Lileks: St. Paul Macy's has future as a museum

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 9, 2014 - 6:51 PM
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January 7, 2014: The old Macy's building in downtown St. Paul, Minn.,

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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What to do with the St. Paul Macy’s building? And why should you care?

It’s not a nice building. The architecture style is “Late Bunker,” with some vertical lines of brick stuck on the facade; they were added just to keep the bricklayers from going mad with the monotony of building the thing.

The architect was Victor Gruen, who was also the designer of Southdale, which was unburdened with the chore of fitting into its surroundings, because it didn’t have any.

But that’s a modern judgment, unfair to the times in which it was conceived. In the early ’60s, this was how weary, careworn cities were Reborn. They’d target blocks of old tumbledown structures that had nothing going for them but variety, history, individuality and an engaging reminder of the way cities grow organically, and smash it all in the name of Progress.

On the site they would build a featureless hulk whose utter lack of charm guaranteed that it was all Modern as heck inside. People would stand outside, thinking: “Industrial slaughterhouse or dry-goods purveyor? Heck, only one way to find out,” and in they’d go.

Once the word got out that it was not some sort of citizen-elimination factory but actually had a wide selection of nylons and hats, it would thrive ... until it didn’t. Until downtown retail lost the war to the ’burbs and the FBI was actually putting Witness Protection Program people in sales positions in the luggage department, because they were guaranteed never to meet anyone.

So the store died and left a dull beige block as a ready-made tomb. We’ve been curious to see what happens, since the usual process goes like this:

1. A developer no one’s heard of proposes a massive casino-hotel with a motorized walkway that takes you past a 900-yard buffet; the project will include an Imax theater with a wave pool and dolphins.

2. A year passes; the developer blames the lack of movement on “a worldwide dolphin shortage.”

3. The city buys it out of pity and disgust.

Or, in this case, the St. Paul Port Authority. It’s one thing to buy a white elephant. It’s another to buy a dead one.

What to do with the thing? They could turn it over to the NSA as a storage facility for all the billions of data bits they’ve hoovered up, and as long as they put a sign that said BLOCK E EAST on the side, their secret would be safe. No one would go in.

There’s the inevitable suggestion that it be turned into apartments — perhaps for the Home for the Photosensitive, since the windowless building makes a maximum-security prison look like a greenhouse.

One interesting suggestion: a Mall of Museums, with the interior space carved up for all the little museums that might not otherwise justify their own building. The Museum of Paper Clips! An exciting tour through nine decades of sheaf-fastening metal.

Nah. Better: an enormous flea market, which could also double as a historical collection. Why, here’s the Museum of Plastic Bowls Mothers Kept Because They Could Come in Handy Someday But Just Ended Up in the Cupboard, Honestly, There’s Just Dozens, Mom, At Least Let Me Throw Away Some — All Right, Give Them Away Then. ...

Since St. Paul already has a science museum, perhaps they could counterprogram with a superstition museum. It would have interactive exhibits where patrons could debunk things, for example. Put Mom in the room with the MRI, then step on the crack in the sidewalk, and see: No change whatsoever to her spine. Make everyone enter by walking under a three-story ladder.

No? Well, St. Paul has a children’s museum, so perhaps an adolescent museum. You wouldn’t have to do a thing with the empty building, since no teen would be caught dead going there.

Or make a museum dedicated to something we all remember fondly: the downtown department store. Call it DAYTON’S. Fill it with clothing and merchandise from 1958. Nothing would be for sale, but people could try on things, watch TV in the electronics department, see what ’58 was like. Other floors could handle 1968 and 1978.

If nothing else it would be instructive for youths, since those who do not remember the past are doomed to pay $79 for it at Urban Outfitters in five years.

My solution is always the same and perennially impractical: Tear it down and build what was there before. All the old buildings. You’d have an instant historically accurate entertainment district. You could have actors dressed up as bureaucrats from the urban renewal period locked in the stocks, with bushels of ripe tomatoes nearby. Don’t worry: They’d be paid well and would suffer no harm to their reputations.

Like I said: historically accurate.

 

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858

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