In with the Old

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

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

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.

"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.)

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.

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."