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Linda Mack: Making history

  • Article by: Linda Mack
  • September 29, 2007 - 4:48 PM

With its elegant bronze fountain shaded by giant oaks and the porched and turreted houses surrounding it, St. Paul's Irvine Park is such a pure piece of Victorianna that it's hard to believe it hasn't always been there. But this charming corner of the city fell on bad times. The fountain was removed in 1927, the 19th-century houses were carved up for rooms, and by 1969 the city planned to raze the area and replace it with public housing.

Thus was St. Paul's historic preservation movement born. Outraged residents and the Minnesota Historical Society joined forces to save the houses and the park. It wasn't an easy victory. One summer, after four of the houses were torched, Tom Lutz of the Minnesota Historical Society slept in the park to prevent more arson. But by 1978 both the houses and the park had been renovated, and residents celebrated by installing a replica fountain, once again the centerpiece.

Irvine Park is one of the Twin Cities' most dramatic historic preservation victories and one of the many places that some 2,000 preservationists will visit this week when they attend the annual conference of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. They'll also hear Garrison Keillor expound on St. Paul's quirks, and they'll tour both cities' riverfronts, visit historic Native American sites, canoe down the Minnesota River and take a candlelight tour of Summit Avenue houses.

Rightly enough, the conference is based in St. Paul, which embraced preservation earlier than its more economically ambitious sibling.

(While St. Paul saved the 1902 Old Federal Courts Building as Landmark Center, Minneapolis razed the 1889 Metropolitan Building and the oldest 30 percent of its downtown.) But Minneapolis' recent preservation successes, including the F&M Bank's revival as a Westin Hotel and the massive Sears building's rebirth as the Midtown Exchange, will be on the agenda as well.

To appreciate the impact of historic preservation over the last 30 years, imagine what the Twin Cities would look like without it.

The Quadriga, the four horses on the State Capitol, would be tarnished. The St. Paul Cathedral would look dingy, and its roof would leak. Summit Avenue would be tawdry, as it was in 1970, and some of the houses would have been leveled. Lowertown's muscular brick and stone warehouses would be gone, replaced with ugly 1970s buildings--or nothing at all. The Dayton's Bluff neighborhood east of downtown would be run down.

On the University of Minnesota East Bank campus, Jones and Nicholson halls would be gone rather than beautifully renovated, and the historic Knoll, the oldest part of the campus, would be decimated. Coffman Union would still look like it did after an unfortunate 1970s renovation, and it would still turn its back on the Mississippi River.

Along the Mississippi in Minneapolis, the appealing brick buildings that gave birth to Pracna on Main and St. Anthony Main would be gone, as would the West Bank mills that now house lofts, office space and the Mill City Museum. The Stone Arch Bridge would still be encased in chain link fence. No one would live on Nicollet Island.

Upriver, the friendly tower of the Grain Belt Brewery would be absent. The Warehouse District would have been razed, and hundreds of houses, parks and libraries in both cities would convey no sense of the city's past.

Preservation hasn't solved every urban ill. Historic properties such as the Hamm's and Schmidt breweries and the Upper Post at Fort Snelling still daunt developers. Development and preservation still clash, as they have on Nicollet Island over plans to install a football field on city parkland or as they have in St. Paul over plans to build a massive complex called The Bridges across the Mississippi River from downtown.

But what's happened in the last 30 years is remarkable. Developers have come to love older buildings for the character they offer. Preservationists have come to welcome sensitive development. Residents of the Twin Cities have come to value historic environments for their human scale, their ties to the past and their livability.

Thirty years ago preservation seemed to focus on the past. Today it is fueling the future.

Linda Mack writes on architecture and urban design. Registration for the National Trust conference, which runs Tuesday through Saturday, is available at www.nthpconference.org.

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