After World War II, a handful of optimistic young architects transformed Minnesota by designing modern schools, churches and civic buildings. Within just a few years, their take on modern design was recognized nationwide. Thanks to a new video oral history project, their stories are now as available as their buildings.
Much of Minnesota's modern architecture — including O'Shaughnessy Auditorium at St. Catherine University, designed by Curt Green of HGA, and the American Indian Center in Minneapolis by Thomas Hodne — is qualified to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But these structures also have a human history — a rich collection of memories by and about the architects who designed them.
To collect these stories, the Minnesota Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians (MNSAH) recently videotaped interviews with Minnesota's leading modern architects, those who worked for them, and some of the journalists who covered their projects.
These interviews (vimeo.com/mnsah) reveal how Minnesota's architectural prowess grew to a national presence and became an important part of the state's economy and culture. They are also rich with entertaining anecdotes about near-mishaps on projects, what it took to win a new commission or what it was like to deal with tough architecture professors.
Architectural historian Jane Hession, who co-conducted some of the interviews, said the goal of the Modern Masters project is "to capture first-person interviews with some of the most significant contributors of modern architecture and design in the state."
Gary Reetz, a MNSAH board member, gave one of the first oral histories. Reetz, who started working at HGA in the 1970s, worked with the firm's modernist founders, Richard Hammel, Curt Green and Bruce Abrahamson. He shared memories, many of them funny, of their distinctive personalities and talents.
Reetz shared a story from the late 1950s that has become part of HGA's founding lore. The College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minn., hired the then-new firm to design a performing arts center. Green, always charming with clients, drove a group of Benedictine nuns around the state in his open-top convertible to look at similar projects for ideas.
Several of the nuns recalled this adventure decades later when they hired HGA once again, this time to design an expansion for the building. Green clearly had more than charm. Both the first and second phases of the Benedicta Arts Center are award-wining examples of Minnesota's leadership in design for education and the arts.
Bette Hammel, wife of Richard Hammel, tells stories, too. But her vantage point is that of a journalist who married an architect and became fascinated by his field.
One of Bette's closest friends was James Stageberg, a notoriously challenging professor and a leading modern designer. With partner Thomas Hodne, Stageberg designed 1200 on the Mall and a vision for the Minneapolis riverfront in conjunction with the Walker Art Center.
It's not as if Minnesota's modern flair is a thing of the past. In fact the state's distinctive take on modern architecture is typified by David Salmela, a renowned architect based in Duluth.
Salmela is nationally recognized for his unique blending of modern and Nordic traditions in houses and other projects. Locally, his most visible projects include Izzy's Ice Cream near Gold Medal Park in Minneapolis and the community of Jackson Meadow in Marine on St. Croix.
"The beauty of the project," Hession explains, "is that we have the opportunity to ask an architect like David Salmela … to speak about how the landscape and cultural diversity of northern Minnesota influenced his designs. Or to talk to architectural journalist Linda Mack [who covered architecture for the Star Tribune] about the challenges and rewards of writing critically about Minnesota's built environment."
Today, Minnesota's architecture and engineering firms employ thousands of specialists who work in health care, corporate and cultural design projects across the country. Indeed, we have one of the highest number of architects per capita in the nation.
These firsthand accounts bring to life a vibrant midcentury period when Minnesota became known for modernism and innovative design.
It still is today.
Frank Edgerton Martin is a writer and landscape historian based in Minneapolis. He took part in some of the interviews for the Modern Masters project.