Stage Protest

With demolition all but assured, preservationists aim to take their fight to court

As he wolfs down a late dinner, Paul Metsa--longtime fixture on the Minnesota folk scene--is doing his best to sound upbeat. "I wouldn't have remained in the music business for more than 20 years if I wasn't a born optimist," he jokes, settling into a seat at Eli's, a downtown Minneapolis bar, alongside some friends.

But, truth be told, it has been a rough few weeks for Metsa. As the founder of the group SavetheGuthrie.org, Metsa has spent much of the past year marshalling opposition to the proposed razing of Minneapolis's famed Guthrie Theater. He has made speeches to public officials, written letters, gathered some 1,000 signatures, and solicited words of support from assorted cultural heavyweights, including acclaimed architects Cesar Pelli and Kevin Roche.

To date, Metsa acknowledges, the efforts have yielded little. On November 9, the Minneapolis City Council voted 8 to 3 to grant a demolition permit to the Walker Art Center, which owns the theater. Ten days earlier, a city-council subcommittee rejected a recommendation from the city's Historic Preservation Committee that the 38-year-old building be spared the wrecking ball. For Metsa, both forays to city hall proved frustrating. "They [the council members] were polite, but they didn't listen to a damn word we said," he says.

On this night, Metsa and eight other members of SavetheGuthrie are contemplating their next move. Right now, Metsa says, the group is negotiating with a "couple of lawyers" who've expressed interest in taking up the fight. An injunction will likely be the first order of business. Then, barring a last-minute deal, he figures the group will have to sue, most likely under a law called the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act. "It's not something we want to do," he says. "But I don't see any willingness to compromise on the part of the Walker."

The group had hoped that the city council would delay its vote on the demolition permit until the end of the year, when a report on whether the theater is eligible for placement on the National Register of Historic Places is due. The study, which was commissioned by the Minnesota Historical Society, has no legally binding bearing on the building's fate. But, says SavetheGuthrie member Bob Roscoe, a designation of historic status might have created enough of a public-relations problem to give both the city and the Walker cause to reconsider.

Roscoe, an architect and a former member of the Minneapolis Historic Preservation Commission who has been involved in scads of preservation battles over the years, contends that the city and the Walker ought to be embarrassed, regardless of the report's findings. "[Guthrie architect] Ralph Rapson is one of the masters of modernism, and this is one of his most sublime achievements," Roscoe says. When Roscoe first learned of plans to raze the theater, he says, he thought there might be a legitimate argument in favor of demolition. After all, over the decades, there have been extensive modifications to the Guthrie. In the view of the Walker (and some architecture critics, including Larry Millett, the respected Pioneer Press writer), those changes compromised the building's architectural integrity.

But then last spring, Roscoe attended the widely heralded Royal National Theater production of Hamlet staged at the Guthrie. "When I walked into the auditorium, I realized I had the same Guthrie experience I've had ever since the place opened. The essence was still there. The place could still work its magic." In Roscoe's view, the Guthrie is being penalized because of an essential element of its modernity. "Modern architecture is supposed to be flexible," he says. "The greatness of the design is to accommodate change."

As it turned out, the impaired integrity argument--repeatedly cited by the Walker and others--swayed the city council. "A building of this significance deserves better than what the council gave it," says Paul Ostrow, one of three council members to vote against granting the demolition permit. "I don't think this was in the interest of the city, or of the Walker." At the very least, Ostrow says, the council should have waited to find out whether the theater would be deemed eligible for the National Register.

"That's academic," says David Galligan, administrative director at the Walker. "And it isn't relevant to the decision that was made in Minneapolis last week." Among other things, a historic designation would require the consent of the building's owner--and that, Galligan says, isn't going to happen. The Walker is currently raising funds for a $79 million expansion, which would include new galleries, a restaurant, a parking ramp, and, on the land where the Guthrie now sits, a three-acre garden. Galligan won't say how far along the Walker is in meeting its fundraising goal. But he argues that the museum needed to have a definitive plan in place to appeal to donors. "Donors are not attracted to ambiguity," Galligan says. "We can't pile uncertainty upon uncertainty by being unclear about the disposition of these three acres. This decision will make the remainder of the fundraising much easier."

As Galligan tells it, the SavetheGuthrie folk simply fail to understand or accept some fundamental realities. A reuse study commissioned by the Walker, he points out, found no suitable tenants for the theater. Once the Guthrie troupe moves to its proposed three-theater complex on the downtown riverfront (slated for 2005), he insists, there will be no one capable of footing the bill for some needed renovations to the building.

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