in Chicago and Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel.

After a long decline, the hotel closed in the 1970s. Through heroic efforts by the community, it reopened in 2011 with a restaurant, overnight and tours. (Along with the Park Inn, Mason City has a rich architectural heritage worth visiting, with homes as well as entire neighborhoods designed by leading Prairie School architects.

Wright never built any hotels in Minnesota, but the year before he died in 1959, he designed the R.W. Lindholm Service Station in Cloquet. The unique building features a cantilevered copper canopy over the gas pumps and upstairs glassy lounge.

Although this is the only gas station that Wright completed, he intended to build hundreds of them for his Broadacre City idea. Wright disliked the density of cities, so he came up with his own version of suburbia, low-density communities where Americans would live in simple Usonian houses and drive. In this new world, Wright saw service stations as landmarks and social centers — hence the lounge at the Cloquet service station.

The dozen or so Minnesota buildings that Wright designed represent a tiny fraction of his output over 60 years. But some of them were new experiments or marked a turning point in his career. We’re fortunate that 150 years after Wright was born, we have examples of his groundbreaking design that we can still visit through a tour, an overnight stay or just to fill up your car with gas.

Frank Edgerton Martin is a Minneapolis-based writer and landscape historian.

Link to original article:

Streetscapes: The Value of Small Shops

Small shops help make the Twin Cities vibrant, affordable and dynamic

Storefronts, which change with the times, help make our cities vibrant, affordable and dynamic.

Photo: Frank Edgerton Martin.   A row of modular shops on Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis.

Home to the nation’s first indoor shopping mall (Southdale) and the first megamall (Mall of America), the Twin Cities has a history of thinking big when it comes to retail.

Maybe we should be thinking small.

Styles for retail buildings — indoor malls, outdoor malls, “festive retail” (think St. Anthony Main and Galtier Plaza) stand-alone big box stores — come and go. Small storefronts, on the other hand, have thrived for generations.

Modest in size and usually simple in design, these centrally located structures have proved flexible enough to change with the times and the demands of consumers. That’s why they’ve been able to serve as home to many different kinds of businesses over the years.

Consider the storefronts at Lyn-Lake in Minneapolis or along W. 7th Street in St. Paul. Although they were built in the 19th century, they remain actively used today. Even at major intersections, such as 48th Street and Chicago Avenue S. in Minneapolis or Fairview and Cleveland avenues in St. Paul, small stores have been able to change with the times. Instead of hardware stores and insurance offices, these storefronts now host bakeries, fix-it shops, salons, clothing stores and restaurants.

By adding feet on the street, storefront shops help build community. They also nurture small businesses by providing start-up spaces and offer jobs close to home. Most important, they provide a greater economic return to neighborhoods than larger chain stores, according to several studies.

Unlike national chains and big boxes, small stores make more of a personal connection, too.

Alain Lenne is a daily presence at his shop, La Belle Crepe, in the Medical Arts Building in downtown Minneapolis. In fact, with his French accent and trademark hats, it’s hard to miss him.

Lenne creates a remarkable fusion of French and Vietnamese cuisine, ranging from crab Benedict crêpes to pho. What’s really remarkable is that all this happens in a space that is roughly 12 by 22 feet.

Of course, this wasn’t always a crêpe shop. In the 1960s it was home to a Fanny Farmer store. And before that? Well, just check out the transom window over the front door. There’s an etched glass panel that says: “Medical Arts Circulating Library and Card Shop.”

A few miles south is another example of the flexibility of small storefronts.

Located at 704 and 708 W. 22nd St. in Minneapolis, Fox Den Salon and the Caffetto coffee shop are next-door neighbors. The two very different businesses are run out of nearly identical storefront bays. Caffetto’s display windows are covered with posters for upcoming events. The Fox Den’s windows are filled with handmade seasonal displays. Such stores have a personality you won’t find in the controlled environments of skyways and shopping centers.

