Great Baseball and Modernism, What more could you Want?

Here’s an article that I just wrote for the Star Tribune about CHS Field—the new home for the St. Paul Saints. Going to a game will renew your faith in the power of architecture and events to bring magic into city life. Click on text for full article.

Streetscapes: Saints New Ball Park Hits a Modernist Homerun

REVIEW: CHS Field is fun and intimate – and a great work of urban architecture.

The blackened-steel exterior lends a boldly modern look to the St. Paul Saints’ new CHS Field, yet it complements the historic character of its Lowertown setting.
The blackened-steel exterior lends a boldly modern look to the St. Paul Saints’ new CHS Field, yet it complements the historic character of its Lowertown setting. — Jerry Holt , Star Tribune 



In 1993, when the St. Paul Saints came to Midway Stadium, people wondered if a minor league team could survive next door to the major league Twins. But back in the 1990s, the Twins had a Metrodome that was sterile and designed for football. The basic and much smaller Midway Stadium had the sky. And the Saints had a live pig for a mascot and better food. Co-owner Mike Veeck’s credo — “Fun is good” — transformed the business of minor league baseball into raucous entertainment, and the Saints became a hit.

With the just opened CHS Field for the Saints in Lowertown and the Twins’ Target field in its fifth season, Minnesota can now boast two of the finest stadiums in baseball. Each is outdoors, offers superb sight lines and provides views of its respective downtown. And yet, the two ballparks could not be more different in their gameday experiences.Target Field is a soaring, big-city stadium focused on the game. CHS, with a capacity of 7,300, is more like a county fair. Baseball is the official reason that everyone shows up, but you don’t even have to follow the game to have a good time. Many people come just to be entertained.CHS grew out of a collaboration of specialists led by design architects Snow Kreilich, Ryan Companies as architect of record and AECOM as the sports architect. The design team deserves credit for making this unusual marriage of baseball, “city happening” and outdoor party possible.

The first thing you notice when walking in at street level from the Farmers Market is that you’re not in a stadium, but more of a festive town plaza with vendors, the Saints’ store and offices to the right and the flowing balcony of the upper deck on the left overhead. Beneath the deck, a perfectly scaled 17-foot ceiling of uplit cedar planks sweeps back over the infield seats….



Atlas Obscura & the Geography of Interesting Places

There’s a new holiday that everyone should celebrate. “Obscura Day”—an international happening of environmental discovery. This year, it took place worldwide on Saturday May 30. Sponsored by the online website Atlas ObscuraObscura Day is like an “art crawl” evening of neighborhood galleries, except that the sites are all over the world.


Here in Minnesota, we had two Obscura sites open to the public. Actually, Atlas Obscura lists roughly ten sites for our state. Check the Atlas itself for places near you and in 30 countries. You will find a variety of hidden and fascinating attractions for family fun.

Our two Obscura Day sites included the Wabasha Caves in Saint Paul—large natural rooms in the limestone bluffs of the Mississippi River that have been the home to Native Americans, Gangsters from Chicago, and a supper club. I made it to the Minneapolis site—the memorably named “The House of Balls” (HoB).

A Gas Station Home


Many Minneapolitans have heard of the House of Balls and recall its unusual name, perhaps because it is open to so many interpretations. But not so many people have actually been there. My friends and I were particularly lucky to be among the first to visit their new home in a former gas station near Cedar-Riverside in Minneapolis. Designed by Ralph Rapson, FASLA, “Cedar-Riverside” was one of two “New Town in Town” projects sponsored by HUD  in the late 1960s to build mixed-income communities in cities. The other is Roosevelt Island in New York.


With its bright panels and cast concrete structure, Cedar-Riverside is now home to one of the largest populations of Somalis outside Somalia. It’s just across the light rail stop from House of Balls’ far more humble gas station home. They make a nice pairing.

