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No, Minneapolis should not preserve the car-centric 21 North Washington building

One difficulty with modernist preservation is that so much of the architecture is deeply anti-urban.

21 Washington was originally built as the headquarters of the Knutson Construction Company, a firm that was known for building parking ramps.
21 Washington was originally built as the headquarters of the Knutson Construction Company, a firm that was known for building parking ramps.
City of Minneapolis

It’s relatively easy to make a case for preserving a prewar building, something replete with columns, turrets, and elaborate cornices. It’s far harder to argue the merits of preserving a gray concrete office building built atop an open parking lot, but that’s the recommendation of Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) after a developer proposed to demolish the 1969 office building at the corner of Washington Avenue and 1st Avenue North. In its place, a pair of Illinois companies want to build a 27-story apartment building, in what is once again becoming a hot corner of the city after decades of neglect.

I’ll admit that when I first heard about the 21 North Washington example, I was slightly furious. I’d barely noticed the building over the years as part of Minneapolis’ drab midcentury background. If anything, it was notable mostly because of the “futuristic” 1970 Stop font of its “21st Century Bank” sign, and because it was next to one of downtown Minneapolis’ longest-running vacant lots. If I ever thought about the building, it was to mentally scorn it for being so slavishly devoted to parking that it had swapped out its first story in favor of asphalt. Surely this is a building that happily merits destruction.

In a spirit of understanding, I reached out to Todd Grover, a Minneapolis architect who sits on the national board of Docomomo, a group dedicated to preservation of modernist architecture around the country. He managed to convince me that there’s nothing inherently wrong with modernism, and that it deserves equal treatment to any other period of architecture.

“There’s something that may not be fully recognized about modernism, not like a cornice or capital detail, but there is as much design that went into the appearance of that building as into a neoclassical or arts and crafts [style] or Italianate one,” said Grover.

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The way Grover sees it, a building like the Knutson Construction building could be reused or adapted in the same way that an old church or 1880s warehouse might be. Grover points to the recent renovation of Ralph Rapson’s Brutalist library in Southeast Minneapolis as a good case study for how preservation can work with newer old buildings.

“I do think there is a similar methodology in understanding the details and significance of these modern buildings and relating that to the adaptive design,” explained Grover. “It just isn’t a clean concrete surface, it just isn’t the lack of detail. There’s a whole different set of design parameters that are important to understand in those designs.”

But in my mind, there remains a key difference between whether a building can be significant in theory, as one architect recently argued in the Star Tribune, and whether this particular building merits preservation. There the issue gets a bit stickier.

Nobody can accuse HPC debates of shying away from details, and once you dive into the specifics of the building, it turns out that 21 Washington was originally built as the headquarters of the Knutson Construction Company, a firm that, in a detail straight out of the “Fargo” TV series, was known for building parking ramps. As the HPC discussion revealed, it was the second downtown building to use pre-cast concrete panels, and perhaps the first to use its first floor as a surface parking lot. (Thankfully, that trend did not catch on.)

It’s a given today in urban design circles that ground floors and active street frontages are the key to lively sidewalks and cities that reward walking.
It’s a given today in urban design circles that ground floors and active street frontages are the key to lively sidewalks and cities that reward walking.
It’s a bit ironic that the Knutson Construction building would be the topic of a preservation debate, because 21 Washington sits right on the edge of the late 1950s Gateway Center district, the infamous urban renewal project that saw city leaders bulldoze 22 of the city’s most historic blocks in the name of progress and parking. Every one of Minneapolis’ historic buildings for nearly half a mile to the east was torn down, while many buildings to the west, in the now-popular Warehouse District and North Loop, were saved. In fact, Knutson Construction was the company responsible for developing the empty Gateway blocks, and, one person testified at the HPC meeting, built rather hurriedly as the firm tried desperately to develop parcels before a federally mandated deadline.

One difficulty with modernist preservation is that so much of the architecture, the Gateway projects included, is deeply anti-urban. With few exceptions, downtown buildings that were built during the Gateway renewal period have vast spaces between buildings, the absence of street-level retail, intrusive parking ramps, and the absconding of public space in favor of private plazas.

Similarly, the case against preserving 21 Washington is less about architectural significance and more about architectural hostility. Like much of postwar architecture, the building’s most remarkable features, open-air parking on the ground floor and the (original) lack of windows, are both terrible design features in the center of a major city.

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Ironically for preservationists, changing these inhumane design features by, for example, adding windows, undermines the original “design intention” of the building in the first place. For example, when the more architecturally significant 1963 Dayton’s building in downtown St. Paul was renovated with large windows in 2018, almost nothing of the original designed remained. A similar early 2000s renovation removed 93 concrete panels from 21 Washington and replaced them with windows, improving the building but damaging its historic integrity in the process.

The more architecturally significant St. Paul Dayton’s building was transformed in downtown St. Paul in 2019.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
The more architecturally significant St. Paul Dayton’s building was transformed in downtown St. Paul in 2017.
The Heritage Preservation commissioners who spoke on the matter at the public hearing last week did wring their hands about whether 21 Washington merited saving. As Commissioner Claire VanderEyk pointed out, the issue is less about whether a building is beautiful, but rather about its more objective historic and architectural merits. While the commissioners eventually denied the demolition permit, they did so on the grounds that the building required more study to sort out all the details of the case, not because 21 Washington was necessarily significant.

Just because modernism can be architecturally important doesn’t mean that many modernist buildings can overcome their deep flaws. The 21 Washington example illustrates the challenge that preservationists face with other modernist buildings. For example, four years ago planners in downtown St. Paul floated the possibility of creating a “midcentury modern” district around a set of 1950 and 1960s buildings, including an early parking ramp. In almost every case, the buildings that would have been included offered blank walls to the street.

The judicious use of preservation efforts to try to save, remake, or reuse buildings that are often inherently flawed is difficult terrain for cities to negotiate. The case of 21 Washington seems open and shut to me. The next step is the City Council’s Zoning and Planning Committee, which can appeal and reverse the HPC ruling. I hope the future conversations can center not on architectural history but rather can foreground good urban design. For buildings that will come up for consideration in the future, like the long list of properties on the Minnesota Dodocomo map, demolition or preservation might be a more difficult decision.