A building doesn’t have to be great to be missed.
Sometimes we regret the absence of a building for reasons that have nothing to do with its style or grandeur.
Charlie’s Cafe was just a house, more or less. It’s still missed — 34 years after its closing — because it reminds some of us of an earlier Minneapolis, one with three TV stations, two newspapers and Bud Grant at the helm of the Vikings’ ship.
Some people might miss a small structure in Dinkytown because its hulking replacement changed the feel of the neighborhood. Others miss the Metrodome, because they remembered winning the World Series, a fact that has nothing to do with architecture.
That’s why I think it’s time to lament less notable buildings, like:
1. The old Post Office and Federal Building (3rd Street and Marquette Avenue, 1890-1961)
This building is classical in the overcooked American style of the early 20th century, laden with columns and cupolas. It stood next to the much-lauded Metropolitan Building, and even though it took its vocabulary from Roman times, it made the Met look old, dark and ponderous.
Since it was wasn’t a modern slab of concrete, it was demolished for the Gateway project. Well, no, that’s not fair. It was also very old, and unsuited to modern use. But its style was one of the factors that counted against it.
Just as Penn Station in New York sang of an era of adornment and historical connections, the old post office was unfit for a world of steel skyscrapers. If we’d saved it, the building would have become a landmark, but the 1950s planners who thought they knew how the future should look didn’t think we would’ve loved it.
Or perhaps they didn’t think we should.
2. The Physicians and Surgeons Building (9th Street and Nicollet Avenue, 1910-1999)
This plain, eight-story structure was demolished for 900 Nicollet Plaza, and few, if any, tears were shed. But with its loss, the transformation of Nicollet Avenue from small, individual buildings to big, broad structures was irreversible.
The change seemed to be a sign of the city’s health: Better some well-populated company headquarters than some ancient, undistinguished structures, right?
Rrrrright, but wrong.
While the block-long Target store that replaced it had a facade that pretended to be a group of smaller buildings, it only served to remind you that a streetscape with diverse arrangement of low- and medium-height buildings was much more interesting. The Physicians and Surgeons building, while always ordinary, reminded you of the city’s old style, and you could read the passage of time by studying its facade.
The bottom four floors were sober enough, with some ready-made stone garlands for class. A few years later, times were flush, and they stacked four stark floors on top for more rentable space. It suffered the usual mid-century modernization, with two stories of stone that tied it to its neighbors but left the upper floors looking marooned and ignored.
It was its ordinariness we miss. There was no reason to save it, and, perversely enough, that can be every reason to keep it.
3. The Donaldson Building (7th Street and Nicollet Avenue, 1910-1982)
Which one, you might ask. There were three Donaldson buildings: the old Glass Block, with its translucent dome; the 1920s mid-block addition that was originally planned to culminate in a tall tower; and the slender World War I-era tower on 7th.
The 7th Street tower was the only one that kept its integrity after a 1940s renovation wrapped the block in a common facade. The tower was 10 stories high, with a heavy cornice, glazed brick and classical details — rote work for the time. It had a few brethren around town. In fact, the Lowry tower near the St. Paul Hotel (now condos) is almost its twin.
The Donaldson tower was the tallest building on that side of the street until the IDS arose and dwarfed it. Even then, it served a purpose: It made the IDS look even taller, and formed a wall that gave the lower-rise portion of the IDS complex some contrast. When it went down in 1982 for Gaviidae Common, the space lost its definition.
4. Wesley Temple Building (123 Grant St., 1928-1986)
In the boom years of the 1920s, churches thought they might find a way to mix religion and commerce by building office towers. The rent would fund good works; the building would proclaim the church’s stature and importance. The most astonishing of these projects was the Chicago Temple in the Windy City, which stuck a big Gothic cathedral up in the air.
The 12-story Wesley tower, the nation’s sixth skyscraper-church project, was finished in 1928. But it was only the first of three planned phases. The largest tower would have stood 300 feet high — about two-thirds as tall as the Foshay Tower. The entire project would have required the demolition of the beautiful Romanesque Wesley Church. Old Man Depression put a stop to that.
The tower was demolished in 1986 for the Convention Center. It wasn’t a great building, but it had an attractive band of Gothic stippling on its top floor, and it was tall enough to mark the boundary of downtown.
5. Lutheran Brotherhood (7th Street and 2nd Avenue, 1955-1997)
One of the most beautiful modernist buildings anywhere, ever. How about that for a broad claim?
Its rounded corners harked back to Bauhaus design, its stone base a warm counterpoint to the metal and steel. And it was colorful! That may have been considered a sin by some modernists, but it was tinted turquoise, like a 1962 kitchen countertop.
Its replacement, the Ameriprise Tower, is an interesting enough building, five times the height, a solid taxpaying citizen. But did they really have to throw away the elegant little gem that came before it?
Well, you can’t fight progress. You can’t keep the city from growing and accommodating the needs of the next decade. But you can complain about it, if it helps.
(Note: It doesn’t.)