When you talk about Minnesota’s Great Noble Architect, you talk about Cass Gilbert, maker of the Capitol and the University of Minnesota Mall. Grand places, spaces of ceremony and solemnity, soaked in history, built to instruct and impress. The real details of life, the joys and dreams and slumbers and labors, took place in the spaces created by Liebenberg and Kaplan. This state was a gallery, filled with their work.
The Uptown Theatre, with an audacious mast fit for zeppelin docking, might be their best-known work. A few blocks down on Hennepin Avenue sits another local favorite, the Suburban World; they designed both the 1928 original and a 1956 modernization that changed its name to distinguish it from the downtown World — a theater they also remodeled. If their firm had done just two or three great theaters, they’d be remembered with gratitude.
They did about 200 theaters. And more. They designed so many buildings that their contribution to the streets of Minnesota is almost unmeasurable.
Jack Liebenberg was a member of the University of Minnesota’s first architecture graduating class in 1916; Seeman Kaplan left the school two years later, and they teamed up in 1921.
They could have built the same thing over and over, stamping out movie houses like tract housing. But each theater was an opportunity to give the community something unique, and the variations in their work make for an extraordinary collection scattered on main streets across the state.
Take the Maco Theatre in Virginia. It could be the twin of the Varsity in Dinkytown, if they wanted; same Kasota exterior, same marquee mast placement. But the Maco has its own flavor. The long window with the round end — a Moderne hallmark — was notched, like an American Indian tapestry. The theater had an Indian motif throughout, which might have seemed at odds with the theatrical futurism of the building. But it worked, and the slight accent made the building stand apart from other rote Moderne structures. It also stood out from everything else in Virginia, and when it went up in 1937 it was more than another place to see a movie. It was an embassy of the World of Tomorrow, today. With popcorn!
As noted, they did more than movie houses. The University of Minnesota’s archive lists drawings and notes for nearly 2,500 jobs. Renderings for factories, houses for the powerful (Humphrey, Piper), suburban homes for the upper-middle-class in Edina’s Country Club neighborhood, synagogues in Minneapolis. (Liebenberg was the state’s first Jewish architect.) There are even sketches for Lucky Pierre’s Ice Cream Stores, wherever they were. No job too small, it seems.
Some jobs were just signage. Liebenberg and Kaplan were the architects for a rehab job on the grandest movie palace downtown, the Minnesota Theater. Designed by a Chicago firm, it opened in the 1920s as a classical palace in the style of Versailles; it had a checkered life in the 1930s, opening and closing, and fell dark for a few years in the early 1940s. When it opened again in 1944, it sported an L&K exterior with a new sign that made the Mill City sound like Gotham: RADIO CITY THEATER. KSTP broadcast out of the site, and the theater had a new life.
Radio, however, had a new foe. Television — as well as the rise of the suburbs and the economics of running a theater as huge as Radio City — combined to shutter the theater once again, and the seating and stage area were demolished. But the lobby-and-office portion on the corner remained, and was remade into a ’50s modern TV studio for WCCO … designed by Liebenberg and Kaplan. It wasn’t a lovely building. The midcentury corporate style didn’t seem apt for the firm’s strengths, but perhaps it was hard to tease grace and allure out of blank metal.
At least on a large scale. Let’s go back to Uptown. In the 1940s Liebenberg and Kaplan did the Port Arthur Cafe at the southwest corner of Lake and Hennepin, which some might recall from its maroon exterior and big aluminum mushrooms, looking like exhaust vents on a zeppelin. It faced another of the team’s design: the Rainbow Cafe. (Not to be confused with the long-gone Rainbow Car Wash at Lake and Holmes, which they also designed.) The interiors had the movie-set glamour that people might have glimpsed on the screen of the Uptown.
Changing with the times
By the 1950s, though, those were yesterday’s styles. The modern look for shops and restaurants was clean and Californian, with a strip-mall simplicity. Could the firm change with the times? Of course. Liebenberg and Kaplan went from the ersatz Spanish of the Granada/Suburban World to the zigzag modernism of their ’30s theaters to the florid exteriors of the ’40s to the playful Space Age fantasies of ’50s commercial restaurant architecture.
They proved that last one with the Hasty Tasty. The original burned down, and took a great neon sign with it. The owners put up a replacement in the style of the times. In a street of 1920s-era commercial structures, Liebenberg and Kaplan dropped a modern building that not only updated the streetscape, but complemented its older neighbors. It’s been remodeled, alas, but its bones are still there behind the modern facades.
The Uptown and Suburban World a block away get the oohs and ahhs in Uptown, but this simple building is a reminder of what they gave the state, the hundreds and hundreds of structures that brought imagination and flair to everyday life.
Hard to say how many are gone. The downtown rehabs — the Academy, the World, the Gopher — were lost to urban renewal. The incredible Jetson-esque riot of the Southtown was vanquished for retail space. The Grandview survives in St. Paul, and the Riverview still lives. Many around the state are like the Northeast’s Hollywood and the Terrace in Robbinsdale — shuttered, quiet, waiting for another chance. The small industrial buildings and storefronts are lost. But we have the big projects like the Uptown, or the KSTP HQ on University Avenue. People will go prone in front of bulldozers before those buildings go down.
Liebenberg was still with the firm in the early 1970s when it designed one of the most brutal structures downtown: Hennepin County Medical Center. It’s not a happy building. It’s a square fist of rock and dark glass, an oppressive presence. But at least it’s possible to be born in a Liebenberg building and die in one — and enjoy some time in between watching stories in the beautiful rooms they made.