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Now more than ever, it’s great to see the Crystal Court open again

To those starved for urbanism, the voices echoing through the massive atrium sound like music.

Crystal Court
Crystal Court, in downtown Minneapolis, functions as a central crossroads, a rare, instantly legible link between the hierarchically segregated worlds of the public sidewalk and the labyrinthine skyways.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

Last month, the Crystal Court, the central plaza of the IDS Center, Minneapolis’ tallest building, quietly reopened after a long remodel. Like nearly every part of the downtown skyways, de facto and de jure, the atrium is not actually public space. The interior plaza is owned, operated, and policed by its property owners. It closes at 7 every evening, and remains, at root, a very large, very accessible building lobby.

And yet, I view the Crystal Court as the most important public space in downtown Minneapolis. It functions as a central crossroads, a rare, instantly legible link between the hierarchically segregated worlds of the public sidewalk and the labyrinthine skyways. Even today, 50 years (and dozens of brand new skyscrapers) later, the IDS still boasts the best designed connection into the skyway system. Like the rug in “The Big Lebowski,” it really ties downtown together.

And so, with great interest, I went to the corner of 7th and Marquette the other day to see how the remodel had turned out. According to the IDS marketing video, the idea was to refresh one of the nation’s first “social skyscrapers.” The remodel would “embark on the next chapter of the life of this vibrant location, with a refresh that will update the functionality and aesthetics of the space.”

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The Crystal Court remains an amazing space because of the Phillip Johnson architecture, most notably the immense, cubic glass ceiling. Johnson’s initial 1971 plans for the space had called for an elaborate fountain at the center of the plaza, but when it opened, the space was filled instead with a dense array of tables, chairs, and planters.

Crystal Court shown in a photo from 1975.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Crystal Court shown in a photo from 1975.
(Fun fact: In 1972, the IDS had also featured a 400-seat movie theater one floor down. It did not last long, closing soon afterward.)

The refreshed Crystal Court looks a bit boring to eyes until you look back at the “before” picture, most of which dated to a 1998 remodel. In retrospect, the black olive trees (placed in square berms), white benches, and even the central fountain that dramatically dropped water 105’ from the ceiling felt dated. While the fountain itself was eye-catching, the rest of the aesthetic was not consistent with the space or the building,

Today the fountain is gone, probably good news for the maintenance crew, replaced with a low “infinity edge pool,” an asymmetrical black affair that nicely reflects the red signage of the nearby ATM machine. At least the new pool has sittable space around its edge, as do the new modular curvy black benches, which (along with normal chairs) intersperse between the trees.

Most IDS visitors might miss the most important change: The trees themselves are all new, and have been buried in soil underneath the floor, so that it feels as if they are growing right out of the building itself. It’s a subtle difference but adds a seamless feel to the space that, in some ways, is like a small-scale version of the Nicollet Mall renovation. Both work in subtle ways to improve the affect of the architecture.

I could pick nits about other aspects of the design, but in truth, any aesthetic snobbery I might have felt was overwhelmed by the mix of feelings that accompany being in downtown Minneapolis these days. After a summer of vaccination, the COVID-19 pandemic has still eroded daily life downtown to a bare minimum.

There are signs of the pandemic everywhere and, walking through the skyways, you pass countless shuttered storefronts. The much-hyped Dayton’s Project, aiming to remake the mothballed, iconic department store, clings to life keeping creditors at bay. The Caribou Coffee where I used to idle through lunch breaks as a Wells Fargo temp is closed; the sign on the door urges me to “keep my antlers up.” The florist, the corner store, and most of the restaurants are likewise shuttered. The windows on Dan Kelly’s Bar down 7th Street states: “All Food Alcohol and Money have been Removed from this Location. Good luck everyone!”

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Meanwhile, on Nicollet, attempts to revitalize the urban public remain apace, and at least for the few hours a day when the placemakers of the Downtown Improvement District are doing their best. Every Thursday in the early afternoon, the stalls of the weekly farmers market unfurl, while the oversized games appear on Nicollet Avenue outside the IDS doors.

Every Thursday in the early afternoon, the stalls of the weekly farmers market unfurl.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
Every Thursday in the early afternoon, the stalls of the weekly farmers market unfurl.
Accompanied by shifts of street musicians playing colorful pianos, the mall attracts a smattering of people perusing the produce, women in hijabs, office workers, downtown denizens, and even some tourists. A young couple toys with playing beanbag toss underneath the “Light Walk.” Nearby, nearly empty commuter buses roll by while a Minneapolis Police Department SUV crawls imperceptibly down the sidewalk.

Downtown is still missing key pieces of the puzzle of public life, but at the same time, the city persists. There are countless social interactions that are going well, the kind of convivial public life on which cities and downtowns rely.

The peak of the street life centers on the hot dog vendor on the corner, a young woman named Lucy who has sold out of Nibbles dogs for the day. While they’re ubiquitous in larger cities like New York or Chicago, sighting a hot dog cart in Minneapolis is quite rare, like spotting the state flower on a hike — probably why people flock to the spot.

“Today was kind of busy because it’s Thursday,” Lucy told me. “The farmers market is going, and we see a lot more action. During the week, [business] depends on who has things going on. Right here between 8th and 9th gets a little crazy, but it’s pretty good. People are just trying to enjoy the sunshine while we can until we spin out into Minnesota winter.”

Compared to an average day two years ago, Nicollet is empty. But relative to the COVID era, downtown seems not crowded, but a bit normal.

“The pandemic really took us, you know,” Lucy said. “It was hard to be out here. With all the businesses shut down it’s hard to come back from a year’s worth of chaos. Employees are not sure, not ready to go back in to the world yet.”

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People kept approaching Lucy’s stand like lost tourists in search for directions, only to be told the sad news that they were sold out for the day.

Lucy selling hot dogs on the corner: "During the week, [business] depends on who has things going on. Right here between 8th and 9th gets a little crazy, but it’s pretty good."
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
Lucy selling hot dogs on the corner: "During the week, [business] depends on who has things going on. Right here between 8th and 9th gets a little crazy, but it’s pretty good."
Given everything that downtown Minneapolis has been through in the past year and a half, and the bleak abandon of the skyway system, it’s great to see the Crystal Court reopen. To those starved for urbanism, the voices echoing through the massive atrium sound like music. The sight of a family perched on one of the plastic blobs, people in business casual checking their phones and old people having mundane conversations is like rain after a long drought.

All the city needs now is more food carts on the street.

“I’m down here three days a week,” Lucy said, instilling me with a bit of hope. “I like it. I’m happy things are opening. I hope everybody is careful because not all coronavirus is gone. [But] Nibbles hot dogs are great: beef, Polish, old fashioned. Come down and get one.”