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Imagining a Minneapolis subway system — of the 1970s

In the 1970s, here in the Twin Cities, the newly formed Met Council gave some consideration to subways. What if it had worked out?

Imagine if Minneapolis had built a subway system in the 1970s.
MinnPost illustration by Andy Sturdevant

Alternate historical architectural criticism is a little understood and much-maligned field, perhaps because I made up that phrase just now. But I was thinking about the streetcar plans in the works for Nicollet Avenue and the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) plans for I-35W, and considering other transit plans that have been floated for Minneapolis over the years. I was thinking about what might have been. Since I’m no transit expert and can’t necessarily speak to the practical considerations of such a scenario (I leave such analysis to my colleague Marlys Harris), I am led to wonder what such a system might have looked like. When you start to wonder what something would have looked like, and then begin thinking critically about it, you have entered the fuzzy realm of alternate historical architectural criticism.

Three major American subway systems were built during the 1970s: the Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART, 1972), Washington, D.C.’s Metro (1976), and Atlanta’s Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA, 1979). There could have been a fourth. In the 1970s, here in the Twin Cities, the newly formed Met Council gave some consideration to subways as an option for mass transit before shelving the idea permanently. It’s never seriously been proposed since, and probably never will be again.

Imagine for a moment that it had worked out, against all odds (certainly the city of that era was probably neither populous nor dense enough for such a system to work well). Imagine the Met Council approved plans in 1972 or ’73, construction began in ’74, and by the time ground was broken on the Metrodome in 1979, the first Minneapolitans were proceeding down escalators and stairways into subterranean stations to take heavy rail subway cars between downtown, Uptown, the U, and wherever else.

What would those stations have looked like? It’s too bad we can’t see into an alternate reality to find out.

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But wait: Maybe we can.

The planning obviously never got as far as the station design phase, but one can make some safe assumptions about what we’d see by walking around downtown Minneapolis today. It’s pretty easy to get a sense for the city’s taste in civic and public works architecture during the 1970s. Some of the most recognizable spaces in the city date from the decade: the IDS Tower, Peavey Plaza, Riverside Plaza, the Hennepin County Government Center, the Loring Greenway, the dismal City Center, and the equally dismal Multifoods Tower (actually completed in 1983, but construction began in ’79).

There are also dozens of less prominent, more utilitarian structures from the era, as well, mostly in the form of parking garages and skyways. Looking at all these structures together gives one a sense of what the architectural vocabulary would have consisted of in designing these spaces – the types of places you might be standing right now in an alternate historical timeline, waiting for the Yellow Line and reading these words on the mobile version of MinnPost on your iPhone.

Once you train your eye for 1970s-style transit infrastructure – looking at familiar sites but asking, “Could this be part of a 1970s subway station?”— it’s hard to stop seeing it. Try it yourself next time you’re downtown. Primarily, you’re looking for concrete, tile, steel, and Helvetica. Any subway transit system built in the 1970s would have made extensive use of these four elements and fortunately for us, these elements are all over Minneapolis.

Let’s start with the IDS Tower. Specifically, the Crystal Court, a truly excellent public space that gives you some insight into what the best of our counterfactual transit system might have been like. Seven stories high and filled with light and (during the day, at least) people, as well as being the heart of the downtown skyway system, it’s not hard to picture the Crystal Court as an equally central point in our subway system, a sort of high modernist Grand Central at the crossroads of downtown. There’s already a set of escalators leading down from the Court into a below-ground concourse. Instead of containing a campus of Globe University, imagine the concourse leads to a half-dozen subway platforms.

crystal court
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
The Crystal Court is a truly excellent public space.

What would these platforms themselves have looked like? We can get a pretty good sense a few blocks away by stepping into the Gateway Ramp, at 4th Ave. S. and 3rd St. S., across from the Depot on Washington. A Watergate-era parking ramp also containing a major transit hub, the interior looks exactly like the sort of bland, dumpy, but oddly charming structure that Minneapolis would have built in 1974 to shelter subway riders. The interior is red painted cinderblock, and beige floor tile, and it has everything else you need – painted wayfaring signage in Helvetica, mid-century clocks in wire cages, poured concrete benches, transit schedules on wall displays, and flickering fluorescent lights. Tucked inside a hulking concrete structure and exiting into a waiting area for Metro Transit buses, it even has a faintly subterranean feel.

station photo
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
The Gateway Ramp already has a faintly subterranean feel.

The Helvetica wayfaring information painted on the wall seems to have been a favorite of parking garage designers of the period. The Loring/Hyatt Parking Ramp near Loring Park has NICOLLET MALL painted on the wall near the exit, in a near-Helvetica sans-serif with a helpful arrow motif pointing out the door. There’s no reason to think this type of painting wouldn’t have been used extensively in denoting rail stops. Many of the older ramps have bold, color-coded painted floor numbers on each level, not just in Helvetica but other serious-minded postwar typefaces like Eurostile. Station designers could easily have taken a similar approach.

nicollet mall sign
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
NICOLLET MALL, in a near-Helvetica sans-serif with a helpful arrow motif pointing out the door.

Apart from building materials and typographical conventions, it’s in the parking garages that you really get a taste for the grimy, unglamorous realities of the sort of public infrastructure that subway stations embody. Almost every ramp has concrete stairwells, painted and repainted with off-white latex, aging CC cameras and fluorescent lights overheard. It’s these stairwells that really seem familiar to veteran subway riders – or, I might say, smell familiar, since they most commonly carry the faint-but-pungent blend of industrial strength cleaner, moisture, and exhaust fumes, with the slightest hint of urine that characterizes most older mass transit systems.

The skyways are also useful for glimpsing into this fantastical subterranean world. Since each individual skyway is owned by the building it’s connected to, and since they weren’t all built at the same time, there’s no uniformity to them in terms of layout, design, aesthetics, or architectural style. But the older ones have the sort of unfussy, utilitarian appeal that translates. Much of the signage, especially in the parts of the City Center that remain un-remodeled, is reminiscent of what you might have found in transit signage of the ’70s. Even the name, “City Center,” sounds more like a prestigious, high-use subway terminal than a cruddy downtown retail development. Again, Helvetica dominates around here – look at the exit out onto Hennepin Avenue, or the change boxes for the automated ticket machines. Helvetica is most associated with the New York City subway system, but is also used in Chicago and Washington, D.C. It’s fair to imagine it would have gotten a good workout here, too.

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hennepin ave sign
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Helvetica dominates the skyways.

While all these photos viewed together can’t create the perfect illusion of a mythical 1970s Minneapolis subway system, they can create a pretty accurate sense of what it might have looked like. All it takes is some judicious visual editing, a little imagination, and a willingness to see every use of  Helvetica in a public space as part of a larger aesthetic that informed not only skyways and parking garages in America, but also larger systems. That’s what alternate historical architectural criticism is all about.