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New animated film tells the heartbreaking story of Minneapolis’ lost Gateway

The Metropolitan Building in “Demolition Dreaming”

John Akre’s new film, Demolition Dreaming, is dedicated to his mother, Katherine, who, as he puts it, “took me on a tour of the Metropolitan Building before I was born.” For those unfamiliar with it, the Metropolitan Building is largely recognized as the biggest loss for Minneapolis preservationists, a gorgeous 1890s Richardsonian Romanesque office tower torn down in the early 1960s as part of the city’s massive “Gateway” urban renewal project.

Akre’s new film, set to debut at this weekend’s Square Lake Music and Film Festival, tells a story of the lost Gateway neighborhood, a personal narrative that imagines the old city in a way that deeply humanizes the lost city. Of the many stories and remembrances of the old Gateway, Akre’s rough film stands out for its poignant beauty.

The Gateway brought to life

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
The start of the Gateway renewal project in 1962.

For the first century of Minneapolis’ history, “the Gateway” was shorthand for the area just west of the Hennepin Avenue Bridge, where train stations sat like pillars at the entrance of downtown. The most historic part of (non-northeast) Minneapolis, the Gateway area was a palimpsest of the city’s past with buildings from just about every decade impossibly mashed together.

But the Gateway was also the site of Minneapolis’ largest post-war transformation, a massive urban renewal project that leveled a dozen square blocks of the old urban fabric, and rendered Minneapolis unrecognizable.

“I was born in Minneapolis but moved away when I was really little,” John Akre told me. “I’d heard stories from my mother about Minneapolis. I noticed  there was no historic core of the city, and I was curious about that. As someone who’s loved cities and how they evolved, it led me to doing research about the Gateway district.”

The plot of Akre’s film traces the story of a nameless Minneapolis sign painter who watched the Gateway’s massive stone buildings being constructed as a child, spent most of his life raising a family in the middle of the neighborhood, and ends his days living in a forgotten house on the edge of a northeast strip mall, dreaming of his lost past. The bulk of the film recounts the decade surrounding the Gateway’s demolition, telling tales of imaginary neighborhood characters like Stomps McGee, the Gateway barber, or Heavy Steve, a popular drifter with a regular room at a skid row flophouse. It’s framed as a flashback, narrated by the maybe-magical daughter of the old sign painter, a young girl who had disappeared into the walls of a condemned building to re-emerge as a modern-day librarian.

As Akre explains it, his story is intended to complicate the typical skid row image of the old Gateway.

“I’m not a historian, and my story isn’t based on historic research,” Akre said. “But all the stories of that area are the stories of the down and out men. That’s part of the story, but there were whole communities there too, in the rooming houses and the other people who lived there, people who supported that. There were many small businesses there. So I have a down and out itinerant worker who goes out on the rails and comes back, but I also have a barber and a whole family that runs one of those Gateway hotels.”

The result is a haunting tale of loss, reminiscent of Hiyao Miyazaki’s "Spirited Away" or Sylvain Chomet’s "Triplets of Belleville." 

Behind the scenes of the film’s production

To an eye used to Disney-era animation, at first glance Akre’s film seems choppy. But that’s by design. Akre intends the visualization to look like an early 20th-century animation, made all the more period by the live-music accompaniment and spoken narration.

As he explains on his website, “I made the movie to look as if it came from 1916. It is a silent film with spoken narration and music accompaniment and it breaks with the Disney-influenced tradition of animation defined by motion that is based on some level of reality. The animation here is jerky and simple in its style, as if it were made 100 years ago.”

The genesis of the film dates back to Akre’s early curiosity about the lost historic Minneapolis, and the animation even includes some 8 and 16-millimeter films that he shot of '80s and '90s-era demolition, for example, of the old Sheraton Ritz Hotel. From there, Akre spent years researching the history of Minneapolis’ urban renewal period, often holing up in the Minneapolis’ special collection room at the top of the Central Library. (The room even makes a cameo in the film itself, when the old sign painter wanders there after being released from the hospital.)

And for the last five years, Akre has been working away at the tedious art of stop motion animation, using a mix of clay sculpture and computer animation of his drawings.

“It was several years making it,” Akre told me. “I used a combination of stop motion and computer animation. The main characters have clay faces, which I animate because I like the feel with the individual clay pieces. I photograph and composite everything together in the computer, the characters' bodies and other things made out of drawn ink on paper. And I cut out and photographed the backgrounds as well, from ink and wash handmade elements. Then I put them together in the computer inspired a lot by the photographs.”

One of my favorite scenes is when the father and daughter enter the old Metropolitan building, taking the elevator to the rooftop to look down on the living Gateway district below them. 

A scene from “Demolition Dreaming”

The film will make its official debut this weekend at the Square Lake Music and Film festival, just outside Stillwater, where the silent movie will feature an original musical score, composed and performed by the long-time silent film accompaniment duo, The Dreamland Faces.

According to Karen Majewicz, accordionist for the band, the film “is such a lovely and sad expression on urban renewal [that] really mourns the actual buildings in a way that I haven't seen before.”

Having watched the film, albeit without the live music, I have to agree. Many stories have been told about the Gateway, everything from a detailed autopsy of the architectural losses (some of the stones from the old Metropolitan Building can now be found in the plaza outside Whitter neighborhood’s Icehouse Bar on Nicollet Avenue) to a host of takes on the city’s lost skid row culture. But Akre’s film is the first one that I’ve seen that contemplates the personal relationship that these neighborhoods had for the people living there.

Walking the Gateway today, the old urban fabric seems so completely erased. Yet it comes to life, if for a moment, in Akre’s film. As one of the more poignant lines from the film’s narration states, “It’s a strange feeling to look at pictures of a place that is so completely nowhere, but is also exactly where you are at this moment.”

You can watch a preview of the film on Vimeo. The film’s debut, with the live musical score, is set on the Square Lake calendar for 9pm. I’ll be there, dreaming of the past.

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Comments (7)

Film of the Gateway

A short film exists titled, I believe, "The Metropolitan Building," by local 1960's film maker Eddie Goldbarg, that documents the most noted building of the Gateway District and its lamentable destruction. More recently I met a civil engineer who had examined the building and said it would not have been difficult to preserve the exceptional building.

Many other, less noteworthy buildings, were lost--such as the Vendome Hotel--that might have been saved according to today's outlook and together with the Metropolitan might have made a charming area comparable to St. Paul's lowertown.

At the same time it must be acknowledged that John Pillsbury was rightly proud of the Northwestern National Life building, designed by Minoru Yamasaki, that emerged from the destruction. But the owners of the current building on the Metropolitan site deserve no such honorable mention.

Preservation

At the time the Metropolitan Building was about to be razed, a senior staff official of the city told me that the building's exterior, primarily sandstone, presented major maintenance problems going ahead for whoever owned the building. Is my memory faulty? Was the official lying? Certainly, the appearance of the Metropolitan Building exterior was noticeably different from the pink granite of the City Hall, even before the City Hall exterior was cleaned.

Also, was the Gateway district really that comparable to St. Paul's Lowertown? Isn't the more apt comparison the Warehouse District, in the earlier uses and sizes of the buildings?

It's true that Minneapolis, with its vision of the gleaming city of the future, as a contrast to dowdy St. Paul', suffered from discounting the value of preservation. But I have a hunch that romanticism clouds memories of the economic and strategic considerations that shaped the Gateway urban renewal district. While is has taken decades for the cleared area to become a strong part of downtown, it seems likely that historic preservation of the district at that time still, with the increased stress on preservation, would have made it impossible to replace older structures with new, large office and residential buildings.

History

The Metropolitan was a stone building. The civil engineer with whom I spoke had been with the respected Michaud, Cooley firm. By all accounts, the City was absolutely determined to tear it down.

The Gateway had a bad reputation as an area of down and outers, pawn shops, saloons and the like. Its demise came at a time of urban renewal projects around the country. Pretty much the entire West End of Boston fell, except for the Union Oyster House. One might say that at least Minneapolis handled its project better in the sense that private construction ensued; in Boston, the government had to double down by filling the area with new government offices. As to the comparison with St. Paul's Lowertown, I know nothing of its status or character at that time, but I do know that many of the Gateway's lesser properties would have value nowadays as buildings with a desirable atmosphere.

Preservation II

To say that the Metropolitan was a "stone building" doesn't address the issue of whether its stone was primarily sandstone or granite, which have different durability characteristics .

