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The Minneapolis skyline: Which freeway approach gives the best view?

Since all of our freeways point directly to the downtown central business core, you have five different approaches of the Minneapolis skyline from automobile to consider.

This is one of those half-remembered stories a friend told me once, so I am probably getting some details wrong, but I think it went like this: My friend was off in some distant part of the world (I seem to remember it being Japan), and he was in an airport, or a mall, or some busy public place like that. He turned a corner, and in that unfamiliar environment, was surprised to be confronted face-to-face with an enormous wall-sized mural of a contemporary city skyline at night. The skyline was not identified, but with its lights and glass and neon, was clearly there to convey energy, modernity, and urban chic. It was a stand-in for the modern, generic American skyline.

It was the city skyline of Minneapolis, naturally.

We have a good skyline. It conveys all of those superlatives mentioned earlier, as well as a general feeling of economic power and regional importance. It’s vertical enough to be easily seen from a distance, and there’s that central cluster consisting of the big three holding it together: the IDS Tower, the Capella Tower, and the Wells-Fargo Center. It stretches out horizontally along the river attractively, hemmed in by the freeways, with the Carlyle on one end the Target Plaza lights on the other. The old Northwestern Bell and Foshay Towers poke their aged tops up through the glass and steel to remind the viewer of the city’s architectural past. And while no one would ever mistake the Campbell Mithun Tower or the Dain Rauscher Plaza for timeless works of architecture, they add to the scene in their own reflective, shimmering way.

Since all of our freeways point directly to the downtown central business core, you have five different approaches of the Minneapolis skyline from automobile to consider. A pet argument I’ve had with many friends over the years has been about which approach is the best view of the city. Which best shows off the skyline? Is it coming in under the expansive prairie skies of the west? The urban slalom down 94 through St. Paul? Cresting over the hills north of the river and descending through Northeast?

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We’ll get off the sidewalks and alleys and streets this week, strap into our cars, and put this argument to rest for once and for all in this week’s Stroll. Each of the five major freeway approaches is ranked below using a scale of one to four Carl Showalters. This is, of course, in honor of Steve Buscemi’s character in the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo,” probably the greatest fan of the Minneapolis city skyline in all of cinematic history.

“Hey, look at that, the Twin Cities,” Showalter says, while driving up 35W from the south and marveling at the IDS. Of course no one ever looks at Minneapolis and calls it “the Twin Cities,” but a little dramatic license on the part of St. Louis Park’s favorite sons is OK with me.

Rankings are in order of worst to first.


from the west
With the exception of the moment you cross the Mississippi River, I’d say the approach from the east on I-94 is by far the worst.


This was my first view of the city, as it probably is a lot of people’s coming in from the eastern half of the country. Theoretically, it should be the most exciting: After cruising in through farmlands and over rivers, and then beholding the towers and domes of downtown St. Paul, you shoot through the Midway, surrounded by lights and billboards on all sides, with the skyline of Minneapolis slowly rising before you – the last metropolis before the wind-swept prairies of the interior west! In theory that sounds great, sure, but in practice, it’s a little different.

With the exception of the moment you cross over the Mississippi and get the classic view upriver of the skyline towering over the trees that line the gorge, I’d say the approach from the east is actually by far the worst. For one, the Capella Tower is hiding the much better looking Wells Fargo Center behind it for much of the approach, robbing the skyline of one of its three most prominent features. The architecture just east of downtown is pretty undistinguished – a few squat, brown medium-rise buildings I can’t even think of the names of. Worst of all, the Metrodome is splayed out in front of the whole scene, like a drunk uncle that somehow got tangled up in a parachute on his way over to your house and passed out right in front of your family portrait. Maybe the Vikings’ new zillion-dollar spaceship will improve the view, but honestly, I think that thing looks pretty ridiculous, too.

Plus, I-94 West itself is beyond dumpy; sad, congested, sunken into the earth, and surrounded on all sides by crass billboards and cruddy warehouses. A few months ago I was driving a group of artists from Chicago into the city for the first time, and one them looked around the sprawl around Vandalia and remarked, “Huh, it sure gets suburban pretty fast once you get out of the city.” I wanted to shout, “No! We’re going through the densest, most populated part of the city! We’re about to hit downtown!” But I was too embarrassed to say anything. Coming from the east, you might as well just turn around and go back to St. Paul.

