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Spruce Tree Centre: ‘Ugly or beautiful, your customers can find it.’

Said Sarah Seeger: “it’s literally a green building that’s green environmentally, right in the heart of the Twin Cities.”

spruce tree centre painting
Courtesy of Carolyn Swiszcz
Spruce Tree Centre, as painted by Carolyn Swiszcz.

Everyone knows the Spruce Tree Centre. It’s the large green-tiled building at the corner of University and Snelling in the St. Paul Midway. Opened in 1988 and with tiles imported from Germany, it’s a building that generates a lot of opinions. In the past two weeks, I spoke to a handful of people who know the building well — tenants, neighborhood residents, critics, commuters, writers, and other notable St. Paulites. Here’s some of what they said about the Spruce Tree Centre, probably the only LEED-certified abstract spruce tree-shaped office building in the Midwest, if not the world.

JOHN REIMRINGER, author of “Vestments” and Hamline-Midway resident: The most interesting thing about Spruce Tree Centre happened long before it was built. In 1932, according to Paul Maccabbee’s great history of organized crime in St. Paul, “John Dillinger Slept Here,” two Murder Inc. hitmen assassinated a fugitive-from-the-mob bootlegger on that corner. They got the bootlegger’s partner walking out of Courtney’s Drug Store at 1598 University, then chased the bootlegger around the corner, through the Snelling Hotel, and finished him off in the kitchen of the Green Dragon Café, formerly the site of the Applebee’s.

CAROLYN SWISZCZ, artist [her painting of STC illustrates this piece]: I have never seen the inside of the Spruce Tree Centre, so I have wondered – can a person actually enter it? Is it hollow, with rooms and everything?

MIKE KOCH, Commercial Real Estate Manager, MetroPlains Management: Harold and Marie Slawik [the developers responsible for Spruce Tree Centre, and perhaps best known for developing Har-Mar] were big benefactors of Central Park in Roseville. They were pretty committed to trees. The building is an abstract spruce tree, large on bottom, small on top. When Marie spoke to the architect, she took a tube of lipstick out of her purse, and said, “This will be the accent color.” And then she took her business card, which was forest green, and said, “And this will be the color.”

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MARK W. WOLF, worker’s compensation attorney, physical therapist, and Spruce Tree Centre tenant: As far as the aesthetics go, I don’t think the building’s green tile, with black windows behind it on either side, makes it look much like a spruce tree when viewed from outside.

MinnPost illustration by Andy Sturdevant
Everyone knows the Spruce Tree Centre. It’s the large green-tiled building at the corner of University and Snelling in the St. Paul Midway.

SWISZCZ: It seems to me like a pile of solid plastic building blocks held together by magnets, a scaled-up version of an object one might keep on an office desk, like those metal balls that click back and forth.

KIRK LUNDMARK, General Manager, Applebee’s, 1988-1989: When it opened, I think there was a great deal of anticipation that this would be something that would be groundbreaking, especially with the green exterior of the building.

MARLYS HARRIS, MinnPost “Cityscape” columnist: I am not sure that it’s an eyesore or a delight, but the first time I saw it, I assumed that it was a government building, and that some architect had put on the bathroom-evocative tile facade so that it could be hosed down after all the teeming masses had visited each day. Frankly, next to the Target, Walmart and other big-box stores across the street — it is a wonder to behold. 

LARRY MILLETT, architecture critic and historian: For reasons that seem to have more to do with its color than anything else, Spruce Tree Centre has always been viewed as the Green Monster and a blot upon the landscape. Perhaps, but this unloved building is the only architectural presence of any significance at St. Paul’s busiest intersection, despite its unorthodox color.

REIMRINGER: It’s spectacularly, ambitiously ugly. Maybe we shouldn’t hold that against a building, given that at that same corner we’re surrounded by the bland corporate ugliness of CVS, Rainbow, and Walgreens, not to mention the entirety of the ungodly union of strip mall and big-box architecture that lies east of Snelling, and the uninspired facades of the small businesses on the north side of University.

WOLF: We lost Applebee’s Restaurant a few years back; Banfield Pet Hospital replaced them. Although it’s nice seeing a dog or cat stroll in with their owner, it was more fun going to the restaurant for a beer after work.

no sign
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant

LUNDMARK: I opened the Applebee’s [in 1988]. I was the first general manager. At the time it was the largest in the country. It was a very unusual place to put an Applebee’s. They were usually in very not-urban settings. I think we turned a profit in that restaurant in three months, which was a really quick turnaround. Then we started to have a few problems: Somebody broke in, and stole money from the safe. We think it was an inside person, but it was never proven who was at fault. We had our windows shot out in our big dining area, which was quite a surprise. Then it got be seedy, especially as winter hit. We had common restrooms there, so customers would encounter vagrants. They’d go sleep in the men’s room, where it was warm. We were constantly calling the cops. I left in September of 1989. I left to go back to school. 

