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Riverside Plaza as it looked this past summer.

Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

West Bank towers win 'historic' label

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT
  • Star Tribune
  • February 6, 2011 - 9:40 PM

The West Bank housing complex that armchair architecture critics love to hate is now officially historic. The 15-building site built as Cedar Square West and renamed Riverside Plaza was added to the National Register of Historic Places Dec. 28.

That gave developer George Sherman $28.9 million in federal and state historic tax credits that he sold to investors to help finance the plaza's $132 million purchase-rehab. Two years' worth of construction began last week.

The complex earned its place in the register as a work of Minneapolis architect Ralph Rapson that brought an international style to the city, and as an example of a new, if short-lived, federal approach to urban development.

Completed in 1974, the complex won designation before reaching the usual required 50 years of age because state and federal reviewers were persuaded by the argument that it's exceptionally important.

That doesn't mean you have to like the way the towers look. Onetime West Bank resident Buzzy Bohn still labels it "just plain butt-ugly." She's among many who've derided the complex's harsh facade and its effect on the Cedar-Riverside area.

But a place in the register isn't about aesthetic popularity, said Charlene Roise, whose firm prepared the nomination papers. "A lot of things about history are controversial, and a lot of them are not pretty to everyone's taste, but that doesn't means it's not significant," she said. "The fact that it generates such strong feelings pro and con is just a sign of that.

"I think of it as a very important introduction to the very innovative International style-gone Brutalism," she said. "There just aren't large-scale examples of that ... It was like bringing the Twin Cities up to the mid-20th century in terms of design. It was a pretty striking design for Minnesota. We tend to be a little conservative. It was like a big architectural history lesson for Minnesota."

The complex was born as federal urban renewal efforts evolved from removing slums toward building community, Roise's nomination said. But only two such housing complexes were built in central cities under the New Town in Town program, with the intent of mixing public and market-rate housing in the same development. The controversy aroused by Cedar Square West doomed plans to cover the West Bank with later stages containing almost 10 times the 1,303 units that were built.

The complex experienced lots of other changes. It was foreclosed on by the federal government, and the city bought it and sold it to a group managed by Sherman. Some features designed by Rapson were later altered. A fountain is dry and regarded as a sculpture. A clock on one tower needs repair. A sandbox is now a planter. An observation deck on the tallest building is no longer used.

Noy said that after working with youth in the complex he now understands that its sometimes-confusing design has logic. Despite missing its utopian goals, the project "still deserves recognition," he said.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

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