Striving for balance

Successful small shops face one dilemma: Sometimes they’re too successful.

They can lure more people to an area, and the homes, apartments and condominiums built to house those people chip away at the existing inventory of small buildings with modest rents.

And then the small-scale, personal shops that attracted many newcomers in the first place — the bookstores, co-ops, dry cleaning and shoe repair shops — get priced out of the neighborhood. We already see that happening in Uptown, the North Loop, East Hennepin and Dinkytown.

So how can we balance such new development with affordable rents for the small businesses that neighborhoods — and downtowns — need?

Cities have the power to require affordable housing in new residential and mixed-use projects. Why not do the same to ensure affordable small business in new developments in high-growth areas?

Critics will argue that this would deter new investment. But given the resiliency of small shops, doesn’t supporting them make as much sense as investing millions in public financing for massive downtown projects and sports venues?

American cities have always been in flux, responding to changes in technology, new immigrants and emerging economic opportunities. When parts of a city become nothing more than purveyors of luxury goods and expensive bars and restaurants, our streetscapes lose their rich, diverse character.

It’s time for public leaders and investors to see small shops and the active street life they foster as a basic tool in building a prosperous and creative city — more useful than glamorous boutiques, often more interesting than tall buildings, and more enduring than the latest tastes in public art and landscape architecture soon to reappear on Nicollet Mall.

Frank Edgerton Martin is a Minneapolis-based writer and landscape historian.

For link to original article, go to:

Storied Buildings: The Remarkable Architects & Engineers Building


Designed by Hewitt & Brown in 1920, this Renaissance Revival building has stories to tell of a time when architects and artists worked together.


Located at the western edge of downtown Minneapolis, the Architects and Engineers Building is a refined expression of cooperative thinking among the professions of architecture, engineering, interior design and furniture making. The Renaissance Revival building is constructed of Bedford, Indiana limestone and is rich in detail ranging from gothic-arched Venetian windows to wrought iron lamps and railings.

In 1920, the prominent Minnesota firm of Hewitt & Brown designed this unusual collaborative studio and workspace for architects, engineers, artists and allied professionals—many of whom were involved with the City Beautiful movement. Early tenant members included the prominent architect William C. Whitney, landscape and interior designer John S. Bradstreet, and the influential landscape architecture and planning firm of Morell and Nichols.

Architecture for a Collaborative Design Community


As stated in the City of Minneapolis historic designation, the designers saw the possibility to save money by sharing space and staff. They also saw “the special advantage of proximity and the facility for making the knowledge and experience of each available to others.” Thus, the four-story building is designed with private offices along with common libraries, clerical areas, drafting rooms, and duplicating areas. Originally, there were also meeting and dining rooms for shared used among tenants that also included groups such s the Skylight Club, the Post and Lintel Club, the Architects Small House Bureau of Minnesota, and the Minnesota Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

The building also played an important role in arts education. In accordance with Beaux Arts teaching traditions in Europe, the building was used at night as a studio where students could work under the guidance of mentor architects. The building’s basement was in use by the Attic Club, a group of fine artists organized in 1909 by Theodore Keene, then director of the Minneapolis School of Art.

Given the complex program and varied occupants, architect Edwin Hewitt felt that Italian Renaissance design was well suited to the varied window requirements. “This adaptation of the Florentine of Tuscan type of design…” he wrote, “…was chosen because it permitted unusual spacing of the windows…and…the securing of maximum light in the drafting rooms where it was needed.”

Expressing Professional Traditions


As Hewitt envisioned, the main facades on12th Street and 2nd Avenue are visually complex with a variety of window patterns and details set into random ashlar limestone walls. Over the first, third, and fourth floor windows, voussoirs are set flush with the wall surface creating pointed, two-centered arches.