KOCH: Applebee’s was purchased by a hedge fund [in 2007], and the hedge fund deemed the way to drive up Applebee’s stock was to close up stores. So they closed up two stores in Minneapolis-St. Paul: one in Golden Valley and the one here. They paid for the go-dark clause.

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WOLF: They rented space for a while to an entity that made soups and sandwiches, but they didn’t have the business savvy of a Subway restaurant, and soon were out of business. Now, they have vending machines, the worst of the three alternatives. I wish they could get a restaurant back.

LUNDMARK: The building was a bold statement, but I don’t think they really knew their market, in my opinion. 

SARAH SEEGER, Senior Program Manager, Midway Chamber of Commerce and building tenant: I enjoy being in this building. There’s camaraderie among the tenants, many of whom have also been here for years. 

WOLF: I have worked at this site for about 12 years. Management permitted our therapy group to install a warm-water pool on the main floor back in 2005. We had the pool built off-site and slowly trucked it to the Spuce Tree building from another state. Workers laid it in a hole inch by inch after they had removed a large section off the side of the building along University Avenue. It made quite a spectacle that day – as well as for a few angry drivers. But even today, most people are surprised to learn that there is a pool inside.

SEEGER: We are in a green building that has worked extremely hard to be energy efficient. So it’s literally a green building that’s green environmentally, right in the heart of the Twin Cities.     

JASON SKLAR, Commercial Property Manager, MetroPlains Management: We started in 2008 in trying to drive down the cost of energy, and saving our tenants money. The building has qualified for the Energy Star award, and ever since we’ve ranged from 78 to 87, which put us in 13 percent  of buildings in the country. We received our LEED certification in June of 2012. We worked for three years to get the building positioned for that high-level award.

WOLF: I like the building; management keeps it clean, safe, and they support ecologically friendly activities. I commute to work by bicycle from April through November. They provide a couple of spots inside their ramp for me to lock my bike so it doesn’t have to stay outdoors, exposed to the elements.

SKLAR: We have a 37-kilowatt solar panel array on the rear of the building. We bought renewable energy credits that mark this building as effectively 100 percent powered by renewable energy. We’ve recently implemented a composting program, which is unique outside the restaurant industry. We collect about 35 pounds a week in a pilot program, with hopes to double that in the next year. That’s been successful. If we ever have a restaurant here again, they’ll be able to participate in that. We see that as an area for growth. As the population changes, owners are going to be more attuned to that, and we’ll see more requests for that sort of service. We want to be a little on the leading edge.

back of spruce centre
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Whether you think it’s ugly or beautiful, your customers can find it. It’s iconic. There’s no missing it.

KOCH: People say that’s unique. The building is unique, the operation is unique.

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REIMRINGER: It’s the sort of imposed architecture that fails to connect with the street in any practical or aesthetic fashion – a relic of the urban renewal that destroyed functioning lower-class neighborhoods after World War II and replaced them with an urban planner’s theory of what would work. Like a bad sport coat, it’s loud and out-of-fashion. There you go: Spruce Tree Centre is your oddball, stuck-in-the-unfashionable-past uncle, wearing plaid and reeking of cologne.

MILLETT: I don’t love the building, but I don’t hate it either, and it at least deserves a smidgen of respect for trying to make statement in an otherwise nondescript architectural environment.

KOCH: Whether you think it’s ugly or beautiful, your customers can find it. It’s iconic. There’s no missing it. Some people might not know where Snelling is, but they know the green building is. That’s why we have some of our customers. People can find you. 

SEEGER: Everyone knows where you are located when you say the “Spruce Tree” building – the large green building on University Avenue. 

WOLF: When I’m giving directions on the phone to folks wanting to come to my office, all I have to say is: “that green building on the corner of University and Snelling,” and I can almost see their eyes lighting up with understanding.

T.D. MISCHKE, host, WCCO’s The Nite Show and St. Paul resident: I drive by the Spruce Tree Centre most every day. Each time I have the same thought: By God, at least he tried. The architect tried. 

He could have thrown in the towel, as so many have in the last 50 years. He could have gone with the same look that’s taking over our urban landscape: banal utilitarian offerings intended neither to inspire nor offend. No, he wasn’t feeling exceptionally brilliant that day, but he knew a fresh brilliance was what our cities deserved, so he stretched and he reached and he tried to deliver a new kind of beauty. And yes, he fell a bit short, but he did so yearning to think outside that gray flannel box.

He tried, damn it. He tried.