In the late 1950s, modernism was all the rage, and Victorian-era design sat in the basement of progressive taste. With the urging of downtown boosters and architect Robert Cerny, Minneapolis created one of the largest urban renewal districts in the country. Known as Gateway Center, the project clear-cut 22 of the oldest commercial blocks downtown.
The Gateway project has come to be regarded as the biggest planning mistake in Twin Cities history. Lost to the call of modernism were the Metropolitan building and the Pence Opera House — two buildings that today would be considered as important to the city’s character as the Foshay Tower.
But the irony is that the modern dream of the Gateway is now historic itself — a catalyst for the modern movement in Minneapolis that foreshadowed such nationally recognized projects as Lawrence Halprin’s Nicollet Mall, the IDS Center and the Walker Art Center by Edward Larrabee Barnes.
At the heart of Gateway Center and at the base of today’s Nicollet Mall, Minoru Yamasaki’s Northwestern Life Building, along with the neighboring Towers apartments, opened in 1965. Both buildings represent the height of midcentury modern design, and Northwestern Life, with its imposing arched white colonnade and reflecting pools, is now regarded as one of Yamasaki’s finest works.
The slender tan-brick Towers consists of the taller, 27-story Tower B in striking rectangular counterpoint to the lower Tower A along Hennepin Avenue. This year marks their 50th birthdays. Both the Towers and Northwestern Life are now officially “historic” and clearly eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. But their significance involves more than architecture.
Long-term residents of the Towers have a social history to tell. