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Larry Millett maps the ghosts of Twin Cities past

His latest book, “Once There Were Castles: Lost Mansions and Estates of the Twin Cities,” shows us “a graveyard of sumptuous dreams.”

Larry Millettlarrymillett.comLarry Millett

Somehow, because people weren’t thinking ahead, or thought they had a better idea, or simply didn’t care, the most spectacular buildings ever built in Minneapolis and St. Paul disappeared. Between the 1950s and ’70s we lost most of our grand historic hotels, office buildings and mansions to the wrecking ball and replaced them with parking lots, strip malls, and usually much less architecturally valuable development. 

Twenty years ago, Larry Millett’s “Lost Twin Cities” sounded a wakeup call, urging more sensitive development by showing us what was senselessly lost. The book, which inspired a PBS program by the same name, preserves in memory missing landmarks such as Minneapolis’ fantastically beautiful Metropolitan Building, and shows an ornate city that rivals many of the world’s great old urban centers. Millett, then a St. Paul Pioneer Press architecture critic, became the area’s foremost authority on a Twin Cities that doesn’t exist.

“Yep. I do know where many of the bodies are buried,” he says. “I see the cities in a sort of 3D, and in my case, the 3rd dimension is time. I’m always aware when I’m out and about that what I see now isn’t what I would have seen 50 years ago. I’ve thought it would be great fun to develop a digital map of the lost Twin Cities. Maybe you could put it on a cell phone.”

Grand old homes

If such a map existed, people would see not just the ghosts of huge old commercial buildings, but grand old homes as well. Millett’s latest book, “Once There Were Castles: Lost Mansions and Estates of the Twin Cities,” shows us what he calls “a graveyard of sumptuous dreams.”

Once There Were Castles book coverMore than 500 of the most urbane and beautiful homes ever built in these parts were destroyed. These homes featured lavish detail and a level of craftsmanship that could never be achieved today. Often, the wealthy people who owned these homes opened them for tours, so memories of these private buildings were publicly held, and Millett often hears from readers who remember being in these lost homes, usually as a child.

“Nowadays, the people who build big houses live somewhere like Lake Minnetonka or the suburbs, and they tend to be hidden away,” says Millett. “People are still building big houses, and much bigger houses. We have 60,000 sq. ft. mansions now, with 12 bathrooms. But it’s 60,000 sq. ft. of wallboard. We reached our architectural peak here between 1900-1920, and that’s not an era we’re ever going to duplicate. We’re never going to build houses of that quality again.”

“Castles” is full of stories and photos of homes so grand it’s hard to believe they ever stood here, much less that they were knocked down. Photos such as those of the Schurmeier and Russell Dorr Houses in Crocus Hill show expansive estates set upon rolling hills in beautiful landscapes that are now crowded with thousands more people and buildings.

‘Built in the wrong place’

“Many of the early mansions were built in the wrong place. They were built too close to the downtown core or in the path of development. We added a lot of people, and these estates were in the way, and we didn’t have a plan to develop around them,” Millett says.

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“The French Quarter was saved in the 1930s by historic legislation, but that didn’t happen here, so the loss of these mansions was probably inevitable. But in the 1950s and ’60s, those losses were just a reflection of modern attitudes towards historical architecture. There were some real losses that shouldn’t have happened. If in the 1930s someone had decided that the Gateway District was our French Quarter — a hard sell at the time because it was full of bums — you could have developed an old-town district that would have been very cool today. But the 1950s, urban renewal was very big and people didn’t have much respect for old buildings. They were advocates of modernism.”

And now Millett is, too. “One of my big areas of concern is the loss of mid-century moderns, buildings from the 1950s. We’re losing a lot of them, and losing them for the same reason we lost the Victorians. Just as the modernist doesn’t value Victorians, now we don’t value the moderns,” he says. “New suburban buildings resemble Italian villages, but the best buildings out there are moderns.”

Supports higher density

Millett laments the loss of significant architecture, but he’s loath to join many preservation efforts. In fact, he gets frustrated by neighborhood movements to prevent adding density, an inevitable need for our growing population.

“Cities are not museums, they are living entities and they are organic and they are going to change. If anyone had told James J. Hill that his old office building in St. Paul would one day be fancy residences for wealthy people, he’d say, ‘Oh, you’re crazy. Who’d want to live in this old thing? It’s a warehouse, for god’s sake!’ ” Stuff needs to happen, cities need to grow.”


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