“Period Rooms” without a Period


Founded by artist Allen Christian several years ago, HoB has grown from a small bowling ball and sculpture collection/studio to a work of environmental art. Inside, each of the rooms, the old bathroom, office, waiting lounge, and the garage bays has a distinctive character. Filled with Allen’s art that I will not even try to describe (see photos instead), the new House of Balls is like a museum of period rooms…each stylistically-unified with its own strong aesthetic. Yet the art rooms at House of Balls come from no particular period but rather Mr. Christian’s imagination.

Outdoors at House of Balls

I first met Allen when his House of Balls art truck took part in the ice art car parade that I described herein in February. Well, it’s a lot warmer now and I took a summer photo of the truck to pair with my winter shot.


Allen also has a fine Scamp trailer outside customized with Wonder Bread dots. Inside, there’s a little model of it.


Heavy Metal

By the garage bays, just by the boxelders and light rail stop, there’s a sculpture garden with large galvanized ducts that Allen has carved out with a plasma torch. You can see the Cedar-Riverside towers in the background.


As a special event for Obscura Day, he let visitors try to the torch out on their own. I watched a few people carve their names in letters on small steel slabs. The sparks burned white hot as they flew through the metal. I’ve always been afraid of complicated tools and hot things like welding. But, Allen calmly worked with the visitors as they cut their art.


And finally, after a boy and girl did it, I thought, “what the heck, my deep fears about this plasma torch are just ridiculous.” So I put on heavy goggles and tried it too. I was a little nervous at the start (see Bethesda posting herein about putting gas in my car). But then I got going, cutting out a kind of fleur-de-lys tree that I’ve always drawn.

I remained a bit jumpy and went too fast so the torch cuts didn’t quite go through the metal. Allen told me to slow down, and I did. When the tree was done, I was so proud and showed it to my friends. They were polite and said nice things…looking a little surprised that I had actually used a plasma torch. I was too really…and learned that one of the best things about obscure places and participatory art is how they afford us new insights and daring feats that we thought we’d never try.


The Great Skyway Indoors in Minneapolis

As I learn more about writing online, my blog will include short comments like the following piece on Skyways in downtown Minneapolis. Skyways are a big part of life here if you work downtown. Please add comments of your own!

dayton's sky

The Minneapolis Skyway system is the largest in the world and offers an architectural experience unique in North America. Winter is a great time to explore it. Most people in other cities don’t even know what a “skyway” is. But Minneapolitans do. If you work downtown, you know that there’s a big difference between working “inside” the skyway system and “off” of it. Working “in” the system means that you rarely enter buildings through street level front doors and stay entirely on the second level for lunch or when moving to other buildings. You rarely consider what happens on the streets below. By contrast, disconnected staff in Class “C” and “D” office space outside the system, have no choice but to go outdoors to run an errand or have lunch. In this act, they have an experience that, like dialing a rotary phone, skyway insiders may recall but cannot place in recent memory.

Eight Miles of Indoor Connection

Skyway_system_map-Minneapolis-2005-09-27 color skyway

The Minneapolis skyways currently link over seventy blocks with 8 miles of interior corridors and walkways. The first skyway was built in 1962 between the Cargill and Roanoke Buildings. The following year, a new skyway connected to the Northstar Center, the city’s first mixed-use hotel and office building. The ribbon-cutting included well-dressed representatives from many of downtown’s businesses that the skyway would connect. Fifty years later, this connection over 7th Street remains our oldest skyway.

skyway opening7th-street-skyway-exterior_main

Today, visitors discover a fully self-contained world with hundreds of small stores, cafes, coffee shops, travel agencies, and just about every other function that used to be on the streets. The skyways are the new sidewalks; and sometimes the cafes will nostalgically evoke sidewalk life by putting outdoor bistro chairs and tables in their entries where the grill gets pulled down every night.

Thanks to the ring of parking ramps developed by the City around downtown and the deluxe garages under elite towers such as IDS and Wells Fargo Center, skyway-workers rarely need to go outside all winter long. Only those who take public transit need to walk to the curb.

Skyways Good or Bad?

Many design critics claim that the skyways drain downtown’s streets of activity and stores—and this is true. But how many of these critics have lived here through a winter. What would have happened to downtown during the great rush to the suburbs in the 1960s and 70s had we not had skyways? These are puzzles that we ponder. Regardless of your opinion, the skyways are an experience unique to Minneapolis and worth exploring.

Recently, I helped to lead a tour of architecture and planning students from Winnipeg though the skyways. They were impressed by our skyways’ variety and sheer number. Even colder Winnipeg has skyways too, but only about 15 of them; and they are generally more basic. The Canadian students often stopped to see the view when we crossed over a street; and they took many photos—except in the IDS Center where guards told them they could not because it is “a private space”. That says something about what these new indoor “streets” really are.

Walking Though

The following is a “place sketch,” a verbal picture of my own experience working downtown “inside” the system—which may not be as “public” as we thought. This sketch conveys no single skyway or locale—and is more a story of connection, occasional anxiety, fast walking and adventure….

The highlight of my lunchtime skyway walk (and a good place to begin yours) is the IDS Center Crystal Court, a light-filled atrium designed by Phillip Johnson and deemed by sociologist William Whyte to be the finest indoor urban space in the country. The skyways bring a lot of energy. From all four directions, the system converges here, bringing a constant flow of shoppers and downtown workers. You can see executives passing through and high school truants leaning on the padded skyway level railings from which the entire soaring, light-filled space can be observed.


When walking through the skyways and second level corridors to my bank or the bagel shop, I like to move at a good clip. Being only 20 to 40 feet wide and densely packed with neon signs and storefronts, Minneapolis’s second-level retail world has a penny arcade quality of echoing sound, bright color, and the changing smells of food. There are, of course, many other people walking in my flock, staying to the right, like drivers by unspoken agreement.

Moving quickly through these longitudinal spaces, I imagine myself as one of millions of blood cells racing through a giant body—especially in Baker Center, one of the oldest parts of the system and densely packed with walkers. We move steadily and all at the same pace, lost in thought and staring straight ahead or talking to a companion. Few people seem to look at the stores or window displays. I generally am anxious here.

Having no daylight, most of the second level corridors seem fairly dark, but I am usually woken up when, after passing the last “storefont” brokerage, I am suddenly surrounded by daylight and passing over a street framed by towers and punctuated by other skyways, one for each block. This view is rare in American downtowns—the chance to stand over the street as the traffic flows beneath your feet.

There are other beautiful atria. Besides the Crystal Court, Cesar Pelli’s atrium at Gavidaie may have failed as an urban retail arcade, but its metal railings, skylight, and gold stencil still are very beautiful. The former Pillsbury Center designed by SOM in the late 1970s is also very elegant—clad in travertine marble and centered on an angled atrium with a vista of City Hall. After the tight dark corridors, I generally feel the calmest in these places.

US Bank Plaza- Interior_lres_web

The Great Indoors

In 1979, New Yorker journalist Brendan Gill visited the Minneapolis skyways to write, “Thoughts of a Confirmed Indoorsman in the Great Indoors.” He concluded that Minneapolis was only at the tip of a national trend towards indoor malls, tunnels and other semi-public city spaces. He also noted correctly that, while downtown workers talk a great deal about winter weather, they don’t have to dress for it. Today, the skyways are over twice as extensive. Minneapolitans still talk a lot about winter without dressing for it. On a daily basis, we casually walk through the middle of howling snowstorms and subzero windchills, rarely noticing the strangeness of our cityscape with its sublime sense of danger and safe remove.

Tips for Skyway Tourism

Consider writing a skyway sketch of your own. Where would you give awards for good design? When you visit, you will find that system maps are posted everywhere. There’s now an app (Minneapolis Skyway, available in iTunes) to give you directions and business listings. Warm clothes and rain gear are unnecessary and indeed a hindrance for indoor touring.

