Lunchtime Tourist

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January 24, 2005 // UPDATED 1:51 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Linda Koutsky
Linda Koutsky

While a visit to the Hennepin County Government Center is often stressful, this building makes an amusing architectural icon.

Originally, our county offices shared space with City Hall, but by the 1970s, they needed more room. The county hired acclaimed modernist John Carl Warnecke to design the new facility. Known for clean contemporary designs that still retained a measure of humanity, Warnecke proposed two rectangular towers connected with a 24-story atrium. Seven bridges unite the floors and float above a plant-filled lobby. The exterior is clad with red granite from Ortonville, Minn. The Government Center opened in 1974.

To create a grand outdoor plaza facing city hall, Warnecke built the towers on two city blocks that completely straddle 6th Street - a pre-9/11 design that would never get built today. In fact, for security reasons, passengers can no longer get in or out of their vehicles under the building anymore. More than 13,000 people a day pass through the center paying traffic tickets, getting fishing licenses, obtaining real estate information, buying bus passes, posing for passport photos, filing for divorce and going to work.

John Carl Warnecke was born in 1919 in Oakland, Calif. He studied at Stanford University and received an architecture degree from Harvard. He opened his own office in San Francisco and soon began receiving attention and awards for his modernist designs. Some of his other projects include the pedestrian mall in front of the White House, John F. Kennedy's eternal flame gravesite memorial, Hawaii's State Capitol, an American Embassy in Thailand, and libraries for Stanford and the University of California.

One of Warnecke's most important commissions was designing several buildings at Asilomar in Pacific Grove, Calif. The historic grounds featured arts-and-crafts-style buildings designed by revered architect Julia Morgan. Warnecke's use of hand-split cedar shakes, local stone and redwood paneling were a success and received a national award. While our Warnecke is more severe than organic, the plaza is one of Downtown's largest open spaces and the best place from which to watch LRT.

LUNCH TIP: Support our local government by having lunch in the lower level caf!

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