The push for 'The Tower of Babel'

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April 25, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Artist fights to add $300,000 in artwork to Elliot Park and its nearby light-rail station

Sculptor Andrew Leicester sees something missing when he sits near the stately brick arches he designed for the Downtown East/Metrodome light-rail station.

The arches' mosaic pattern reflects the city's immigrant waves, from Scandinavians to Somali, Leicester said. Gold, maroon and purple lines connect the arches to a large circle on the plaza's eastern edge, near Kirby Puckett Place.

In Leicester's vision, a 55-foot, red brick tower should rise from the circle -- but instead, there is nothing.

He says the missing beacon would be called the "Tower of Babel," evoking themes in "The Boat of Longing," O.E. Rolvaag's tale about a young Norwegian man who travels to Minneapolis in 1912 seeking a better life and settles in a boarding house near where the Metrodome stands today.

Explains Leicester, "The beacon is integral to the story or the narrative about the whole plaza, representing the newly arrived immigrants unable to converse with their fellow people. The arches become the celebration of the fluency and sharing of the cultures."

Not everyone agrees. Dick Victor, who worked on the plaza with the city's Community Planning and Economic Development Department said, "We are very pleased with Andrew's design. I know that it's an eye-stopper. I wasn't the greatest proponent for the beacon. I couldn't find any use for it. It just kind of sits there," he said.

The arches provide structural support for the station. The platform's roof hangs onto the brick arches, he said.

Money is the more serious sticking point. Victor notes that the plaza, the arches, the station bathroom and concession stand cost $2.5 million of LRT's closely watched $715 million budget.

"It was a very complicated project, both from a construction standpoint and a cost and coordination standpoint," Victor said. "The bottom line was we didn't have enough money for the tower."

The tower was never part of the Hiawatha Project's LRT-station budget, said Josh Collins, a community outreach specialist for the office.

Taxpayers paid Leicester $57,000 for the mosaic and plaza design, and contributed $300,000 to build the arches, Collins said.

Leicester said he is used to having projects scrapped at the last minute because of funding shortfalls. However, his story in stone remains incomplete, so he is trying to raise $300,000 privately to finish the "Tower of Babel" -- and extend its story throughout Elliot Park.

A neighborhood vision

Leicester is no flake with a dream. A native of England who moved to Minnesota 30 years ago, Leicester's resume includes more than 20 projects across the country, including the Zanja Madre, a $2.5 million sculpture installation in downtown Los Angeles briefly featured in the 1992 film "Batman Returns."

Elliot Park -- which stretches from the Metrodome area south to I-94, and west of I-35W to South 5th Street -- has long been one of Downtown's poorest neighborhoods. Now, it is experiencing a building and gentrification boom, with the 27-story Grant Park tower about to open, a 26-story tower about to break ground, and a 24-story tower on the drawing board.

Beginning at South 9th Street in Elliot Park, Leicester would like to line Chicago Avenue with several street-corner "markers" outfitted with benches designed to reflect neighborhood motifs. The columns would extend north to the new riverfront Guthrie Theater.

Near the theater, the columns would carry images of drama masks and river imagery evoking the St. Anthony Falls. They would feature sandstone and limestone elements.

At the Elliot Park end, the columns would feature motifs found on the neighborhood's historic brownstones.

The beacon would serve as a "focal" point for Downtown's eastern side, Leicester said, bolstering neighborhood identity in an area dominated by imposing megastructures such as the Metrodome, the Hennepin County Medical Center, 701 Park Ave., and the county's Juvenile Justice Center, 626 S. 6th St.

"It's a form of place-making," Leicester said.

Leicester has enlisted the help of David Fields, an economic development coordinator for Elliot Park Neighborhood, Inc. (EPNI), to complete his vision for the plaza and the surrounding neighborhood.

To Fields, the value of Leicester's proposal is rooted in its ability to be a marker for the

public -- an icon that "provides orientation and direction."

"It is no secret that east Downtown has been pretty much a no-man's land for several decades," Fields said, adding the area long dominated by parking lots is becoming a more dynamic place with the "proliferation" of new housing in the Mill District, the new Guthrie and the new LRT station.

"Improvements to the public realm contribute to this sense of place to the grid of property parcels -- one might say this realm provides the table setting for what goes on in the area," he said.

Leicester agreed, adding he'd like the tower to serve a practical function beyond its aesthetic value.

"On a larger framework, it is kind of a landmark beacon and we would suggest that it have a big clock on top of it so the people who would come in off the freeway or step out of the light-rail train would see the clock -- they would instinctively look up at it to check the time," he said.

EPNI's Building, Housing and Land Use Committee passed a motion July 15 recommending that the neighborhood group's board of directors work with Leicester to raise money for the project.

Leicester said there would be eight to 10 ornamental brick markers, each costing from $3,000 to $5,000. The columns would stand about 12 feet tall.

"Every block would act as a repeating element and it would help stitch the area together -- it would be more pedestrian oriented," he said.

To check out the Zanja Madre and other projects, visit Leicester's Web site at www.andrewleicester.com.