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In St. Paul, ‘modern’ buildings could soon become historic

Finances aren’t the only reason some modern buildings are being designated “historic.” For a group of architects and historians, preserving mid-century buildings is also a cause. 

The Degree of Honor Building at 325 Cedar St. in downtown St. Paul.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Even the names given the period and style of American architecture — modern, mid-century modern, international — seem to contradict the concept that such buildings could be “historic.” Many were built to replace, and in reaction to, the brick and stone structures that dominate historic registers.

But as buildings defined by glass, steel and concrete reach the 50-year standard for minimal eligibility, more are being considered for historic status. Now, two buildings constructed during the first attempts to stimulate a moribund downtown St. Paul may be the first post World War II buildings nominated for the honor.

The owners of the two buildings, the Degree of Honor Building at 325 Cedar St. and the Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance/Pioneer Press building at 345 Cedar St., have asked the state Historic Preservation Officer to forward applications for historic designation to the National Park Service. The state has agreed that both are eligible, and the park service has approved the request for the Degree of Honor building. The service is currently considering the request for the Minnesota Mutual building.

The reasons for wanting a building on the register are mostly financial. The federal government offers tax credits — including a 20 percent investment tax credit — for renovating historic buildings. In return, a developer must must follow guidelines on methods and materials and get approval for the work. Because the standards are strict and can add to the cost, however, the tax incentives are often vital in making a renovation financially possible.

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Once the buildings are approved for tax-credit status, consultants hired by the Stencil Group, the South Dakota developer that wants to convert both to housing, will complete a more-detailed historic nomination. But preliminary approval for the tax credit usually signals the park service’s agreement that a building is likely eligible for placement on the National Register of Historic Places. The state’s historic preservation officer will decide whether to recommend approval, and in both cases, the city of St. Paul will offer comments.


Finances aren’t the only reason that this era of “modern” buildings are also becoming “historic.” For a group of architects and historians, preserving and documenting mid-century buildings is also a cause, led locally by the state chapter of the International Committee for the Documentation and Conservation of Buildings, Sites and Neighborhoods of the Modern Movement, better known as Docomomo.

The group has developed a webpage “Modernism on the Prairie” that archives lectures, tours and events around modern architecture in the state, said board member Todd Grover, an architect with MacDonald and Mack in Minneapolis. It also sponsored a national symposium in 2015 of the same name.

“There is this interesting context in Minneapolis and St. Paul, that there really is this mid-century urban development era that happened in both cities,” Grover said. “Some of the buildings are maybe not as significant on their own but as a collection of buildings it really does establish a couple of different districts that are significant and interesting.”

Grover said he developed a tour of modern buildings along with Elizabeth Gales, of the architectural historical consulting firm Hess Roise, when the National Trust for Historic Preservation had its annual conference in the Twin Cities in 2007.

“Once you got them in front of you and explained these things, it was like their eyes were opened. There was this new idea, these concepts they never had understood appreciated once they understood the story behind it,” Grover said.

The Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance/Pioneer Press building
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
The Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance/Pioneer Press building at 345 Cedar St. in downtown St. Paul.

In Minneapolis, a mid-century modern district might center on the Gateway District and Minoru Yamasaki’s Northwestern National Life Insurance Building on Hennepin Avenue. In St. Paul, it would be the City Centre redevelopment area downtown. In both cases, the buildings are examples of downtown’s “fighting back” against urban decline and suburbanization, said Charlene Roise, president of Hess Roise.

The firm conducted an extensive study of the Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance building and the surrounding part of downtown for the Met Council, which wanted to document historic and cultural assets that might have been impacted by construction of the Green Line light rail system. Roise said she expects buildings like those her firm studied in St. Paul to be consider in greater numbers for historic designation more frequently now, partly because of their age.

“It is a rolling entry gate,” she said of the 50-year standard.

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Ugly ducklings

Roise began her career analyzing buildings from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s but thinks it is appropriate for preservationists and communities to begin looking at the recent past, even at buildings that don’t produce much affection.

“Every era goes through its ugly duckling phase,” Roise said. “People in the Art Deco era thought Victorians were ugly.” Christopher Hawthorne, an architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, lamented the difficulty in making a case for preserving modern buildings.

“In part it is simple arithmetic,” Hawthorne wrote in 2013. “Works of architecture tend to fall out of fashion beginning around 25 and hit their deepest levels of disfavor between 40 and 50 years old.” In other words, they are most vulnerable just as they are reaching the threshold for historic preservation.

The contrast between red brick and stone buildings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and mid-modern buildings, Roise noted, is more stark because there is such a large gap between them. Little of significance was built during the Great Depression or during World War II, and material shortages in the immediate post-war period also tamped down new construction. Then, however, pent-up demand as well as new construction techniques, developed during the war, led to a bloom of modern buildings.

Just as it was vital to preserve examples of architecture from earlier eras, it is now important to have a record of modern buildings, Roise said, though she said she does understand the negative reaction the concept evokes in some people. “Post-war architecture is not intuitively beautiful,” she said. “It’s more of a cerebral thing to appreciate it.”