It's my recollection that the Gateway buildings came in a variety of sizes, with a number of them being smaller storefronts with walkup apartments above. The context of the time included General Mills' departure from downtown to Golden Valley and the creation of Southdale in Ediina. There was concern that the future of a strong downtown was threatened by a potential exodus to the suburbs, and that the remaining substantial buildings in the Gateway were not attractive to new or restless businesses. Today we have an economically strong downtown for a variety of reasons, including the development of former rail yards and efforts to celebrate the Mississippi riverfront, but also because land was available for development. We'll never know what the Gateway area would look like today if it had been preserved, but I wonder how many quaint buildings would have survived fire and dilapidation to be available for trendy makeovers today.

Beware Gateway Nostalgia

A few years back, I asked my father, who moved here from New York in 1960, if he remembered the Metropolitan Building and the controversy that surrounded its demolition. "Sure," he said, "It was butt-ugly." Having seen photographs and even films of the building and its interior, I tend to agree with him. It's massive stone work, dark iron filigree, and scratched Coke-bottle green glass flooring just looked heavy, tired and depressing. Richardson Romanesque clearly is not for me, but it’s hard to think of a more "un-modern" architectural style.

In the 1950s, Minneapolis was filled with 19th century buildings. The Met was one of many that the city tore down throughout the middle of the last century. By the 1960s, tastes were trending towards tower blocks and the International style. If you want an idea of what people thought buildings in the city core should look like, look no further than the old Northwestern Life Insurance building (now the Voya Financial bldg.). It's very important to remember that: Most people thought their 19th century streetscape was dated, run-down, and "butt-ugly."

Now we think differently and have become nostalgic for the lost buildings of the Gateway district. Or perhaps not: I haven't noticed that any of the many buildings blossoming throughout the former district suggest anything of those 19th century architectural styles. It may be romantic to imagine the Gateway of the past recreated, but I think if we were dropped down at the corner of Marquette and Washington as it appeared in 1958, few of us would regard the buildings as anything other than tired and dilapidated. The Gateway renewal project sought to magically will away the problem of its poorest citizens through the demolition of the buildings. That error was probably the real the misfortune of that project.

More History

According to noted local Swedish-American journalist Alfred Soederstroem, writing in 1899 (Minneapolis Minnen), "The Guaranty Loan Building [later Metropolitan Building] , corner of Third Sreet and Second Avenue South, is the biggest and most costly of our city's skyscrapers. We are not in a position to provide the exact cost of this building, but it must have reached upwards of $1,000,000. The building was completed in 1890, is twelve stories high and has a 48 foot high tower, making the whole height from the ground 220 feet. The first three stories are of green granite and the other nine of red sandstone. . . . . Formerly it was typical to go out on the bridge to get exercise, but now one can go up on the roof of the Guaranty Loan Building to grab a little fresh air. Up there, far above the city's noise and dust, it's wonderful to take a little walk on the sandy paths, bordered on each side by a bed of the the loveliest flowers suitable tor a Minnesota climate. Formerly on summer evenings one could sit up there and enjoy the refreshments served while being charmed by listening to the orchestra's changing concert programs. And from the high tower you had the most sublime view."

Soederstrom also describes other prominent buildings of that era, most of them now gone, but one that REMAINS is the Masonic Temple: "The building is eight stories high and built of light Ohio SANDSTONE, nicely sculpted with a great number of masonic emblems and other ornaments." [Emphasis added.]

For further information on the Metropolitan Building and others, consult "Lost Twin Cities" (1002) and "Twin Cities Then and Now" (1996) by architectural historian Larry Millett.

The arguments advanced by the others above remind me of the comment by the person at the front desk of the Wells Fargo Bank in Owatonna. That wonderful post-Romanesque structure designed by the great Louis Sullivan has been lauded by Cesar Pelli as one of the most remarkable examples of anything by anyone anywhere. The receptionist asked, "Where are you folks from?" When we said "Minneapolis," she responded, "They probably would have torn down this building long ago if it were in Minneapolis."

In the historic heart of the

In the historic heart of the city, the alcohol flowed freely, the idlers wiled away their days in the park and on the sidewalks; the prostitutes were brazen; men sought sexual encounters with other men; the buildings were dilapidated and vermin-ridden; the communists and Wobblies called for the overthrow of capitalism and the American political system. Its flophouses sheltered people not welcome elsewhere. In these squalid conditions, a community took shape that included exhausted lumberjacks and harvest hands; alcoholics wanting to drink out their last years in peace; Chinese men seeking respite from West Coast racial violence; Native Americans looking for anonymity in the big city.All the latest movies are available for free on Terrarium tv app. Get it from http://terrariumtvappdownload.com/latest-terrarium-tv-apk-download-android/