Writer celebrates 30 years in Wayzata

  • Article by: KELLY SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 24, 2013 - 12:55 PM

The 88-year-old writer has become a fixture in the Twin Cities architecture community — and isn’t slowing down.

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Bette Hammel

Photo: Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

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More than two decades ago, Bette Hammel began a writing career, introducing herself as the widow of Dick Hammel, the prominent founder of HGA, Minnesota’s largest architectural firm.

Now, at 88, Bette Hammel has made a name for herself, helping to write three books about iconic Twin Cities houses, writing many columns and articles on every major commercial building in the metro, and serving on civic groups such as the current one in Wayzata that is shaping the biggest changes to the city’s lakefront in her 30 years there.

“We refer to Bette as ‘the unsinkable Bette Hammel,’ ” said Karen Melvin of Plymouth, a friend and architecture photographer who describes Hammel as a “feisty, determined little Irish lady” who easily connects with people. “She inspires just about everybody she comes in contact with.”

After 30 years living in a modern house on Lake Minnetonka, Hammel is entering a new chapter in her own life, spending the holidays packing to downsize to a new Wayzata condo in January.

But retirement isn’t even an afterthought for Bette. She’s starting a blog and branching out into writing a mystery novel and a memoir. “Living alone for 30 years, I’ve just had to be busy,” she said.

Inspired by smell of ink

Born in 1925, Bette Jones was raised in St. Paul and went to the University of Minnesota to study journalism, inspired by childhood trips to see her father, who was a printer at the Pioneer Press.

“That’s when I first smelled printer’s ink,” she said.

But it was radio that ultimately drew her into journalism.

After she graduated in 1947, she was hired at General Mills to write radio scripts about Betty Crocker. She went on to write about cooking and food for several radio stations — getting her closer to her dream job as an ad copy writer in New York City.

But she was told she needed more experience, so she returned to Minnesota to work at BBDO, launching a 20-year career in ad writing at different agencies for radio and TV.

In 1969, a friend she knew from a downhill skiing club, architect Carl Graffunder, introduced her to a fellow architect, Richard Hammel.

He had founded Hammel, Green and Abrahamson in 1953 with Curt Green and Bruce Abrahamson, and it had grown to be one of the largest architectural firms in the country.

Bette and Dick married in 1970 — his career further cementing her love and awe of architecture.

“I do feel architecture is the noblest of arts. It’s the one that stays and speaks to you,” she said from her home’s living room, where floor-to-ceiling windows show off a panoramic view of Lake Minnetonka. “I mean, look at this house — it’s different, it’s original.”

The couple bought the modern house in 1984, but Dick Hammel died unexpectedly two years later at age 63.

His death inspired Bette to write a history of HGA and to learn the language of architecture in “From Bauhaus to Bow Ties: HGA Celebrates 35 Years” in 1989.

She got to know local architects, shifting her career into print journalism. “I finally became a reporter,” she said.

  • BETTE HAMMEL

    Age, family: 88, daughter Susan, stepdaughter Anne, two grandchildren.

    Hometown: Born and raised in St. Paul, moved to Minnetonka and then Wayzata, where she’s lived for 30 years.

    Favorite Twin Cities building: Minneapolis Central Library, downtown.

    Least favorite Twin Cities building: Inside of the Guthrie Theater or the Walker Art Center expansion.

    Biggest interview: Architect Frank Gehry.

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