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Downtown’s flags: U.S., of course, Minnesota’s — and a certain white pennant on a blue field

The pilot’s wheel is fine, but a microscope? Surely Minneapolis is the only political entity in the world that has a microscope on its flag.

We deserve flags that you could see flying from a fancy flagpole downtown, and think as you walk by, 'Well, that sure is a good-looking flag.'

Walking south down Hennepin Avenue from the bridge into downtown, you come across a very elegant, very old flagpole that looks strangely out of place amidst the typically desolate, half-heartedly modernist public plaza that surrounds it. It has a marble base, topped by a leafy bronze sculptural element bearing a lovely green patina. On the front, there is a relief portrait of George Washington, looking very much as he does on the front of the quarter.

The surrounding area looks like someone dropped a tacky, ’60s-era city on top of an older city, and like Buster Keaton in his most famous scene, the flagpole managed to be standing in the one spot where it wouldn’t be crushed. Actually, if you read the history of downtown development, that’s about exactly what happened. You can see the same flagpole here in a photo of the Gateway District, as this part of town was once called, circa 1918: It’s literally the only thing in the photo still standing, less than a hundred years later.

The flagpole was designed by Daniel Chester French, the same sculptor responsible for the Lincoln Memorial, and was a gift to the city from the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution on July 4, 1917. “He built his monument in our hearts,” reads one of inscriptions, an apparently original bit of poesy penned by a long-forgotten DAR member. “He united us under one flag.”

George Washington flagpoleMinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant‘He united us under one flag.’

There are three flags one primarily encounters downtown (well, besides those of businesses that fly their own flags, too, if you’re willing to stretch your definition of the word “flag” to mean “a piece of fabric that has the company’s logo printed on it”). The first is obviously the American flag; the Stars and Stripes outnumbers all others three-to-one. Second most common behind that is the flag of the state of Minnesota, which you are likely familiar with.

Then, there are a few locations – outside U.S. Bank Plaza on 6th Street, and Butler Square in the Warehouse District – flying a flag with a white pennant on a blue background. This is the flag of the city of Minneapolis.

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You may not have known Minneapolis had a flag; it’s not something you see around very often. It was designed by one Louise Sundin in 1955, and adopted by the City Council that year. As noted, it’s a white pennant on a blue field. In the pennant is a circle, split into quarters, bearing four symbols in each quadrant: a cogged wheel and square; a pilot wheel; a microscope; and a neoclassical building.

Frankly, from a purely aesthetic perspective, I do not find the flag very appealing. It’s certainly not terrible: the color scheme is agreeable, and the pennant shape is a really nice touch. But I think you don’t see the Minneapolis flag displayed that often because it’s just – well, with all due respect to its designer, who surely meant well, it’s just not very inspiring. 

It’s absurdly literal. The pilot’s wheel is fine, but a microscope? Surely Minneapolis is the only political entity in the world that has a microscope on its flag. There’s nothing wrong with microscopes, of course, but there are less obvious ways to convey “we value progress” without throwing in a drawing of a microscope. The neoclassical building depicted rubs me the wrong way, too – it doesn’t seem appropriate for a city that, around 1955, seemed determined to raze as many old buildings as possible.

It’s not like in Chicago, for example, where you see the city flag all over. Those pale blue bands and four red six-sided stars are on the arm of every public servant in a uniform, and seem to fly from nearly every building. I’d fly it, too, if I were a Chicagoan – it’s a wonderful flag, worth celebrating. It embodies each of the five criteria outlined by the North American Vexillological Society (NAVA): It’s simple enough that a child could draw it from memory, it has meaningful symbolism (each star represents a notable event in the city’s history), it uses only 2-3 colors, it has no lettering or seals on it, and it is distinctive.

Am I totally off-base here? Am I being too harsh on a beloved civic icon? Maybe, but then again, if it truly were beloved, you’d see it flown more often. I think it may be time for a 21st century Minneapolis flag design contest. Think about how many talented designers are living and working here. Downtown Minneapolis has buildings and buildings full of talented designers. Let’s put the challenge out to them. I really think we can do better.

Flag of MinneapolisMinnPost photo by Andy SturdevantIt may be time for a 21st century Minneapolis flag design contest.

The Minnesota flag has a checkered history. Looking back at NAVA’s guidelines, it doesn’t pass on most counts: Only a bizarrely gifted child could get the details of the extremely complicated seal right. It looks an awful lot like the blue-field-and-a-seal flag of a dozen other states (Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Vermont …). It has the word “MINNESOTA” printed on it, unless you view it from the reverse while flying, in which case it reads “ATOZ3ИИIM.” (This is still a step up from the original 1893 design, which was blue on one side and white on the other – it had to be redesigned for cost-effectiveness purposes, as manufacturing it essentially involved sewing two flags together.)

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The greatest problem with the Minnesota state flag, of course, is that seal, and its depiction of a white settler, plowing a field and within reach of his rifle, and a Native American on horseback galloping off into the sunset. The two don’t look particularly happy to see each other. In fact, the longer you can consider the scene, the more you think, “Why on earth is this weird, violent relic of an unhappy past on our state’s flag?”

This is fortunately a question many Minnesotans have asked since the 1960s. In 1968, the Human Rights Commissioner proposed that the Legislature think about authorizing a new seal, and in 1989, a citizen’s coalition put forth a proposal for a new flag, chucking the seal entirely (there is a great deal of fascinating information on this subject here). The proposed flag is a really lovely design: a north star on a blue field, over a white wave suggesting snow or water, with a verdant green on the bottom. It’s elegant, simple, and meaningful. Its adoption has been proposed in the Legislature a few times, most recently in 2007.

Flag of State of MinnesotaMinnPost photo by Andy SturdevantThe greatest problem with the Minnesota state flag, of course, is that seal, and its depiction of a white settler, plowing a field and within reach of his rifle, and a Native American on horseback galloping off into the sunset.

“Wait a minute!” you may be thinking by now. “Andy, I thought you said you liked flags! You don’t seem to like any of these flags you’ve mentioned! In fact, you’re openly advocating for the alteration of both the city and the state flag entirely.”

Well, that’s true. But flags are powerful symbols, which is perhaps why the DAR flagpole has endured while everything around it has not. Minneapolis and Minnesota both deserve flags that won’t be afterthoughts or (worse) embarrassments. We deserve flags that you could see flying from a fancy flagpole downtown, and think as you walk by, “Well, that sure is a good-looking flag.”

Next week: to St. Paul!

Flags of MN, USA, MplsMinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant