Green space or green zits?

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April 30, 2002 // UPDATED 1:18 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Bette Hammel
Bette Hammel

Entering its sixth spring, the U.S. Courthouse plaza continues to inspire ridicule, and grins

Spring has sporadically sprung, and many Downtowners are once again walking outdoors. Some venture toward City Hall where they pass by the block-long plaza by the U.S. Courthouse Building along Fourth Street. You know the one -- dotted with grassy lumps officially described as \"glacial drumlins,\" but to many Minnesotans, mindful of Indian burial mounds...or something less flattering.

Granted, the plaza is five years old so we should be used to it by now. But the ridicule goes on from bystanders making deprecating remarks such as \"green zits\" or \"whale-shaped humps\" or, ahem, \"did a herd of elephants go through there?\"

The enduring question is, does the U.S. Courthouse plaza work as public space?

The Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, James Rosenbaum, insists that it does, based on his observations walking around other public spaces Downtown. \"Although a large number of people do not think it is very handsome, it is one of the most used public plazas Downtown," Rosenbaum said. "Any day at lunch, there are people sitting out there. Kids run up and down on the hills. The only other space as popular is the one on the south side of the Government Center."

Security challenges

When you consider the General Service Administration's security requirements for federal courthouses, maybe laughter out on the plaza is a good thing. In these uncertain times, the feds obviously do not want wide-open spaces such as sweeping terraces or lawns in front of public buildings. The courthouse opened a year after the Oklahoma City bombing; accordingly, the Minneapolis building's designer, Massachusetts landscape architect Martha Schwartz, had to fill a good portion of the plaza with raised elements. She also had to figure out how to place growing plants over the concrete roof of a parking garage and tunnel leading to City Hall.

After researching Minnesota's natural landscape, Schwartz decided to symbolize the state by designing a field of glacial drumlins (the landform left by retreating glaciers) planted with native jack pine trees and wildflowers. She also met with local Indian groups to make sure her mounds were not the same size or shape as their burial mounds. (Nevertheless, the similarity prevails.)

For seating, she placed log benches stained with silver to represent the state's timber industry. That was not a good idea, according to local landscape architect and writer, Frank Martin, who said of the silver staining, "it trivializes Minnesota ecology."

Sure enough, a year later, the GSA scattered gray metallic outdoor benches around the plaza for added comfort.

De-flowered

How has the plaza landscaping worked out, earth mounds and all? Kathleen Anderson, director of Congressman Martin Sabo's Minneapolis office and one of the original members of the GSA Community Arts Panel, says she still likes the drumlins. "But I'm very disappointed in the grasses on top," Anderson conceded. "They should be more thickly matted, the kind that turns really green."

Building property manager Rick Balthazor explains the original plan was for flowing prairie grasses on the mounds. Now, however, it\'s Kentucky blue grass maintained with a weed-whacker at 6-8 inches tall. Although crocuses were planted at first, squirrels have eaten most of them by now, while a few pretty little blue-flowering plants are now blooming.

In contrast, the sturdy jack pines seem to be flourishing since they were topped last fall. From across the street where City Hall denizens gaze upon the plaza daily, council assistant Douglas Gardner wishes the landscaping were more inviting.

Rock out

On the east side of the plaza, Anderson's favorite Downtown public art, "Rockman" and accompanying cartoon-like figures, add a refreshing touch to the formality of the plaza's design. Cast in bronze, they include storybook characters such as the tortoise and the hare, a watchful frog, a Disney-ish couple holding hands, a mythical Greek king carrying a heavy boulder on his back, a comical cameraman, a Pillsbury doughboy-like fellow, and even a playful actress a la Marlene Dietrich in top hat.

No doubt New York-based artist Tom Otterness had author Jonathan Swift in mind when he created these allegorical small people who once dwelt in lands far away but chose to live on this Courthouse plaza. Rosenbaum gets a kick out of the social drama: "A little bit of fun outside this severe environment is a good thing. It's the cutest thing to see kids sitting on the little frogs."

Despite the original security restrictions, there is still ample space provided in the center of the Courthouse plaza, where a pattern of striped paving leads to the entrance. It's a great place for rallies that go on about twice a week. On nice days, various Downtowners find their way to what doubles for a city park in the government district where they enjoy their bag lunches. Those who prefer eating indoors can order either breakfast or lunch in the wood-paneled Federal Caf that overlooks the plaza, open Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.

When you visit the plaza, be sure to take in the splendid architectural vista that

surrounds the space: two grand old

landmarks, Minneapolis City Hall, 350 S. 6th St., with its pinkish stone all cleaned up, and the venerable Grain Exchange, 400 S. 4th St.