Dear John

An architecture tour you can take with your pants around your ankles

The first-floor men's room at the Gay 90's has just been cleaned. The sting of industrial-strength antiseptic hits the nose and tongue like a Lysol fart, but Rebecca Noran doesn't seem to mind. She's been here before. In fact, Noran has spent the last two years trolling the bathrooms of the Twin Cities—photographing them, learning about their histories, and putting her findings into an MFA thesis, an 80-page paper, and a museum exhibition.

"That's a prison-issue toilet," notes Noran about the gleaming throne before her, as she prepares to have her photograph taken in the stall. "They had to get it because regular [porcelain] ones kept getting destroyed and constantly replaced. It's a nightclub. People have sex, do drugs. They're bolted in and metal. This used to be a Chinese restaurant during prohibition, which is why there's Chinese decor."

Noran's fanfare for the commode began when she was working at First Avenue in 2000 as editor of the club's in-house magazine and also as its archivist. (She was responsible for unearthing the film footage that made up Rick Fuller's recent labor of love First Avenue: Hayday.) She took Sean Tillman (a.k.a. Har Mar Superstar) to the women's room at the Har Mar Theater in St. Paul for a photo shoot, and discovered a bathroom that was drastically different from what you'd expect in a third-tier mall.

"Everyone had told me how great the bathroom at the Har Mar was, but it's hard to believe," says Noran, a 28-year-old New Jersey native who came to Minnesota to attend Macalester College in 1995. "Each stall is a different color. There's a red stall, a yellow stall, a blue stall. There's round lights. There's leopard print on the ceiling. That's what triggered the whole thing: I was totally shocked to find a bathroom like that."

At the beginning of 2003, the Design Institute at the University of Minnesota put out a call for proposals for so-called "knowledge maps" that would represent different ways to connect the Twin Cities. Noran didn't pitch it to the Institute then, but she squirreled away the idea for her creative thesis in interactive design at the new College of Design at the University of Minnesota. For the next three years, she collected names of must-smell bathrooms. Then this summer she took off six weeks from her job as graphic designer in the College of Education and Human Development to do the dirty work. She snapped 2,000 photographs, 250 of which make up the show "Places to Go: Bathrooms of the Twin Cities," which opens Saturday at the Hennepin History Museum.

"I was thinking about all of the interesting small businesses I love, many of which were kind of trapped in an era," she says, on the way from the 90's to Macy's in downtown Minneapolis. "You walk in and are instantly transported to another place and time. But you always remember that place, even if you move away. I thought about this sense of place concept a lot doing the First Ave history stuff—so many people were so connected to that place, both in spirit but also the physical space.

"The Minnesota Historical Society has a book called Minnesota Eats Out, there's Lost Twin Cities, guide books, architecture studies. But I was thinking about the places and spaces that history might forget but people remember. Just the places where you meet your friends, celebrate with your family, propose to your wife, lose your wallet—they create a shared memory. So I thought about what would connect these places in a concrete way and came up with bathrooms."

Along the way, she has collected loo minutia and head facts that trail from her mind like toilet paper from a post-piss nightclubber's boot. Such as:

· "The bathrooms in the skyways aren't marked. You can't find them, because they want to keep the traffic flowing, and because they don't want [the riff raff] using the bathrooms."

· "Jason McClean [proprietor of the Varsity Theater/Loring Pasta Bar] told me he thinks of the bathroom as a retreat, and so he fashioned the bathrooms there from cafes he saw in Europe."

· "Luci Ancora in St. Paul is a small family-owned Italian restaurant. They opted for a fancier tile, rather than a plain white, because their inspiration for the bathroom was Pompeii."

· "I realize I have a lot of urinals in the show, because there's such a greater variety. There's all kinds of troughs. Williams Arena has these big white troughs. Some have barriers. Some have little troughs. Some have big troughs."

· "At the Lexington, they have a lounge for men. The women's lounge is all floral and wicker. The men's room had some phone books, a little chair, a coat rack, a pipe stand. Manly things. And the men's room at Sheik's [strip club] has this black tile and a place to get your shoes shined, and it's really fancy. The women's room is just basic, white, functional."

· "I discovered a website called 'The Happiest Potties on Earth.' This family from California found themselves going to Disneyland all the time, so they rated the bathrooms there based on how they worked for small children."

· "At Stasiu's [in northeast Minneapolis], guys are always pulling their girlfriends into the men's room to show them the urinals. They're originally from the Nicollet Hotel and they say Al Capone might have used them."

Hands down, Noran's favorite bathroom is the fourth-floor women's room at Macy's. She loves the fact that it has survived the slow, miserable slump from Dayton's to Marshall Field's and now to Macy's, and openly delights in the art-deco "Free Toilet" sign that marks the gateway from the roomy sink area to the stalls. It's an elegant lounge, an oasis, really—a place where many downtown denizens have sought refuge. In other words, this place to smoke, chat, and chill is as significant a historical spot as the Grain Belt sign, the Foshay Tower, or Mickey's Diner.

"There are no historical photos of bathrooms," says Noran. "When they record interiors of places, they don't record the bathroom. Who cares, right? It's a bathroom. But to me, when you go out someplace, that's one of the things you talk about if it's at all different. You say something about it. If the sink was a little weird or the flusher did something goofy, you go back to your table of friends and say, 'Hey, you gotta go check this out.'

"People have asked me, 'What do you find beautiful in bathrooms?' All I can say is that the State Theater actually hung on to a bunch of toilets, sinks, and urinals. They're lavender and mint green. They were in the basement of the Orpheum, and they lugged these huge fixtures up the stairs for me, and now they're in my show."

Places to Go: Bathrooms of the Twin Cities opens Saturday, September 30 (opening reception: 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.) and runs through December 30 at the Hennepin History Museum; 612.870.1329 and www.hhmuseum.org

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