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The case for saving the Star Tribune’s historic building

MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
The Star and Tribune Building is intended to register like a perspective drawing, best viewed from the corner of Fifth and Portland.

Will no one step forward to defend the historic Star and Tribune Building? I have yet to see a major media story that seriously questions the wholly unnecessary destruction of this local Art Moderne landmark.

Sadly, the hometown elite cannot be bothered to make the case for the preservation of an iconic structure that is part of our civic heritage. Now, I’m no architecture dean. I’m just a regular guy who used to toss the evening Star onto the doorsteps of blue-collar bungalows lining the streets of his boyhood neighborhood in North Minneapolis. But maybe you could give me a shot at it.

Those who dismiss the Strib building have, I fear, utterly missed the point of its architecture. The notion that its historic character can be preserved by salvaging a few sandstone medallions from its facade is misplaced. It ignores much of what is compelling about this unique structure.

MinnPost’s Marlys Harris never even noticed the medallions, she writes (“Tear down those Star Tribune walls”). That’s not entirely surprising. They are a subtle accompaniment to the building’s dominant motif, its massive horizontal lines. The Star and Tribune Building is intended to register like a perspective drawing best viewed from the corner of Fifth and Portland. There (near the complementary WPA Moderne Minneapolis Armory), those alternating bands of black- and cream-colored brick have their most dramatic effect.

The message

Mass is the message of this building. Atop its five-story section along Portland Avenue, above polished slabs of black granite that tower over pedestrians, the newspaper proudly proclaims its name in colossal letters. That message is none too subtle: Take heed, puny humans, for we are the Fourth Estate.

The aim of the architecture, clearly, is to project power. At the dawn of the postwar era The Minneapolis Star and Minneapolis Tribune, in the very architecture of their massively expanded headquarters and printing plant, stake a claim to authority.

The medallions, though, provide a leveling effect. They are a counterweight to the building’s massive, dominating scale. Emblazoned on the facade, these sculpted discs pay earnest tribute to millers, miners, and other ordinary working people. The architecture seems to acknowledge the contribution of their labors to the emergence of a Minnesota that, following years of Depression and war, suddenly found itself prosperous enough to support a printing plant of such grand scale.

Those medallions are not an incidental architectural flourish. Rather, they are a visible reminder that the authority of our institutions rests upon the existence of a public trust, and that institutions must serve that trust. (And let it be said: The Cowles-era newspapers, civic-minded as they were, actually tried to earn their authority.) Removing the medallions from their original context would obscure their intended message. 

(Is it possible that the medallions, three of which depict farming-related themes, were also intended by the architect to provide a link to  the original 1919 Minnesota Daily Star Building? That simple Commercial style structure, hidden beneath the late-1940s Art Moderne facade, was constructed by the paper’s original backers, the Non-Partisan League. The NPL, I would note, drew much of its support from farmers.) 

The context of the time

Perhaps this building does not weigh on the collective imagination today. In the eyes of our contemporaries, perhaps it does not seem particularly impressive. Do you find it authoritative? Some might find it a bit bombastic, overreaching. That tells us something, I think. We may need to imagine it in the context of its time, a time when the Foshay Tower dominated the skyline and the modest low-rise commercial structures of the Gateway district had yet to be leveled by an earlier land-clearance scheme. The scale of the city was different then. The scale of the media, and their place in our lives, was different.

I do hope that my hometown will not regain the reputation of a place that shows a cavalier disregard for its historic resources. The Minneapolis City Council should not bigfoot the ruling of the Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC), which voted to halt demolition. The study ordered by the HPC, intended to determine whether the building merits landmark designation, should be allowed to go forward.

If developers want to build their hastily conceived park somewhere downtown, there are plenty of surface parking lots, including those on several blocks near the Vikings stadium.

Why must the park go on a block that contains a heritage building?

A certain “too-big-to-fail” bank has been pushing the city to amend its signage ordinance, reportedly as a condition of its participation in the controversial stadium-related megadevelopment. It would be unfortunate, I think, if Wells Fargo were to also demand the destruction of a civic landmark so as to provide a park view for bankers (maintained at considerable city expense, of course).

Megabanks currently enjoy a business model that allows them to afford the high rents associated with brand-new high-rise towers. Many smaller, less lucrative businesses, however, are less fortunate. They need older, more affordable buildings to call home. The historic Star and Tribune Building remains a functional structure — it is occupied today, and a previous owner made a substantial long-term investment in the building in the 1990s.

Possibilities for creative reuse

Demolition is never the only option for a historic structure. The building could be sold to an owner who recognizes its value and is committed to its creative reuse.

But the sad truth is this: Very big players in real estate and finance want this historic building gone. Granted, they may be prominent members of the business community. They provide a large number of local jobs, I imagine. But this much is also clear: They want Minneapolis to take on huge debt to accommodate the Downtown East megadevelopment plans, in addition to the extravagant public financing feeding the billion-dollar stadium development. Local politicians are all too eager to go along with these plans.

This is all happening, of course, while we are still trying to shake off the effects of a lingering financial crisis. Recall, too, that the origin of the crisis can be traced directly to the finance and real-estate sectors.

