Minneapolis grows up

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September 13, 2010 // UPDATED 9:32 am - September 13, 2010
By: Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas

// The evolution of a skyline //

When the first issue of Skyway News hit newsstands in March, 1970, the Downtown skyline was on the verge of dramatic change.

The 32-story office-obelisk Foshay Tower still ruled low-rising Minneapolis, as it had since opening in 1929. But a building under construction just two blocks away soon would surpass Foshay, set a new pinnacle for the city and create an enduring Minneapolis icon.

Assembly of the modern Minneapolis skyline began with what many see as its baguette-cut crown jewel: IDS Tower. One-and-three-quarters times taller than Foshay at 792 feet, IDS Tower “completely changed the scale of Downtown,” said Larry Millett, a Twin Cities architecture critic.

“It was an effort to expand the notion of the skyline and expand the notion that Minneapolis is not just a little burgh out on the prairie, but we’re a big-time city and we can attract big-time architects to do big-time buildings,” Millett said.

The blue glass and steel skyscraper designed by famed architect Philip Johnson opened in 1973, when University of Minnesota Director of Urban Studies Judith Martin was a student in graduate school.

“The main thing I remember was that for a long time maybe two-thirds of the postcards in Minneapolis were Downtown views with the IDS Tower,” Martin recalled. “It became iconic very quickly.”

Minneapolis’ skyward expansion continued in cycles, with skyscraper-building booming during flush economic times and then going dormant for years at a time.

“We’ve had this pulsing system of Downtown development,” Martin said. “About every 10 to 15 years you get another boom.”

As Minneapolis inaugurated its skyscraper era, so did other mid-sized metropolitan areas around the country. Cities like Denver, Phoenix, Kansas City, Mo., and Omaha, Neb., all sought the prestige that came with tall buildings, Martin said.

“There was a sense that in order to be taken seriously as a city you really needed to have a downtown presence,” she explained. “That presence meant being visible from far away, in part because by the 1970s there’s plenty of suburban office competition.”

Millet said aspiration and economics were the two main factors behind any skyscraper groundbreaking. In the first case there are large corporations seeking to make a major visual statement, and in the second developers who believe a glitzy tower will attract office tenants.

Money fuels the system, and when the country pulled out of the 1970s economic slowdown, building took off. The majority of the Minneapolis skyline went up between 1981 and 1992, when 17 of the city’s 30 tallest buildings opened.

Before the IDS Tower, the city’s tallest buildings — Foshay, Rand Tower and Northwest Bell Telephone Building, now Qwest Building — reflected the lavish styling and sharp geometries of Art Deco architecture popular from the 1920s to 1940s. IDS Tower updated the city’s image, adding a sleek, modern jewel in the mid-century “international style” pioneered by Philip Johnson.

The 1980s building boom arrived during architecture’s post-modern period, marked by a return to ornamentation and history-referencing design. Minneapolis survived that era relatively unblemished by the excessive whimsy of some post-modern landmarks, said Philip Koski, an architect and incoming 2011 president of American Institute of Architects’ Minneapolis chapter.

“I think we got lucky in the post-modern era that César Pelli came to town with his sort of knock-off of Rockefeller Center,” Koski said, referring to the Argentine-American architect who designed Wells Fargo Center, the city’s third-tallest building. Pelli’s inspiration was the Art Deco-era GE Building in New York City, longtime home to NBC.

Wells Fargo Center’s completion in 1988 was followed by the 1992 opening of the haloed Capella Tower, completing what Millet called
Minneapolis’ “triple-array of big buildings.” It also closed the skyline’s biggest boom period.

Additions since then have been more functional than fantastic, but they filled in gaps between tall buildings, creating the skyline’s distinctly pyramidal shape, Koski said.

“You don’t have to have every building be the most amazing, cutting-edge work of masterful architecture,” Koski said. “It would be interesting to live in a city like that, but we’re lucky enough that the tallest [buildings] are pretty good.”

With the economy still digging out of a deep recession, consensus among the local experts was Minneapolis would not see another major skyline addition for some time. When the next boom arrives, though, will skyscrapers hold the same appeal?

Architecture MN editor Christopher Hudson said the movement toward sustainable architecture might lead developers and major corporations to rethink the skyscraper model, especially when new communications technologies allow more workers to telecommute.

“By and large, density is green,” Hudson said. “To put more built environment on less natural environment is always a good thing.”

Downtown’s 10 tallest buildings

1. IDS Tower
1973, 57 stories, 792 feet.

2. Capella Tower
(opened as First Bank Place), 1992, 56 stories, 776 feet.

3. Wells Fargo Center
(opened as Norwest Center), 1989, 56 stories, 775 feet.

4. 33 South Sixth
(opened as Multifoods Tower), 1982, 52 stories, 668 feet.

5. Campbell Mithun Tower

(opened as Piper Jaffray Headquarters), 1985, 42 stories, 581 feet.

6. US Bank Plaza I
1981, 41 stories, 561 feet.

7. RBC Plaza
(opened as Dain Rauscher Plaza), 1992, 40 stories, 539 feet.

8. Fifth Street Towers II
1988, 36 stories, 504 feet.

9. Ameriprise Financial Center

(opened as American Express Financial Center), 2000, 31 stories, 498 feet.

10. Target Plaza South
2001, 33 stories, 492 feet.

(Building data from emporis.com and “AIA Guide to the Twin Cities.”)