While designed and programmed with a gradient of shared and private interior spaces, the exterior makes a clear public statement—proclaiming the long traditions underlying Minnesota’s relatively young building professions. To tell this story, names from the canon of architects are represented in accordance with the Euro-Centric focus of architectural historiography of the time. The names of architects and builders including Sir Christopher Wren, Henry Hobson Richardson, Leonardo Da Vinci, Filippo Brunelleschi, and William of Sens (Canterbury Cathedral) are painted in stylized gold lettering within the round arches of the paired third floor windows. Today the building is owned and occupied by Catholic Charities.


Lobby fresco showing designer and builder working together



Original drawings, Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Hewitt, Edwin H. “Cooperative Offices for Architects.” Journal of the American Institute of Architects IX (December 1921): 44 and 47.

Fey, David and Stuart MacDonald, “Architects and Engineers Building,” Hennepin County, Minnesota. National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form, 1983. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, DC.

“City of Minneapolis Individual Landmark Description,” Accessed August 13, 2016,



Jonathan, MN. The New Town

The following is a new article that I published in the StarTribune about an optimistic era in the 1960s when a better world seemed possible…. For a link to online article version with photo galleries, click this text.

The Jonathan development included clustered housing, a village center and an early version of Skype.

The Jonathan Village Center, built in 1970 as a retail hub for life’s daily needs. Photo courtesy of HGA.

A Worthy Experiment:

Although it ultimately failed, Jonathan, a 1970s planned development in Chaska helped transform how we live

By Frank Edgerton Martin Special to the Star Tribune June 18, 2016 

In the 1960s, a brighter future seemed possible — going to the moon, ending race discrimination, renewing the cities and finding new solutions to urban sprawl.

The community of Jonathan in Chaska was designed as an alternative approach to suburban living. It was a bold experiment from an optimistic time.

Envisioned as a “new town,” a planned, stand-alone community by State Sen. Henry T. McKnight, Jonathan is named for Jonathan Carver, the 18th-century explorer from whom Carver County also takes its name. An heir to a fortune made in real estate and milling, McKnight grew fascinated by the new towns of Scandinavia.

In the mid-1960s, many architects and planners began calling for denser and more mixed-use communities. New towns in Columbia, Md., and Reston, Va., were attracting media attention and McKnight sensed the time was right to introduce one in Minnesota. These communities were planned to have housing, parks and green space as well as office and commercial areas.

With a handful of private investors and McKnight’s financial backing, Jonathan got off to a promising start. A nationally renowned landscape architecture firm, Sasaki, teamed with Minnesota landscape architects Bailey & Associates to plan ecological preserves, greenways, entries and landscapes around Jonathan’s signature silos.

A silo at the intersection of Highway 41 and Hundertmark Road in Chaska was built in 1990 and meant to reflect the earlier silos from the Jonathan community of the 1960s and Chaska's agricultural history. The silo is scheduled to be painted with a new design this summer.

Remnants of the rural past, preserved silos. Star Tribune File photo

These remnant silos, painted in 1970s style, provided a stark contrast between Minnesota’s rural history and the bold, community-oriented vision for a high-tech future.


Ralph Rapson designed only one home for the Jonathan community in 1966, the Red Cedar House -- aka the Weyerhaeuser Demonstration House D-1317. The home was featured in Better Homes & Gardens and the plans were made available to anyone for reproduction. It was intended for the self-supporting community to be linked to the Twin Cities via some sort of high speed rail system, much like the Satellite Cities of Stockholm, but the Jonathan Development Corporation folded in 1979 before that stage of the project was realized.

Red Cedar House, a model home that Ralph Rapson, FAIA designed for Weyerhauser. Jonathan was home to many such experiments. Photo courtesy of Rapson Inc. 
Many of Minnesota’s leading architecture firms also took part in Jonathan. Ralph Rapson, Minnesota’s most famous modern architect, designed and built the Red Cedar House, a model wood home. Hammel, Green and Abrahamson designed the 1970 Village Center, a small retail and service hub set into the woods overlooking Lake Grace. The center included the services you might need for daily village life: a small grocery, café/bar, clinic, hair salon, post office, bank and a futuristic looking gas station/convenience store. There was also an industrial office park with the novel concept of a facility for computer time-sharing. With trails connecting the neighborhoods and workplaces, you could almost live in Jonathan without driving (a radical concept at the time).

Wired and connected

Jonathan was also one of the nation’s first “wired” communities. As a prototype for General Electric’s Community Information Systems project, all the homes were linked by coaxial cable that could turn a television into a visual telephone for local broadcasts, along with an early kind of Skyping with neighbors. Each house had a six-digit address that doubled as a network ID number — an address system still in use.

Jon Thorstenson, a retired architect, has lived in Jonathan since the heady days when residents started moving in around 1970. “When I first came, it was like taking part in an experiment,” he recalls. “The community was very close, almost like an extended family.”

But Thorstenson’s connection to Jonathan dates back even earlier to the mid-1960s when he was an architecture student at the University of Minnesota. The Jonathan Development Corp. had just announced the plan for five villages with 10,000 residents each plus a town center on an 8,500-acre site.

McKnight and his chief planner, Benjamin Cunningham, came to the university to share their vision — the small village centers, trails set following topography and ravines, clustered neighborhoods and ample common space.

Thorstenson felt inspired. “A friend of mine had a car, so we drove out there. It was just fields and woods.” Just a few years later, the young architect was one of the first “settlers” — and he never left.

Lessons learned

Jonathan was the first planned community from the wave of Great Society optimism to receive federal loan support. President Richard Nixon signed the Title VII funding authorization in 1970. Yet, Nixon’s support for new towns and pubic housing programs soon diminished and only a few other planned towns were funded. Then, Henry McKnight, only in his early 60s, died of a brain tumor in 1972. The energy crisis, tight credit and ensuing recessions also took a toll.



IMG_2316.jpgThe “Treetop Lofts” now known as Aspen Oaks were innovative modular townhouses that could be expanded as needed. They are now nearly 50 years old and express the experimental hopes of Jonathan. Photo by author.

Only about 4,000 people — of the planned 50,000 — ever lived in the development in about 1,000 housing units. Ultimately, Jonathan’s assets were sold and what there was of the planned town was absorbed by the city of Chaska. The retail hub, long closed, now serves as a public preschool and kindergarten. You can still see the bank’s drive-up window near the front door. The bold and angular convenience store is currently abandoned. Jonathan lost out to more typical suburban growth that has engulfed it. The car-driven landscape won out, at least for now.

It wasn’t just the loss of its champion that spelled the end for Jonathan. Many things went wrong. Still, many inventive design ideas — like the trail system and varied housing — were not only right, but ahead of their time. Experiments like this one teach the value of trying new ideas, even if they don’t quite go as planned.

Minneapolis writer Frank Edgerton Martin writes about urban design.


New article: Suburban Modern

Modernist buildings survive in Twin Cities suburbs

Hidden architectural gems – from corporate campuses to fast-food franchises – can be found in our first-ring suburbs.

TOM WALLACE, STAR TRIBUNE  With its canted windows and classic neon sign, this thoroughly modern Dairy Queen is still open for business in Roseville.

The postwar suburbs of the Twin Cities are home to a remarkable collection of modern architecture.

Some are high-style synagogues, churches and corporate centers — like the landmark General Mills headquarters in Golden Valley designed by celebrated Chicago architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

But most are humble, practical buildings, such as gas stations, dry cleaning shops and fast-food franchises, which often change with the demands of marketing.

Most of our old Dairy Queens, branch banks and pioneering suburban shopping centers (think Knollwood Plaza in St. Louis Park) are gone or altered beyond recognition. They were the victims of the “tween” years in the nostalgia-laden 1980s and 1990s, when modernism seemed stiff and cold and modern buildings were renovated or torn down. But some glimpses of untouched modernism can still be found.

