Jamie Cook, Micah Ailie and other artists rent studio space for their work in the Handicraft Guild Building.  Credit: Eric Best

Jamie Cook, Micah Ailie and other artists rent studio space for their work in the Handicraft Guild Building. Credit: Eric Best

If these walls could talk

Updated: May 21, 2015 - 1:31 pm

As developers seek to rehabilitate the Handicraft Guild Building, its eclectic mix of tenants share memories of its colored past.

To walk through downtown Minneapolis’ Handicraft Guild Building at 10th & Marquette is to step inside the city’s living history. 

Its origin as the birthplace of the arts and crafts guild, one of the oldest organizations of its kind in the country, is well documented in the pages of history, going back to 1907. But its tenants preserve an oral history, weaving memories and nostalgia into the building’s colored story, which is set for a new chapter. Developers plan to preserve much of the historical landmark while adding an adjacent 18-story high-rise, cementing the building’s long-term use. 

“It’s a wonderful little gem that hasn’t yet found its new purpose,” said Linda Mack, a long-term architecture critic. “This building is hugely important because it is one of the few buildings downtown that embodies its history in the architecture.”

The Handicraft Guild of Minneapolis constructed the epicenter of manufacturing and the arts at 10th Street and Marquette Avenue S. just as Minneapolis was beginning to feel like a city, Mack said. In its school and studios, with their characteristically rare glass skylights, artisans and manufacturers taught and practiced pottery, metal work, woodcarving, architecture and more. 

“It was if you had the Northern Clay Center, Open Book and some of those studios in Northeast all in one place downtown,” Mack said. 

The guild would eventually play roles in the beginning of the University of Minnesota’s art department and Minneapolis Institute of Art, but the building lived on to host a litany of characters. 

From its departure, “a thousand flowers bloomed,” she said.

Gold-colored lettering is one of just a few clear signs of the historic organization.

 

Tenants tell tales of a beat poet, comic book artists and famed painters who all made their way to the Handicraft Guild Building. Many believe The Suburbs, a prolific punk rock band in the late 1970s and ‘80s, played under its roof. Others recall stories of an Abraham Lincoln impersonator, producers of the movie “Thin Ice” and “American Gothic” painter Grant Wood, a Guild pupil, in the building at one point or another. 

Michigan-based Village Green and the building’s owner, St. Paul-based Pratt Ordway Properties, plan to begin construction of the 18-story apartment building by the end of the year. Their plans call for demolishing two buildings not historically protected, including a 1914 attachment, and repurposing the Handicraft Guild Building into a lobby, restaurant, and spaces for offices and retail.

Village Green is proposing a 293-unit apartment building that would include the landmark as lobby space.

 

Many tenants, some who have been in the building for decades, are now planning to move.

Jade Patrick, director of Gamut Gallery, has been in the building for just six years with her husband, James Patrick, who runs Slam Academy, an electronic music school in the same space. While outdated, the Handicraft Guild Building offers some of the cheapest space in downtown Minneapolis. The fleeting, low-rent spaces have become an incubator for many small businesses and artists. 

“The whole time we’ve known this building could be sold at any point. I feel like we’ve always been living in a code red, or like a code orange at least,” Jade said.

The building now hosts a wig shop, a salon, a gift store and Devil’s Advocate in the former Hell’s Kitchen space, among others.

The Handicraft Guild Building has stood in downtown Minneapolis for more than century, despite its proximity to skyscrapers.

 

“It’s really eclectic: old stuff mixed with new stuff mixed with weird stuff,” said Jamie Cook, an artist who has been on the second floor for the past few months.

Cook has a deep respect for the Guild’s history in the building, which he and fellow artist Micah Ailie waited years to rent space in. 

Cook and other resident artists now call themselves a Handicraft Guild. Though they have no affiliation to the original Guild, they’d rather see the renovation of the building and the development of a nonprofit arts center in its spirit. 

“I’ve been in love with the building for years,” he said. “I feel like I just got married and she’s dying of cancer. I haven’t totally given up hope.”

Cook isn’t the only one to fall for the building’s charms.  

Floyd Thompson, the oldest remaining tenant, still runs a drum studio after more than 50 years. In that time, his business has expanded and contracted throughout the building, at max comprising 10 of the catacomb-like rooms, but it has receded to a single studio. In his one room, an obstacle course of marimbas and conga drums, Thompson tells stories of acclaimed drummer Louie Bellson visiting the shop and possibly selling a kazoo to George Foreman. While many would have retired long ago, Thompson plans to continue his business somewhere else.

His neighbor, Bob Black’s Dahl Violin Shop, is another long-time tenant. As a boy, Black apprenticed under master violinist Mathias Dahl who had been in the building since World War II, he said.

“When I came here when I was like 12 or 13, it was love at first sight,” he said. “I never left.”

Violins hang in Dahl Violin Shop.

 

For Black, the move is a reminder of the passage of time. 

“I’ve come down here six days a week… for probably going on 50 years,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of friends die over the years — like my mom said, ‘nothing in life is guaranteed.’”

He also plans to find a new home for the store.

For Claire Givens, who has run a violin shop on the other side of the building for more than three decades, the prospect of moving her business and seeing the building preserved is bittersweet, but for the best. Givens’ husband, Andrew Dipper, fought for the historical designation of the landmark, which came in 1998.

“We don’t really see that there’s an alternative for this building,” she said. “It’s the only outcome.”

After several attempts to cover costly renovations to the building, the latest plan to preserve it may finally decide the next story in its colored history. 

“The Handicraft Building site is one of the most complicated in Minneapolis,” Village Green said in a statement. “It has an important historic component and has experienced a series of failed starts by other developers.”

As tenants look to move on from the 108-year-old vestige of the city, they carry their stories and memories with them. 

“I don’t know if I’d ever find a spot like this in downtown Minneapolis — maybe downtown Williston, North Dakota,” Black joked. “It’s all beyond me now.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eric Best // 612.436.5088 // ebest@journalmpls.com // @ericthebest

Photos by Eric Best, submitted to the City of Minneapolis or from the Minnesota Historical Society.