In with the Old

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

In '72, he landed a job as a night general assignment reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, where we worked for 30 years, most notably as an architecture critic. He published his first book, The Curve of the Arch: The Story of Louis Sullivan's Owatonna Bank, in 1985.

Shortly thereafter he began work on what remains his magnum opus, 1992's Lost Twin Cities, a written and pictorial history of our much-leveled architectural past. More than just a melancholy nostalgia trip, it used the cities' skyline as an observation post for its cultural history. Here, Millett chronicled the follies of industry barons and city planners—either in the form of mansions too costly to entice a second owner, or buildings destroyed during the bulldozer days of '50s and '60s "urban renewal." A follow-up, Twin Cities Then and Now, juxtaposed vintage street images with circa-'95 shots of the same coordinates, showing that while some spots have managed a successful marriage of old and new, others have progressed from clearly defined streets full of "rude vitality" to auto-dominated expanses of gray nothing.

If you're curious enough to pick up the AIA Guide in the first place, you'll probably protest Millett's omissions. To wit: Many of us were perplexed by the snubbing of 35th and Lyndale's Quality Paint & Auto Body, which is boldly topped with a yellow Corvette and often features Don Lindgren's peripatetic metal moose sculpture on its landscaped grounds. Not that such a minor gaffe merits a cause célebré.

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

Besides, while you're noting the grievously left-out, you'll no doubt encounter some vernacular and high-style buildings that you hadn't seen before or had seen but never noticed. I for one had managed to overlook two art deco beauties, one little-known, one celebrated. First, there's the Dwight Demaine Dental Office ("We cater to cowards," says the sign out front), a swell Moderne box in Nokomis. Then there's Fifth and Marquette's aviation-themed Rand Tower, whose lobby features an elegant inlaid floor and a spiral staircase that leads grandly to—here the romance is somewhat compromised—a food court highlighted by Potbelly Sandwich Works.

Yet where locally marketed architectural books can be impressive mostly as feats of civic self-congratulation, Millett mixes pride with disgust. For example, here he is on the Gigli of local edifices: "Commercial architecture of all kinds is growing ever lighter, showier, and more disposable, and Block E in its own crummy but calculated way perfectly expresses these trends."

Our bike tour covers some buildings included in the guide—the Schmitz-Rose house, for instance, a Queen Anne that has survived 120 Minnesota winters and the filming of Feeling Minnesota. We also roll by the currently vacant Jacob Schmidt Brewery, which Millett calls "worthy of preservation at all costs." Millett is just as engaging, though, on stuff that didn't make the cut, such as the Apostolic Faith Temple Church, which stands just a few doors down from Millett's condo.

"You can't really tell anymore, but this church was designed by Cass Gilbert," he explains, straddling his bike and pointing out a few of the church's features. Gilbert, who went on to design the Minnesota Capitol building, the U.S. Supreme Court building, and New York's pioneering Woolworth skyscraper, probably wouldn't recognize the church as it stands today. It has been remodeled, tweaked, expanded, and altogether used rather than preserved. But that makeshift eclecticism, in its own way, is as much a tribute to great architecture—or at least durable and flexible architecture—as a pricey, historically immaculate renovation would have been.

At any rate, there's something great about the fact that Antonin Scalia and the members of this unpretentious church share an architect. "This neighborhood has a history of what I call honest remodeling," says Millett.

A few blocks over is another perfect specimen, a little house with three variously sized gables, atop which some space-starved homeowner has affixed an overpowering dormer. The result is a comic expression of asymmetry.

"Now that's vernacular architecture at its finest. It's almost modernism," he says, and sure enough, if you squint, you can coax an abstract, sculptural logic out of the roofline.

"With the right materials...who knows," says Millett, pedaling again. "You could wrap the whole thing in steel and call it a Frank Gehry."

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