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The approach from the north on 94 is not a bad one, a pretty straight shot along the Mississippi that gives some nice glimpses of both the riverfront and some of the industrial ruins coming in. Approaching the city, you can see Target Field front and center, which looks great, especially if there’s game in progress. Minneapolis also appears especially vast and far-reaching from this vantage point – you get the Basilica presiding over Loring Park to the south, and City Hall and the Guthrie to the north. The big problem is this approach also emphasizes the beige monstrosities of Multifoods Tower and Target Center, two of the ugliest buildings in the Midwest, and, not coincidentally, the same two that ruin the view from your seats at Target Field.


mpls from south
The southern approach is one of the few places on the interstates that give you a tease and then a big reveal.


The southern approach is one of the few places on the interstates that give you a tease and then a big reveal – when you come around the curve at Crosstown Commons, the skyline, seen only shimmering from a distance over the bluffs south of the Minnesota River, finally jumps out in front of you. The 35W expanse of the freeway system was one of the most merciless – with no regard for anything in its path, it barrels straight ahead through a half-dozen southside neighborhoods sunken in a Death Star trench, only curving off to the east a few blocks in Whittier to avoid smashing through the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. With high sound barriers on either side, there’s almost nothing to distract you visually on either side as you power through toward the lights of downtown.

The problem is, the freeway’s so sunken beneath the horizon that it’s hard to get a good view of the full height of the skyline. Extra points here, though, for the best view of the Foshay Tower, a beautiful, Art Deco beacon rising before you. Points could be deducted here, though, too: My friend Joe, who drives for a local car service and so spends a lot of time on the road, tells me “Fargo” ruined this view for him. If you have a similar allergy to “Fargo,” you may deduct half a Showalter.

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Ah, those prairie skies. Coming in from the west, you’re already driving in under those towering, billowing clouds that visually define the flat expanses of the Great Plains. If the time of day is right, the sun is already refracting its rays off of the IDS Tower, a building that captures and reflects sunlight better than any other in town. Besides the IDS, framed here by the Capella and Wells Fargo towers, the prominent structures from this approach are the Basilica of St. Mary’s and Target Plaza. The latter is topped off by that ever-shifting LED display, programmed according to the whims of the in-house army of Target designers and video artists charged with creating the various designs that swirl around up there every night. How is that for a perfect expression of the shifting power dynamics of the last century in Minneapolis: the Catholic Church and Target, front and center, right on the edge of the prairie. Add half a Showalter if the sun is setting.


mpls from the north
Coming from the north, as soon as you cross into the city limits, you find a perfect history lesson on the city Minneapolis laid out in front of you.


Coming from the north, as soon as you cross into the city limits, you find a perfect history lesson on the city Minneapolis laid out in front of you. You’re high enough up that you can see all way down to the riverfront, at the bottom strata, the oldest part of the city – the mills that built Minneapolis, their Gold Medal and Pillsbury signs still visible. The layer above that, you see the city reaching higher and higher, the clock tower of City Hall with its peaked copper green roof most prominent here. The city reaches upward, decade after decade, layer after successive layer: the Norwest Center, the US Bank Plaza, and at the top, the Capella, IDS and Wells Fargo towers. To the west, warehouses and water towers. Even the Metrodome, off to the east and framed by the smokestacks and transformers of Southeast, looks OK from this perspective – your drunken, parachute-covered uncle, snoring peacefully off in a corner.

The city skyline from the north is the city skyline at its most mythical; it looks dense, heavy, multi-layered, both historic and contemporary, all of it stretched out before you. I feel like there should be a rainbow arching down to kiss the shiny bronze head of the Hubert H. Humphrey statue at City Hall every time I drive down from the north. Imparting that sensation is about all you can ask of your city’s skyline.

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Special thanks to Anne Borgendale and Joe Ward for their contributions to this conversation.