In with the Old

With the AIA Guide to the Twin Cities, Larry Millett hijacks the parade of homes

Larry Millett
AIA Guide to the Twin Cities
Minnesota Historical
Society Press

Join Larry Millett on a bike ride and you will inevitably end up in an alley. The architecture critic has made a career of remembering the forgotten and uncovering the concealed. So it follows that his personal tours include frequent detours through these most private and neglected of public spaces.

We don't happen across any hidden wonders of high design on this ride in St. Paul; Millett pretty much knows where those are in the Twin Cities. But we do find a hidden wonder of low design: a backyard menagerie featuring a patriotic fire hydrant, a dwarf windmill, a rock garden, and a small swimming pool surrounded by penguins, pelicans, frogs, deer, and butterflies, living in a kind of ecumenical ecosystem. It's hard to say whether the prevailing influence here is postmodernism or putt-putt golf.

Building a bridge to the 19th century: Architecture critic Larry Millett
Richard Fleischman
Building a bridge to the 19th century: Architecture critic Larry Millett

"You couldn't get away with this in the suburbs," Millett says appreciatively. "Someone would say it was in bad taste. And it is in bad taste. And we accept it. Good taste can kill a city faster than anything."

Millett's own tastes, like his bike helmet, are a touch askew. Or rather they might seem that way until you get to know his mixed leanings: traditionalism and experimentalism, populism and aestheticism, beautiful lines and one-liners. He's a self-confessed contrarian who argues for the historic preservation of the Metrodome with incomplete facetiousness. He's also a diplomatic critic-historian whose new AIA Guide to the Twin Cities includes thoughtful analyses of buildings like the Rarig Center and Riverside Plaza, Ralph Rapson's unloved brutalist giants.

Exiting the alley onto Stewart Avenue, we proceed from broad comedy to cute irony: a mansion built in 1885 for brewery kingpin William Banholzer. For the past 50 years it has been home to the Hazelden Fellowship Club, where the recently rehabbed transition back to everyday sobriety in a stately home financed by beer.

For three summers, Millett surveyed the cities this way, cruising around on an off-brand mountain bike, researching his Baedeker/reference tome. (The book was published by Minnesota Historical Society Press with support from the state chapter of the American Institute of Architects.) Millett says the original manuscript was trimmed by about a third, which was probably wise. No one wants to take a walking tour while toting the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the book's intro, Millett admits that the Twin Cities probably offer no more than 50 structures of national architectural importance. Yet he has little trouble coming up with compelling entries of pithy criticism, history, and trivia on roughly 1,500 buildings and landmarks. The guide reveals Millett's decades of scholarship, but those who can't consistently distinguish Stick style from Stick-Eastlake style will appreciate the author's fondness for metaphor. The Hennepin Aristocrat Apartment building, for instance, is "a loud sportcoat—the kind, say, a car salesman might have worn in the days of tail fins and V-8s."

Likewise, Edward Larrabee Barnes's '71 Walker Art Center is "a distant father figure—admirable for its disciplined strength but hard to love."

Millett has longish salt-and-pepper hair, bushy eyebrows, a stubbly, grizzled beard, and a general air of unsentimental avuncularity. Today he wears cargo shorts and a sleeveless exercise shirt. He has chosen to ride through West Seventh because it features some of the oldest houses in the Twin Cities. And because he lives here. Productive people tend not to shy away needlessly from convenience. About a week ago, he and his fiancée—the 59-year-old Millett will begin his third marriage this summer—moved into a condo in the James C. Burbank Row House, which might be the oldest row house in St. Paul, according to page 429 of the AIA Guide.

The buildings of the predominantly working- and middle-class West Seventh neighborhood are a nice mix of old and not as old—modest or unrenovated homes next to careful restorations. It's typical of the area that Millett's 133-year-old porch, where we have a pre-ride chat, looks out on a tiny, electric-blue tattoo emporium.

"I don't mind the color of the tattoo parlor," he says, rapping on the arms of his Adirondack chair. "I don't mind the smell of beef from Mancini's Char House down the road, either—five items on the menu, all of them beef."

Larry Millett was born in north Minneapolis, and excepting a few collegiate relocations, he has lived in the Twin Cities all his life. His father's side of the family goes back to the city's founding days. "My grandfather owned a bar on Fifth and Washington," he says. "There are two versions of how he died young: One is that he was the victim of a fatal carriage accident; the other is that he was a drunk."

Millett took an interest in architecture and urban planning as a boy and harbored dreams of becoming a great architect. "I tend to think that the things you're passionate about when you're 12 will be the things you're passionate about forever, but I was also interested in books and literature, so I got an English degree." (In addition to his several books about local architecture and culture, Millett has published five Sherlock Holmes pastiches, four of them set in Minnesota.)

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