The lobby of the Degree of Honor Building.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
The lobby of the Degree of Honor Building.

She sees the irony that preservationists such as herself are now trying to save buildings they got into the business to oppose. She was involved, for example, in winning register status for Riverside Plaza, the early 70s public housing tower in Cedar Riverside originally called Cedar Square West. “I still have people say, ‘Whatever were you thinking, Charlene?’” Roise said. “But I’m now concerned we won’t nominate enough and we’ll have a gap. We need to maintain these layers because that’s what tells the story of a city.”

So far, only a handful of modern-era buildings in Minneapolis have successfully been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. They include the addition to the Farmers and Mechanics Savings Bank (now a Westin Hotel), Riverside Plaza, the Christ Church Lutheran and Peavey Plaza. Also on the register is the 1958 Abbey Church at St. John’s University in Collegeville.

But register status doesn’t capture all of the buildings that could or should be listed. Instead it only includes buildings that were owned by people who made the application for tax credits or simply for the honor.

St. Paul’s turn

There are several criteria for placement on the national register. Architectural significance is one of them, as is a building’s relationship to the lives of significant people. In the case of the mid-century buildings in St. Paul, the criterion being relied on that they “are associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history.”

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The historic narrative for the two St. Paul buildings is their role in a post-war reaction to the decline of the downtown core and the loss of commerce to the suburbs.

“Virtually no investment was made in downtown St. Paul during the late 1930s, and commercial construction was halted completely during the war years,” stated the historic evaluation done by  Hess Roise. “As St. Paul headed toward the mid-twentieth century, its nineteenth-century buildings looked antiquated and dilapidated.”

In response, a group of downtown businesspeople organized and hired well-known industrial designer and planner Raymond Loewy to develop a renewal plan. That plan — which suggested riverfront apartments on Kellogg, a convention hotel and what he dubbed “crossovers” at the second level of buildings for pedestrians — was not implemented in the whole, but did guide revitalization for decades, noted the Hess Roise report.

The first private entity to step up was Minnesota Mutual Life (now known as Securian), whose building at 345 Cedar Ave. was completed in 1955. According to the Hess roise evaluation, the building was done in the International Style, and was designed by the St. Paul firm of Ellerbe Associates.

The Degree of Honor building, home of an insurance association that was part of a benefit association of the same name, was built in 1962. Laurel Fritz, an architectural historian for Preservation Design Works — the firm that prepared the applications for both buildings — said the Degree of Honor insurance arm was not only one of the largest such firms in the nation, but was run entirely by women. 

In a brief notation in his architectural guide to downtown, Larry Millett reports that the Degree of Honor building was designed by Bergstedt, Hirsh, Wahlberg and Wold, and describes it as “one of downtown’s better modern-era office buildings, clad in white Vermont granite.”

But while the buildings were built with private money, the city and business leaders didn’t think the private sector could rebuild downtown on its own. That conclusion led to a public-private urban renewal effort called Capital Centre: a 43-acre area that led to the demolition of more than 100 buildings. The result is often criticised as an example of urban renewal run amok. Millett said the city pursued its modernization drive with a “ruthless enthusiasm” that included demolishing what Millett considered some of the city’s very best architecture.

“It all might have been worthwhile had the new work been of high quality,” Millett writes. “But that was seldom the case…a walk through the central core provides a discouraging object lesson in how not to remake a city, best of intentions or no.”

Architecture or social narrative?

The Hess Roise report does not gush over the architecture of the two individual buildings subject to national register nomination but rather sees their significance as pieces of a broader story.

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“Although few of the structures are architecturally distinguished by themselves, as a group these buildings effectively convey the stylistic and planning goals of the modern era and illustrate an important period in the city’s history,” the evaluation concluded. Charlene Roise compared the area to Minneapolis’ turn-of-the-last-century Warehouse District, where “most of the buildings aren’t anything to write home about, but as a group they are quite interesting.”

Such a listing of an Urban Renewal Historic District would not be without controversy. When the St. Paul Heritage Preservation Commission asked the St. Paul Port Authority to consider preserving another contributing building to a district — the closed Macy’s store — some in the city feared it could halt demolition. Though that demolition has been ruled out as being too expensive, such a historic district could interfere with renovation plans.

Grover, of Docomomo, agrees that the greater significance of the Degree of Honor and Minnesota Mutual Life buildings are in their urban renewal context, but said there could be a case as an architectural statement.

“While this building may not scream out ‘IDS Building’ or things like that, it has a lot of really nice details of the mid-century modern, especially of the 1950s,” Grover said of Minnesota Mutual Life. It wasn’t as flashy as some International style buildings, he added, but it has “clean lines, clean elements, really boxy forms that are more simplistic but because they are more simplistic doesn’t mean they aren’t done in a nice way.”

Fritz, of Preservation Design Works, says the issue of the historic status of modern-era buildings has been debated in architecture circles for some time. But the issue is now moving into the public conversation. “We might not all like how modern buildings look,” she said, “but they represent a period of time that is important.”