The skyways turn 40

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May 14, 2002 // UPDATED 1:20 pm - April 30, 2007
By: James Beach
James Beach

In 1962, the first skyway was born Downtown... even if no one is quite sure which one it was.

The first in a three-part 40th-anniversary series.

Imagine Nicollet Mall at skyway level: vehicles and pedestrians move about as usual below a mammoth structure while four street-corner escalators transport shoppers from street-level to the gardens, boutiques and restaurants above.

If forward-thinking businessman Leslie Park had been a bit more convincing in front of the Minneapolis Downtown Council in 1959, crews would have hoisted Nicollet Mall 14 feet in the air.

Though the Downtown Council rejected Park's raised plaza plan in favor of the current street-level mall, Park persisted with his second-level concept. He incorporated a skyway into the new multi-purpose Northstar complex, asking local architect and colleague Ed Baker to flesh out the logistics of the bridge.

At least, this is the version recorded by former Skyway News publisher Sam Kaufman in his book The Skyway Cities.

However, Baker said that the skyway concept began as an elevated fast-food court that would connect the Northwestern Bank building, the Baker Block and Marquette Bank over the intersection of Marquette Avenue and 7th Street. Although approved by the city, the idea was scrapped because of property restrictions and other red tape surrounding the corner's fee-holders.

"To avoid rewriting ground leases, we decided to connect at the middle of the block instead of at the corners," Baker explained in a recent interview.

Frank Brust, Downtown Council director of management services, insists his predecessors pushed for an enclosed system after Southdale Mall opened in 1956. "The concern in Downtown

Minneapolis was that a lot of Downtown business would float out to Southdale if something wasn't done to counteract it," he said. "The solution became skyways -- linking Downtown retail under one roof."

Baker remembers it differently. "The Downtown Council didn't have anything to do with the first skyway," he said via phone from his Florida residence. "The Northstar developers, specifically principal developer Park, came up with the idea."

Who's on first? Two things everyone agrees on: Baker designed the first skyway, and it opened in 1962. But which skyway actually holds the title of earliest bridge?

Kaufman claimed the first skyway reached across Marquette Avenue between 6th and 7th Streets, connecting the former Cargill Building (known today as the Northstar complex) with the Northwestern Bank building. Yet Brust, citing a 1992 Towle Report, said that the first bridge crossed 7th Street from the Cargill Building to the Roanoke Building (currently part of Baker block).

What about the man who was there? "The first skyways opened within 30-60 days of each other," Baker told the Star Tribune in 1996. "I can't even say which came first."

Regardless of which was the initial skyway, both stand as a testament to the utilitarian design principles of the early '60s. Conceived as strictly functional walkways, the concrete and steel structures were barely 10 feet wide. And though they lacked aesthetic value, the skyways did open the door to a unique and novel view of the city. Pedestrians could look down upon traffic or up at office towers without having to brave the elements as they crossed from one building to another.

City planners also had a better view, albeit a more figurative one; they conceived a new network in the sky, connecting offices, shops and restaurants above the bustle, noise and grime of the street. Second-story property values began to climb almost immediately.

"Skyways were commercially viable from the start, or businesses would not have continued to build them," Brust said.

"Before the skyways, second-floor space wasn't too desirable," Baker added. "So much of it was pawn shops, watch and eyeglass repair, and sewing and seamstress shops."

More than a walkway These skyways were originally, as one proponent noted, "plain rectangles to move people" from building to building. However, in 1967, Dain, Kalman & Quail, First National Bank, Farmers & Mechanics Bank, and Minnesota Federal Savings & Loan commissioned architect Milo Thompson to design the third skyway. It crossed 6th Street between Northstar Center and First National Bank Building (now Rand Tower).

With plush carpeting on the floor, baseboards and sculpted ceiling, and the addition of directory boards, this bridge neatly incorporated aesthetic value in the functional element.

The bridge opened to critical acclaim in 1969, securing Cerney an award from the Minnesota Society of Architects. Thompson's wasn't the only one constructed that year, however; the Radisson Mart met the Radisson Hotel across 7th Street, and a skyway at Dayton's (currently Marshall Field's) crossed 8th Street to connect with the new LaSalle Court shopping mall.

Boom times

By 1973 -- with the opening of four skyways at the new IDS Center -- second-level space rented for at least as much as street-level, according to Kaufman. Live plants, colored glass and Muzak became standard fare in the new bridges, and skyway life boomed. (A new newspaper, Skyway News, had made its debut in 1970.)

"My major contribution to the architecture of the IDS Center was the skyways," said Baker.

"They connected the financial and retail districts."

Because of the success of the IDS skyways, life Downtown adjusted to an emphasis on the second level. Architects automatically incorporated four skyways into the proposed City Center complex, 615 Hennepin Ave., strengthening the appeal and profitability of the Central Business District (CBD) core.

To make space for the immense City Center, crews demolished the two Radisson buildings in 1981 -- yet preserved the skyway, which would be recycled to connect the Lumber Exchange Building and the Chamber of Commerce (The 15 Building) across 5th Street. In his book, Kaufman recalls Minneapolitans guzzling 20 cases of champagne for the street gala, wildly speculating about the bridge's undisclosed price as it was mounted on trucks and driven to its new site.

Though a Thanksgiving Day fire destroyed the interior of the 16-story Northwestern Bank building in 1982, the first (or second!) skyway survived, becoming evidence of the durability of the skyway system.

With the completion of the City Center in 1983, 23 extensions of the skyway system connected the CBD. Later that year the 24th opened, joining Hennepin County Government Center, 300 S. 6th St., to the Pillsbury Center across Third Avenue with the city's first "dogleg" bridge. The Minneapolis Metro '85 Report predicted 75 skyways by 1990.

Though the city didn't meet expectations, the report was close.

Architectural reporter Bette Hammel recalls a "sudden burst of new towers in the late '80s and early '90s," which furthered Downtown development and spurred economic gain. The burgeoning skyway system lured more businesses and business from the street and into the sky-high

network.

"Over the past decade the city has seen sweeping changes," Hammel said. "And these changes are continuing."

Today, approximately 74 skyways help integrate the retail, hospitality and business elements of the CBD. With three more currently under construction and many more on drawing boards throughout the city, Minneapolis shows no signs of slowing expansion of its skyway highway.

Next week: Part II, commerce and crime one floor up.