The next time you find yourself downtown on Portland Avenue, do take a stroll past the Strib building. Stop in front of the granite slab marked “1947,” the one with the time capsule hidden behind it. Gaze upward at the imposing facade. Study the carvings of the dairy cow, the bushel of grain, the miner’s jackhammer … the, uh …

Hold on a sec. Something is missing, it seems.

Wherever is the medallion for banking? And what about the one for real estate? Keep looking, but you won’t find them.

Must have been an oversight.

Steve Sande of Columbia Heights is the owner of a small interactive media firm.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by mark wallek on 12/13/2013 - 08:56 am.

    Let it go

    Usually I like the idea of preserving historic buildings, especially in a city that rarely does. However, the demise of journalism makes the continued presence of this building a painful reminder that at one time we had independent news sources that could be trusted. What’s left today is not needed, unless corp tripe is on the menu.

  2. Submitted by Keith Summers on 12/13/2013 - 09:29 am.

    Save it for the bandshell

    With its’ newly acquired riches from the real estate sale, the Strib could build and endow the band shell at our new urban park and repurpose the only thing of any value in the existing building, the center of the front façade, as the front façade of the Star Tribune Band Shell. Now, if we were to repurpose the dome roof to go over the band shell we would have a new home for the MN Orchestra (add a few huge foam rubber Viking helmets for acoustics.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/13/2013 - 10:23 am.

    Nice try

    Good effort Steve.

    I find the building to have a muddled design, the medallions strike me as an afterthought. If you notice the one thing the building actually lacks for all it’s pretense is a decent entrance. All you have is that little hole off to the side that looks like a service entrance. The more I look at that building the less impressed I am.

    • Submitted by Steve Sande on 12/13/2013 - 12:26 pm.

      Restore the ‘Autry entrance’

      I agree, Paul, that the entrance is not all it should be. But have you ever seen pictures of the main entrance, circa 1949?

      A photo on this page captures it quite nicely — the picture of singing cowboy Gene Autry (who may have been brought to town for the building’s “Hollywood-style” grand opening spectacular):
      http://www.lileks.com/bleats/archive/12/0512/052212.html

      If the building can be protected, I hope its next owner will consider restoring an Art Deco transom to the entrance, along with entry signage employing the era-appropriate typeface seen in the Autry photo. (Might make a fine entry for a newsroom-themed club or restaurant off the lobby…)

  4. Submitted by Adam Miller on 12/13/2013 - 11:10 am.

    A very weak case

    When your argument for preservation rests on unsupported repetition of words like “iconic,” “historic” and “significant,” you don’t have much of a case.

    Why is it historic? Because it housed the local newspaper for a long time? That doesn’t sound like much of a case for historic significance.

    Is it really “iconic?” Apparently not architecturally, at least according to those who know more about the subject than I. Certainly not as a local landmark, as I think you’d be hard pressed to find a postcard featuring it or find it among a compilation of the places that define the Twin Cities.

    That seems to leave the argument to rest on, “it’s old.” Is that really enough? The building’s owner no longer wants to use it. It apparently cannot practically be retrofitted to other productive use. Is it so old that we should keep it even if it’s destined to be underused and unprofitable to own?

    That’s a hard to case to make. In the past, we’ve been too cavalier about tearing down the old with no plan to replace it. But the tragedy of the Gateway District is the emptiness that came after more than the old things that were lost. Urging that the old be kept for the sake of it’s oldness is the wrong lesson, and letting the oldness of the Star and Tribune building leave Downtown East in its current sorry, underdeveloped state would be to repeat the real mistakes of the Gateway.

    • Submitted by Steve Sande on 12/13/2013 - 01:35 pm.

      Minneapolis’ last great newspaper building?

      These are important considerations that you raise, Adam, and obviously there are others far better qualified to make the case for this than I am.

      What strikes me, though, is that newspaper buildings are under threat not just here, but all around the country:
      http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/23/realestate/commercial/struggling-newspapers-sell-off-old-headquarters.html?pagewanted=all
      http://www.newrepublic.com/article/112795

      All evidence I’ve seen suggests that for the newspaper business, the worst is yet to come. We cannot and should not save every newspaper building, obviously. But this is almost certainly the last great newspaper building Minneapolis will ever have. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.

      If we had known decades ago that nearly all the grand theaters would be demolished, perhaps we would have preserved, say, the Minnesota (Radio City) Theater rather than some of the lesser ones that only became precious to us once the greats were gone. The Star and Tribune Building may be the last, best local example of a vanishing form.

      P.S.: There was a postcard, actually:
      http://lakesnwoods.com/Minneapolis/downtown.htm
      (search for “Trib”).

  5. Submitted by Laurie Hertzel on 12/13/2013 - 01:50 pm.

    Thank you for this. I love that old building–the 1947 in bold black granite, the medallions, the Art Deco lobby, the brushed aluminum (or whatever metal that is) elevator doors, with the etching of the man at the linotype machine… They are all part of the history of the city, and of newspapers, and, like stately old bank buildings, a reminder of the days when a newspaper was a sold pillar of the community.

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