The Walker Art Center has a post on the history of the Skyways on their Minnesota by Design site below:

The Landscape of Winter Art Cars


In the summer, Lake Minnetonka is one of the Midwest’s greatest lakes—with 22 bays, lost wooded islands, and 90 miles of shoreline. There are thousands of boats and a lot of wealthy people whose vast mansions and McMansions you can only comprehend if you see them from water in a boat. But you have to have a boat.

In the winter, everything is different and more populist. You can set up a garish “ice house” made of plywood right out there on the lake where you can fish and drink bourbon and do other things. Or, you can just drive from town to town across the lake on the route of the old streetcar company boats. Sometimes they even plow roads. Or, you can make the mistake that I did and try to show some supportive interest in a friend’s hobby. Specifically: Carol’s 1995 Toyota now transformed as an “Art Car”.

I drove out to the lake to watch her art car “club” take off from the Excelsior public dock for a winter parade…sort of like the parades they do in summer for the State Fair and around the parkways. I thought I’d be enthusiastic and wave to them while taking photos from the shore.

Art Cars are a bit of a local feature here in Minnesota. I remember them from when I lived in Saint Paul in the early 1990s…generally old models decked out in special paint or Astroturf or something like that. Students from Macalester College often made them and it turns out that their art professor…who started the whole thing…was part of the small group that cold day with her boxy Volvo sedan!

Normally, there would have been many more cars, but it was a really a bright, cold and windy day. The wiser artists stayed home. There were only about six—one of them being a pickup from the House of Balls, a well-known local studio with a memorable name.

A Journey of Danger

I don’t know how or why, but Carol persuaded me to go along on the winter ice parade, sitting in the cramped back seat of the Celica. This is a car that has had a hole in the floor on the driver’s seat side for at least the last five years. Seemingly dangerous even in summer conditions, I should have known better than to do this in this car.


With all of its plastic figurines (sharks, Barbies, ponies) stuck on, Carol’s art car is terrifying in the way that strange clowns are. The added peril of going through the ice only heightened my tension as we left the shore.

There were six cars in our pack and I rode in the back of the Toy-oh-Tah (those are the plastic letters on the trunk) clutching for comfort a kind of kewpie doll that had blown off the roof. Carol took a photo of me just then because she thought this was funny. I did not think this funny. We sped up.


Unlike a city parkway, you can actually drive an art car really fast on the open ice and, if you slide of spin out, it really doesn’t matter so long as you don’t get too close to another moving car. At least, that’s the theory. I was surprised how fast the Toyota could go.

Synchronized Art Car Ice Driving

We raced north across the lake’s main channel toward the old town of Wayzata. Big Island, where there was long ago a summer amusement park, loomed to our left. The cars wove in and out like synchronized swimmers or master skiers going down a run


After about three miles, in the middle of the main channel, the art car in the lead made a gentle U-turn and we started back. In a moment, they all came to a stop in a neat little line to take a group shot. They had done this before. I got out to take some photos and pointed out to Carol a few visible cracks in the ice. This scared her somewhat and I felt a small sense of satisfaction.


Then we started up again. The bright moving colors of the art cars brought back memories of the boxy ice houses that used to cluster in little cities in many of the bays.

Color for the Winter

As strange as the conditions were, or perhaps because they were so unexpected, I was momentarily taken back to the Lake Minnetonka of my youth when there were fewer big houses on the shore and more ice houses on the lake. After too many months indoors, I sensed for an instant the fleeting nature of human life outside at thirty below in a vast, flat, white and open space. Then I caught a glimpse of the promise of surprises and how they add some color to the long horizon of mid-winter months. This was something bright and strange that I’d long remember.

When we neared the shoreline, I pointed out a DANGER THIN ICE sign to Carol. She was upset again. But I knew that we were close enough to shore that if we broke though, we’d only sink a few feet and could easily wade back to land.