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The abbreviated shelf life of posterity

"The Guthrie Theater will have profound effects on the life of this region."

There's something inherently weighty in the tone of newspaper editorials. It's as if the people who write them look up from their work every few minutes, gaze into space, and nod sagely to themselves in acknowledgment that they're composing a document that will inspire future generations of readers to gaze into space and nod sagely.

The quote at the top of this column appeared in the Minneapolis Tribune in May 1963, on the occasion of the Guthrie's debut performance, in architect Ralph Rapson's "breathtaking" new theater. The excerpt that follows is from last week's Star Tribune: "...Minnesota may have achieved its signature building, one that, like Sydney's Opera House, becomes widely recognizable and symbolic, perhaps, of a remote place that has given itself uncommonly to the arts."

Far be it from me to disparage architect Jean Nouvel's vision for a new Guthrie-on-the-riverfront. Nouvel's design looks great. Brilliant, even (to swipe from the Star Tribune's editorial concordance). I especially like that nifty skyway-to-nowhere cantilevered over the River Road.

But a remote place that has given itself uncommonly to the arts? Where are we, anyway? Banff?

I found that old Tribune editorial on microfilm at the Minneapolis Public Library. Oddly, the item wasn't among the ephemera in the Minneapolis Collection, but paging through those files was enlightening all the same.

The Guthrie's founding was a watershed event. Sir Tyrone Guthrie, described by a Tribune reporter (Barbara Flanagan!) as "a ruddy-haired giant of a man both in and out of the theater," descended on Minneapolis in November 1959 on a barnstorming tour of sorts. He was searching for a site to test his belief that, as Flanagan put it, "a permanent repertory company might bloom somewhere in the middle of the United States--away from Broadway." The following summer Guthrie and his partners chose Minneapolis over proposals from Detroit and Milwaukee. Rapson, already a prominent local architect, was tapped to design the company's new home. And the rest, as they say, is history. (For more about Rapson's creation, see Mike Mosedale's "Stage Protest" in the December 12 issue of City Pages.)

Though some of the national press that attended the Guthrie's conception gave off a whiff of big-city condescension, in a 1961 article in the Saturday Review, theater critic Henry Hewes took the venture seriously, musing about the potential impact on what he pointed out was the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the United States: "Because businesses have come to recognize the role good art, good music, and good theatre play in keeping their most valuable executives and workers from switching to other cities with better facilities, the theatre will no doubt attract more high-quality industries to the area."

Compare that observation to this one, from last week's Star Tribune editorial: "The arts are no longer a frill. They and their offshoots--advertising, software, public relations, graphic design--are crucial to Minnesota's economic well-being. Cities that draw talented workers will prosper in this new economy. Attractive, dynamic places with civic amenities like theaters, museums, stadiums, parks, transportation systems and creative housing will draw talent. Places that fail to invest will be left behind."

The editorial writers clearly have another agenda--stadiums, eh?--yet the similarity to the Hewes passage is striking.

Back to Hewes: "Then, too, in an age when every American city is beginning to look like every other American city, the best way to hold onto a definite, recognizable personality is through the establishment of unique structures which, like the Frank Lloyd Wright Theatre in Dallas, give a special distinction to the community."

Hewes praised Rapson's Guthrie design, predicting that the new edifice would be "distinctive in the extreme." But--and remember, this was 1961, long before the term preservation forged its way into the national lexicon--he also sounded a foreboding note: "The need here for such distinction is grave, for a current $70,000,000 Lower Loop development program threatens the city's architectural personality. While the conspicuous Foshay Tower and the old-fashioned County Court House seem secure, the scheduled demolition of the Metropolitan Building...will soon diminish the city's distinctiveness even further."

Forty years later, while Frank Lloyd Wright's contribution to Dallas remains a showpiece, Rapson's Guthrie is slated for demolition--as is the downtown library.

"With world-class architects designing a new library-planetarium and Walker Art Center, Minneapolis may soon have three new cultural gems," last week's Star Tribune oozes. "More important, Minnesotans will have renewed their forebears' commitment to carve from these far northern woods and prairies a special place."

It's unlikely that any amount of carving can measure up to the cultural contributions of folks like Gov. Jesse Ventura, who never misses an opportunity to present our best side to the rest of the nation. Or Rich Stanek, the Maple Grove legislator who recently introduced a bill in the Minnesota House to create a lottery game in which participants scratch off a likeness of Osama bin Laden.

Around here, architectural gems come and go, but it's the commitment of the citizenry that really puts Minnesota on the map.

 
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