Native tour guide

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June 4, 2002 // UPDATED 1:22 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Ellen Nigon
Ellen Nigon

More proof that Downtown has arrived: it can justify a two-hour walking tour that opens the eyes of residents and tourists alike

We see Downtown every day -- the U.S. Bancorp halo hovering above, the quirky Foshay Tower, the Wells Fargo Center iridescent in the night. But rushing from meeting to meeting and building to building, the inherent grandeur of the place in which we live, work or play can be lost on us. Enter Shannan Hughes, Downtown's tour guide not only to the tourists but also to the natives.

A tourist in Paris or London would not fail to notice the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben. But guests to Minneapolis might not recognize the significance of IDS Center, 80 S. 8th St., or the Medical Arts Building, 825 Nicollet Mall. Shannan Hughes brings the same touristy atmosphere enjoyed by bigger, more celebrated cities to Downtown.

Hughes conducts walking tours of the Downtown core, $10 a head, no more than ten people per tour. She leads her guests on a path that includes Peavey Plaza, Nicollet Mall, Hennepin Avenue and just about every building of interest in the Downtown core.

Many large, metropolitan cities have walking tours, but the concept is fairly new to Minneapolis. Hughes believes that she may be one of the first to give walking tours of Downtown. She conceived the idea after realizing that a job as a walking tour guide could combine many of her passions.

"A year ago I thought, I love living Downtown, I love to walk, I love history. Then I came up with this idea, having been to other cities where I've taken walking tours," Hughes said.

The tour begins

Hughes begins her tours at the big clock on the corner of 12th Street and Nicollet Mall in Peavey Plaza. "The reason I start the tours here is because Peavey Plaza comes about as close as we get in Downtown Minneapolis to a public square," Hughes said.

She also begins the tours in Peavey Plaza because it is near the Convention Center and hotels at which her guests stay. However, walking-tour guests are not exclusively tourists.

Hughes once led her tour for a group of six Downtown property managers. "They wanted to come on the tour because the more they knew about Downtown -- about the architecture, the history -- when it came time to give information to potential clients, the better off they'd be," Hughes said.

After explaining the history of Peavey Plaza through the Peavey family and Minneapolis milling history, Hughes leads her tour across 12th Street to the Nicollet Mall. She delves into the history behind the pedestrian mall, peppering her monologue with details. For example: "Nicollet Mall opened in 1967. One of the dignitaries at the opening was Lady Bird Johnson, then First Lady."

Art a focus

But the tour is not simply history (which Hughes has her master's degree in). Walking down Nicollet, Hughes explains that the manhole covers are all public works of art, and so are the bus shelters.

Hughes is also cognizant that her guests might want recommendations of dinner spots or where to buy souvenirs. "You'll notice, as we go along the mall, very interesting shops, very interesting places to eat," Hughes tells her guests as she points out restaurants like The Local, 931 Nicollet Mall.

While on Nicollet Mall, Hughes stops to explain the Young Quinlan Building, 81 S. 9th St., and how it was once the first department store in Minnesota to carry ready-to-wear women's clothing in 1894.

From this spot on Nicollet Mall, across from the Young Quinlan building, Hughes asks her guests to scan the Downtown skyline.

"You'll see the Medical Arts Building. If you look up you'll notice the interesting terra cotta," Hughes said. "The next building, Midwest Plaza, 801 Nicollet Mall, was the one that was used on the Mary Tyler Moore Show when they pan up and say that's where she worked."

From Nicollet Mall, Hughes leads her tour to the Foshay Tower, 821 Marquette Ave., explaining the building's historical significance.

"As the story goes, Wilbur Foshay, as a teenager, had visited with his family Washington D.C. and had told his father if he was ever rich and famous as a businessman he wanted to build his own office tower that resembled the Washington Monument. Indeed, that's what he ended up doing," Hughes said.

According to Hughes, when the Foshay Tower opened in 1929, Foshay held a three-day celebration that included a march written specifically for the event by John Philip Sousa.

"But it was just two months (after the opening) that the great crash that started the Great Depression happened. Unfortunately for Mr. Foshay, he lost everything," Hughes explained.

Inside the Foshay Tower, Hughes also points out the art deco architecture and decorative work apparent in the grillwork, chandeliers, frosted glass and painting.

From the Foshay Tower, Hughes navigates her way over to the IDS Center. From outside the building, Hughes points out the way the use of glass and metal gives the building a cool, sophisticated look.

Once inside, Hughes explains features of architectural significance of the tallest building in Downtown. "This was one of the first buildings in Downtown Minneapolis that really incorporated the skyways in its designs in all four directions," she said.

A careful critic

Although an admitted Downtown booster, Hughes does offer some realistic criticisms of her home. While walking past City Center, she explains that some view this shopping center as "not the best design. It kind of turns its back to the Nicollet Mall," she said.

The next stops on Hughes' tour are creations by famed architect Cesar Pelli. Inside Gaviidae Common, 651 Nicollet Mall, Hughes points out the water fountain made by an enormous gold loon. Gaviidae, Hughes explains, is the Latin word for loon (Minnesota's state bird).

After Gaviidae, Hughes takes her tour to another Pelli triumph, the Wells Fargo Center, 601 2nd Ave. S. "Cesar Pelli made an effort to harken back to the art deco era of architecture in the design of the Wells Fargo Center," Hughes said. "It looks like it could be something from the 1930s, instead of opening in 1989."

From a building made to resemble the art deco movement, Hughes moves to a building made during the art deco movement. Built in the late 1920s, the Rand Tower, at the corner of 5th Street and Marquette Avenue, is a contemporary of the Foshay Tower.

According to Hughes, Rufus Rand was wild about aviation -- a passion that carried over into the building's design. Inside is a sculpture titled "Wings." Said Hughes, "Even though it's a stationary object, the fluid use of metal makes it look as though it's in motion. There have been those who have suggested that the face was modeled after Charles Lindbergh, the famous Minnesotan who flew solo from New York to Paris."

In contrast to the heavily art deco architecture of Downtown stands the Egyptian faade adjacent to the Rand Tower on Marquette Avenue.

"This is one of the wonderful oddities of Downtown Minneapolis," Hughes said. According to Hughes, in the 1920s the Marquette Bank was given an Egyptian faade. And in the 1960s, when the building was scheduled to be demolished, people made such a fuss about the demolition that part of the faade was saved on what is now a parking ramp.

Hennepin highlights

Hughes then moves onto Hennepin Avenue, a street that she says has a very different feel from Nicollet Mall. She explains the new development of Block E, the move of the Shubert Theater on wheels and the Hennepin Center for the Arts.

Walking south on Hennepin Avenue, Hughes references the Warehouse District, but does not take her guests there as the tour is approaching two hours already.

Hughes stops in front of Teener's Theatrical Department Store, 729 Hennepin Ave., to point out that it was once a theater and is now a family-owned costume shop. "It's a great place to poke around in," Hughes said, and as if to illustrate her point, a woman walks out of the store carrying a large plastic dumbbell.

She then points out the State and Orpheum Theatres, explaining their vaudeville history.

Hughes ends her tour walking down 10th Street, past the University of St. Thomas and the Interdistrict School on Hennepin and 10th Streets, explaining that Downtown is also a neighborhood with residents and schools. "There's a tendency to think Downtown is just office towers, but it really is a community."