There are lots of places in the Twin Cities you can go if you’d like to be alone. Theodore Wirth Park. The southern leg of the LRT Blue Line on a weeknight after 11 p.m. Down by the Mississippi on the flats. A weekday matinee at St. Anthony Main. But for that particular feeling of complete isolation in the heart of the city, there is nowhere to rival a trip through the skyways on a weekend afternoon in the spring and summer.
The skyways are technically open until 8 p.m. on Saturday and 6 p.m. on Sundays, but you’d never know that from walking through. Nearly all the businesses are closed and barricaded, and half of the lights are even shut off. Even on a rainy day like this past Saturday, you will encounter almost no other pedestrians. In fact, in one segment I walked through an alarm was going off, and sounded as if it had been doing so for hours. I hung around for a couple of minutes to see what would happen – maybe a security guard would try to have me arrested! – but nobody showed up.
When I was a kid, my dad would sometimes bring me to his office on the weekends if he had to work, and I loved walking around the darkened corridors in complete silence, in what is on weekdays a busy, bustling space. It wasn’t necessarily the urge to recreate that sensation that brought me up into the skyways; I just wanted to explore some of the art deco fixtures in the Rand Tower. The front doors were locked, but the skyway entrance was open. The lobby and the second floor area are both open to foot traffic, through the skyway, although both are dark on weekends. It feels like you’re the personal weekend guest of Rufus R. Rand, the gas baron who built it all. Or feeling, at least, like you snuck into his office on a weekend while all the workers were gone.
The Rand Tower was completed in 1929, the same year as the Foshay, and it shares some of the lavish, edge-of-the-Depression decorative elements with its more famous contemporary. It’s somewhat more modest than the famously over-the-top Foshay, though it’s retained its period charm through the 21st century a little more nicely. It still feels like a classic downtown business address, and not like a tacky luxury hotel crammed into the interior of a downtown business address (by which I mean there is no purple neon or softly playing ‘90s house music in the lobby).
Rand was, in addition to being the head of the Minneapolis Gas Company, an enthusiastic aviator, and so the Rand Tower is a hymn to the Golden Age of Aviation. The floor in particular is quite beautiful, with bronze compasses, stars and moons set into smooth, reflective terrazzo floors. There is a grand marble staircase spiraling from the skyway level to the first floor – completely dark on weekends – leading to a bronze sculpture by Oskar J.W. Hansen entitled “Wings.”
Hansen was a Norwegian-born, Virginia-based writer and military man, in addition to being a sculptor. He’d been a general in the French Foreign Legion and a major in the U.S. Army, and was well-known for making the sort of heroic, large-scale work that decorated public works projects in this era – most notably the “Winged Angels of the Republic” you can see at the Hoover Dam.
About those sculptures, he wrote this: They were meant to embody “the immutable calm of intellectual resolution, and the enormous power of trained physical strength, equally enthroned in placid triumph of scientific accomplishment.” One could write the same of “Wings,” a stylized aviator ready to defy gravity and circumnavigate the globe, spreading the aviation-age gospel of science, progress and art. Of course, in 1929 it would all come crashing down. This kind of stylized, heroic art deco sculpture would flourish throughout the Depression, but it would be less concerned with the “placid triumph of scientific accomplishment” and more with the nobility and redemption in physical labor.
The exterior of the Rand Tower continues the aviation theme. Over the front entrance there is a frieze depicting twin, wing-footed figures of Mercury. Each one holds a biplane, presumably the sort that Rufus Rand flew in his early days as a Minnesota aviation pioneer. The exterior of the building is as attentive to detail as the interior, though Rand could not have predicted that more people would probably pass through his building via the second story than on the street level.
Out on the streets around the Rand Tower at 6th and Marquette, there are a few other bas-relief pieces on buildings, clustered around the corner and created to express the heroic scale and optimism of a great American city on the march. They’re all quite different from one another, though.
One of my favorites in the whole city is across the street from the Rand Tower, the eponymous farmer and mechanic described in the onetime bank’s name, Farmers and Mechanics Savings Bank, created by sculptor Walter Mosman. Note the shift tonally in these sculptures and the ones at the Rand. Both depict heroic figures, drawing on antiquity and idealizing the human form, but the two men at F&M aren’t Greek gods or metaphoric, soaring mechanical sky deities. They’re regular, hard-working Minnesotans, only slightly glorified visions of the customers that would be walking into the bank every day.
Mosman was a young man when he created the commission, only about 30, but was already head of the sculpture department at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. It does seem to reflect the vision of an ambitious, optimistic young person. I’ve always liked the chicken hanging out with the farmer. Even the poultry has a heroic, determined expression.
Right next to the Rand is a charming and bizarre remainder of the era’s sense of exotic whimsy. It’s a small, red building, a little worse for the wear, built in 1895 and refurbished in 1925. It was once the home of the Scandinavian Bank Building. Actually, it’s not really a building at all anymore, but a preserved façade in front of a parking garage, with a skyway lanced right through its second floor. It’s all Egyptian in theme – hieroglyphics, scarabs, Eyes of Horus. What relationship Scandinavian bankers bore to the ancient Egyptians is a mystery, other than the implication that, like the Pyramids, the word of the Scandinavian Bank was timeless, a bond that would echo throughout the ages. Perhaps it’s the flipside of the neighboring Rand’s flights of modernist, technocratic fancy: “These new modern trends and technology come and go,” it suggests hieroglyphically, “but the word of our bankers is good forever.”
There it is, on one street corner, three bas-relief visions of the interwar period. Which will you put your faith in: technological advancement, human labor, or the continuity of civilization?
Of course, you step through the front door of the old Scandinavian Bank, underneath the skyway, and you find yourself in a cavernous parking garage many decades later, a spare interior space that bears no relationship to the façade out front. On the weekend, it’s largely devoid of human activity, except for a few cars and flickering overhead lights. Alone again!