Hidden modern

One of our finest examples of commercial modernism is the former Midwest Federal bank on Hwy. 55 in Golden Valley. Now serving as a lighting store, this delicate round glass building is the lone survivor of several Midwest Federal branches designed by Miller-Dunwiddie in 1963.

After generations of fortresslike banks, these glass structures (which were built in Bloomington, Edina, Robbinsdale, Roseville and St. Louis Park) seemed quite daring. Some Twin Cities residents even expressed concern about the security of a bank made out of glass. But what could be more modern than a bright, circular pavilion that you could see inside — while all the cash could be secured safely underground?

Another building that took the same approach to modernism was Dairy Queen, which featured bold and simple forms, visible structural elements and welcoming transparency.

One of the oldest and most intact Dairy Queens in the country still operates in Roseville. Located at 1720 N. Lexington Av., this playful walk-up structure, which dates from 1947, features tall canted glass windows, a band of neon along the roofline and the classic rooftop Dairy Queen sign with cobalt blue background, neon letters and signature swirl ice cream cone.

Civic modernism

Many modern-era government centers, fire stations and libraries survive. Most unusual is the Crystal City Hall. Designed in 1964 by Zejdlik and Harmala Architects and built by local contractor Peterson-Templin, it is notable for its white facade with light metal window screens. The building looks a bit like a small Guggenheim Museum and merits preservation as a striking and unusual interpretation of modern design with curves.

It’s worth a trip to Crystal to see City Hall as well as its next-door neighbor: the graceful, angled Rockford Road Library designed by Minnesotan Leonard Parker in 1972. A former member of Eero Saarinen’s design office, Parker also designed one of the more exquisite examples of late modernism in the Twin Cities: the Eden Prairie corporate headquarters for Gelco Corp. Opened in the mid-1970s, the Gelco building has glass wings that step down into the hilly landscape in a rare combination of respect for site and boldness of form.

The Minneapolis Neurological Clinic in Golden Valley is another example of a talented Minnesota modernist at work. Designed by Bruce Abrahamson, a founder of HGA, the clinic’s large picture windows, canted stone bases and flowing horizontal copper rooflines are tactile yet subdued. Though it was built in the late 1960s, it seems fresh and original today.

Leaving the city

For better or worse, corporate modernism was a product of urban flight. General Mills’ mid-1950s move from downtown to the fields of Golden Valley reflected trends nationwide. The city of Minneapolis was so concerned about losing companies to the suburbs that it sold land in Wirth Park to keep the Prudential regional headquarters in the city.

Designed by the Minneapolis firm of Magney, Tusler and Setter (now Leo A. Daly), the 24-acre Prudential complex is really a suburban campus on the city’s edge. Like the Rock of Gibraltar (Prudential’s symbol), the tower conveys strength and permanence. It’s an unusually heavy expression of modernism with Minnesota Kasota limestone, granite and punch-out square steel-framed windows.

Also in the mid-1950s, 3M commissioned St. Paul-based Ellerbe Architects to design a new headquarters campus in Maplewood after outgrowing its St. Paul facility. The brightly colored tower with angled window bays has long been a landmark on Interstate 94.

Though they were built for the long term, these corporate centers have been altered. General Mills has been added onto several times. The Prudential campus is currently for sale. Its desirable location on a parklike site makes it a tempting target for a new corporate campus, housing or mixed-use development.

Well-crafted corporate buildings such as Prudential are worth saving and re-using. Rarely do we build with such fine stone anymore. And re-use is a far greener solution than rebuilding on such a massive scale.

But even more modest modern buildings like the Roseville Dairy Queen and the last Midwest Federal can and should find new uses.

From branch libraries to glass banks, modern suburban buildings expressed an optimistic vision for the future. They still can.

Minneapolis writer Frank Edgerton Martin writes about urban design.