The sign has gone up designating the new Mansion at Uptown, but few people are likely to call it that.
To the rest of us, the building will still be known as the old Walker Library, the name that has stuck through 35 years of earlier reincarnations as, among other things, restaurants, spas and a used-clothing store.
That’s not a slam against the new business, which will host weddings and other private parties. That’s simply an acknowledgment of the staying power of the building’s stature.
The old Walker designation not only has endured multiple attempts to rename it, it has outlasted the new Walker Library, which replaced it in 1981 and has since, itself, been replaced by the new, new Walker Library.
But the old Walker Library — named after T.B. Walker, the lumber baron whose name adorns Walker Art Center — is still ensconced at 2901 Hennepin Av. S., where it has stood proud since 1911.
The building was envisioned as a mini version of the famed New York City Library. When it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999, Minneapolis’ city planner, Amy Lucas, said, “The building says, ‘I’m important.’ ”
At first glance, it might seem to be out of place these days. Built in beaux-arts style, its neoclassical facade features a central portico and an entrance flanked by two grand columns and accompanying staircases. It’s a stark contrast with the modern buildings that surround it, including the new, new Walker across the street and the parking ramp/office building that stands in its backyard.
But the library was once as cutting-edge as anything that has grown up around it. In fact, its opening on June 13, 1911, was timed to coincide with the first runs of the new Lake Street streetcar line just a block away.
There were critics who argued that the inhabitants of that part of the city, which was known for its plethora of taprooms (the more things change …), were not the ideal potential clientele for a library. But Walker, who sat on the city’s Library Board and donated the land on which the building sits, argued that the books would counteract the booze. In a report filed with the board, he argued that providing the residents with access to a library would “offset these temptations and demoralizing influences which to an ever-increasing extent afflict society.”
The Lakes Area (the Uptown nickname wouldn’t surface for another three decades) was booming. Streetcar access opened the way to more modest housing than the mansions surrounding the lakes. The area even got its own high school, West, which was located on 28th Street just up Hennepin Avenue from the library. Usage of the library — part repository of knowledge, part social center — flourished.
The layout was classically simple. There was a main floor where the books were shelved and a basement that offered meeting rooms for local organizations. It included all the most modern accoutrements, including public restrooms.
But with only about 4,500 square feet in its reading room, the library outgrew its space. By the mid-1960s, patrons tired of the overcrowding were lobbying for a bigger facility. A decade later, the library board bought the land across the street, and in 1981, the Walker was replaced by the new Walker, which boasted more than three times the room. (The new, new Walker is bigger yet.)
The quaint layout that limited the building’s use as a library attracted developers, however. The most common vision for the space involved restaurants, which meshed perfectly with the Uptown neighborhood’s emergence as a nightlife hot spot.
A string of eateries ensued; Some lasted long enough to establish a name for themselves, others were around only long enough for a bowl of soup to cool, done in by the intense competition in the Hennepin-and-Lake area and the boom-bust vagaries of the industry.
The eateries included Walker’s, the Old Library Cafe, Gordon Schutte’s Library Cafe, J. Carlos, Pagoda and — likely the best known — Brian’s Seafood Casa.
Other businesses took up residency, too. For about seven years, the Junior League operated a used-clothing store, the Clothesline. There was a short-lived attempt to convert the space into office rentals, and it had a brief fling as a hair salon. Then it became a health spa, Athenaeum — named after a literary society that founded the first lending library in Minneapolis in 1859 — which was replaced by the building’s most recent tenant, the LifePower yoga center.
Minneapolis-based Swervo Development bought the building last year. It hopes to establish a foothold by offering an option that isn’t available in the immediate neighborhood, according to a statement from owner Ned Abdul: a meeting area that’s “a departure from the typical bar concept.”
That sounds a lot like what Walker had in mind for the building 105 years ago.