'Time capsule' on tour

  • Article by: KIM PALMER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 2, 2012 - 11:33 AM

University Grove, Minnesota's own mid-century architecture laboratory, is headlining a new 'history crawl.'

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Architect Ralph Rapson designed this house in 1964, soon after he designed the original Guthrie Theater.

The Twin Cities area boasts many historically significant neighborhoods. But only one, University Grove, has been declared "an architectural time capsule of modern America" by the New York Times.

The eight-block community in Falcon Heights still contains its original vintage homes, designed by a who's who of local architects.

"It's a wonderful little pocket of mid-century architecture," said Aleah Vinick, program specialist for the Minnesota Historical Society, which will lead a tour of the neighborhood and some of its homes next month.

University Grove, tucked into a corner next to the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus, was sort of an early version of a planned community.

In the 1920s, the U, which still owns the land, set the area aside as a residential enclave for professors, administrators and their families. Landscape architects designed the neighborhood with central commons areas, to give children a safe place to play.

And while the 103 houses that eventually were built there varied in style, they were required to be comparable in size and scale, and to be designed for their site by an architect.

During its construction heyday between 1930 and 1970, University Grove became sort of a laboratory for architects, particularly modernist ones. The neighborhood's oak-lined streets feature the work of many noted architects, including Ralph Rapson, Elizabeth and Winston Close and Edwin Lundie.

Next month's tour is a rare opportunity to get a guided look at the Grove, as part of the Minnesota History Center's "History Crawl" series.

Most of the crawls have focused on turn-of-the-20th-century neighborhoods, but interest in modern history and architecture is on the rise, according to Vinick, who started coordinating mid-century modern walking tours last year. (This year's June 2 tour sold out weeks in advance.)

Vinick, who formerly coordinated RetroRama, the History Center's annual celebration of vintage fashion and culture, felt the time was right to shine a spotlight on the Twin Cities' mid-century modern landmarks, including University Grove.

"I saw great interest in mid-century programming," she said. "It was an elegant time, and we crave that glamour."

TV's "Mad Men" has brought mid-century style to a younger generation, who feel a nostalgic connection to their parents' and grandparents' era, she added. "It was an optimistic time, when people had a little money."

Minnesotans seem especially interested in mid-century history and architecture, she noted. "Minnesota has a really vibrant vintage community," she said, citing the large and active Twin Cities Mid-Century Modern Facebook group. "It's been able to push the trend out."

The Historical Society originally planned to launch a University Grove tour last year, but the state government shutdown got in the way, Vinick said.

This year, with the cooperation of the University Grove Neighborhood Association, the tour will become a reality.

In addition to touring the neighborhood by trolley to see exteriors, tourgoers will be able to go inside a half-dozen homes, including two Rapson-designed houses, built in 1956 and 1964; two Close houses, built in 1939 and 1954; a Rollin Chapin house from 1931, and a Robert Cerny house dating from 1941.

"People want to see the interiors, and six residents are opening their doors," Vinick said.

  • UNIVERSITY GROVE HOME TOUR

    What: A trolley tour of a unique University of Minnesota neighborhood with a collection of 20th-century architect-designed homes, including interior tours of six homes designed by noted architects such as Winston and Elizabeth Close and Ralph Rapson.

    When: 9 a.m.-noon or 1-4 p.m. July 14.

    Where: Meet at the Minnesota History Center and ride as a group to University Grove.

    Tickets: $35 ($30 for Minnesota Historical Society members). Tickets can be purchased online at www.minnesotahistorycenter.org/historycrawls or by phone at 651-259-3015. Reservations are required, and early reservations are recommended; space is limited.

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