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.


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.


Nye's Polonaise Room architecure

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”.


The old Nye’s bar building survives as a re-branded new Nye’s.


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.


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”.


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.


The original Nye’s supper club interior with glitter booths and chunk glass wall sconces. 



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.



City Lighting for Character and Warmth

Finding the “Right Lighting” may be the best tool we have  to enliven the city nights


Pillsbury A-Mill Artist Lofts at night. Photo courtesy of Schuler Shook

By,  Frank Edgerton Martin

Minnesota’s temperature extremes are hard on sidewalk paving and street trees.

But our streetscapes don’t have to be so hard on us, especially during the occasional cold and rainy days of fall and spring. There are plenty of historic precedents for urban lighting that worth remembering today.

For example, light should originate from many levels, from on high (as in the neon sign atop the First National Bank building in St. Paul) down to pedestrian-level street lamps as well as store windows and building lobby doors. Think of looking into a store window on the street and then looking upward to people walking through the glowing skyways. Light from such varied heights brings a sense of human scale and intimacy to the urban environment.

Juster Bldg. 1929

Juster Bros. on Nicollet Avenue at night, c. 1920. Collection Minnesota Historical Society

If you look at older photos of night cities, you’ll find a rich array of light sources—vertical neon signs, globe street lamps, upper story offices—all of which harmonize with the flow of pedestrians. But it seems that we’ve forgotten such nuances of urban lighting and why it matters in a four-season climate like ours.

The latest update of the Nicollet Mall is one example. The mall now has long stretches of sidewalk that seem devoid of trees, color or even seasonal pots to make the walkways more welcoming. There’s also little in the way of lighting at ground level, such as uplit building facades or illuminated store signs.

Nic Mall Chrishtmas 1969

Christmas on Nicollet Mall. Clarence R. Chaney, 1968. This watercolor is perhaps a holiday card for the Northwestern National Bank—whose glowing red “Weatherball” at the top says warmer weather is ahead. Note the Mall’s original paired street lamps and tree lights.

One of Mall’s nicest features  used to be the strings of winter lights on the trees. They created scintillating pools of light, lending an almost magical feel during the darkest times of the year. However, the new design’s trees came with warrantees that prohibit tree lights at any time of year.

The original mall also boasted beautiful paired street lamps lit with glowing, incandescent bulbs. In the mornings and at dusk, they shone warmly on the steam rising up from the heated sidewalks.

Those street lamps and heated sidewalks used a lot of energy and proved challenging to maintain.

New Lighting Options

Forty years later, today’s more durable and sustainable lighting technologies open up new strategies for city light and atmosphere.


Photo courtesy of BKV Group and Schuler Shook

Take the recently renovated Schmidt Brewery in St. Paul. Now known as the Schmidt Artist Lofts, BKV Group and Pfister Associates used lighting to accentuate the brewery’s crenellated tower and cornice details. They uplit the smokestack so that the inset letters SCHMIDT’s are visible from blocks away. The landmark red neon Schmidt sign atop the brewery is once again a beacon on West 7th Street—as it has been for a century.


Above. Rear buttresses of the Pillsbury A-Mill Artist Lofts. Below. The full visual complexity and lighting Pillsbury A-Mill Artist Lofts at dusk. Photos courtesy of BKV Group and Schuler Shook.

Then there’s the Pillsbury A-Mill. Lighting consultants Schuler Shook joined forces with BKV Group and Pfister to install angled uplighting celebrating texture and depth of the 138 year-old rough limestone walls, a characteristic that’s generally lost at night. In the rear, they dramatically backlit the supporting buttresses to create a sense of layering and shadow.


On the A-Mill’s roof, Schuler Shook introduced bursts of color by lighting the old rooftop water tower. Visible from the Third Avenue Bridge, the water tower’s  LED warm white and blue night colors complement the historic neon Pillsbury sign nearby.

Creating Transparency


Circa 1980 winter night on the original Nicollet Mall showing the glow of paired street lamps, white lit street trees, and the transparency of an overhead skyway.

While building walls make great surfaces for lighting, we sometimes need to see into a building — through windows and lobby doors. Being able to get a glimpse inside a building adds a sense of depth and movement as we walk along street at night.

“We try to design storefronts and buildings where the light from inside can leak out,” said Brady Halverson, a landscape architect with the BKV Group. “Transparent storefronts and pools of light at doorways help to create a sense of arrival.”

Variety and temperature

Good architectural lighting also takes color tones and directionality of light into consideration.

“When you install a lamp at the middle of your living room ceiling, you get a blanket of light without highlights or darker spots,” explained architect Peter Pfister of Pfister Associates. But “if you light the room with table lamps and focused spotlights, you get more varied and inviting spaces layers of light,” he said.

Beyond of light sources, Pfister argues that the “temperature” of light “affects the mood of a street.”

Measured in Kelvin degrees, lighting temperature doesn’t gauge how hot or bright a light source seems, but its place along the color spectrum.


Photo courtesy of BKV Group and Schuler Shook.

For example, the wall lighting at the A-Mill and Schmidt Brewery ranges from 2,600 to 3, 000K degrees, creating warmer yellows.

Yet many parking lot and street lamps are calibrated at the higher temperatures of 4,000 to 5,000 K—casting much colder, stark light that reaches into the blue end of the color spectrum.

Many people assume safety concerns require such light intensity. But lighting designers show us how security and brightness can be achieved with warmer light tones, how strategically poised spotlights can highlight beautiful old walls—and how glowing colors create a rainy nighttime atmosphere meant to be experienced and not just endured.

Frank Edgerton Martin

(An earlier version of this article appeared in the Star Tribune, March 20, 2019)

#wintercities  #architecturallighting


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.



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 https://tinyurl.com/ya7yfzby.)

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 thewilleyhouse.com.)

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 (theelamhouse.com).

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: http://www.startribune.com/frank-lloyd-wright-s-surviving-minnesota-structures-are-a-tribute-to-his-foresight-and-his-legacy/425956833/

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: http://www.startribune.com/small-shops-help-make-the-twin-cities-vibrant-affordable-and-dynamic/416439153/

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, http://www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/hpc/landmarks/hpc_landmarks_2nd_ave_s_1200-08_architects_engineers_building.



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.