In the spring of 1970, an employee of Minneapolis city government did a photographic survey of Hennepin Avenue downtown. The goal was to document six blocks of the city’s most famous avenue, its oldest commercial strip, originally developed as the main artery for the 19th century metropolis.
The photographer walked the east and the west side of the street, taking a series of black and white snapshots in quick succession. The images were developed, printed and then taped into two crude panoramas. At some point, these rolls of photographs were deposited in a box that landed in the tower archives at Minneapolis City Hall. That’s where Historyapolis researchers found them this spring.
We unfurled the chain of connected images on a table in the archives. The vintage facades of Hennepin Avenue in the Mary Tyler Moore era came alive for us. The street’s legendary establishments were all there: the Hotel Andrews; Augie’s Theatre Lounge; the Brass Rail; Rifle Sport; Shinders Bookstore; the Poodle Club; the Saddle Bar; Plantation Pancakes; Music City and Musicland; the Hi-Lo 29 Bar; and the Gay ’90s. We saw the legendary “620 Club–Where Turkey was King,” though it was already shuttered by the time these photos were taken. This club — owned by Vikings owner Max Winter — was a center for action downtown in the 1950s, attracting the patronage of sports figures, reporters, business people, entertainers and FBI agents, who sat at “the Round Table,” which barred women from joining in the conversation. This night spot was next door to the Great Northern Market, known for its cuts of meat and sawdust on the floor. It showed the Cafe di Napoli, which according to Minneapolis booster and columnist Barbara Flanagan was one of the “few good restaurants left on that street worth visiting.”
The photographs had no dates. But the marquees of the Orpheum, the State, the Mann and the Gopher gave us the clues we needed. The Orpheum Theater — a first run cinema at this point — was advertising “Halls of Anger,” which was released on April 29th, 1970. “A Man Called Horse,” which came out on the same day, played at another venue down the block.
This panorama was created to provide an utilitarian and unvarnished portrait of the city’s grittiest blocks for urban planners and community leaders. In 1966, the Minneapolis Star called Hennepin Avenue “a street with a personality problem, beckoning only the more adventuresome to its strip joints, paperback bookstores and streetwalking businesswomen and their agents.” Two years later, a massive redevelopment of Nicollet Avenue was unveiled. The shopping street had been redesigned into a pedestrian mall that captured the attention of urban planners around the world.
Hennepin was seen as the antithesis of its sister street. “If the Avenues of downtown Minneapolis were personalized, Hennepin would probably be the disheveled and somewhat uninhibited spouse of the well-dressed and proper Nicollet Mall,” a report to the mayor declared. “They are an inseparable pair, going everywhere together, even though the degree of Hennepin’s drinking problem and its deportment and appearance does affect the image of the entire family.”
City leaders vowed to erase this blemish on their otherwise model downtown. The problem of Hennepin Avenue was taken up by the Walker Art Center, which worked with the Minneapolis Downtown Council and the city Planning Department to solicit proposals from artists, architects, designers and urban planners on how to remake the entertainment district. They hosted a symposium on April 25–26, 1970 which likely inspired the making of this panorama.
These plans never made it off the drawing board. By the end of the decade, critics of urban redevelopment were ascendant. And local artists like Patrick Scully articulated a new enthusiasm for the seamy ambience of the city’s entertainment district. In 1982, Scully used these “problem” blocks as the backdrop for a set of conceptual dance and music pieces that he stitched into a quirky film called “Shinders to Shinders.” Scully celebrated the edgy vitality of the “Avenue,” recasting this stretch of Hennepin as the epicenter of funky, new-wave urbanity.
It was not until the 1990s that the blocks shown here were subjected to a comprehensive redevelopment plan, which changed the streetscape but not the gritty character of the city’s entertainment district.
Kirsten Delegard is director of the Historyapolis Project, which is part of the history department at Augsburg College. The Historyapolis Project seeks to bring fresh attention to the history of Minneapolis and is working to unearth stories that can explain how the city took shape. During 2014, Delegard is compiling an inventory of historical resources pertinent to Minneapolis with the help of a team of students and citizen-researchers associated with the Historyapolis Lab. For more details visit our website at www.historyapolis.com. This project has been made possible by the Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, which is administered by the Minnesota Historical Society. Find it on FB at www.facebook.com/TheHistoryapolisProject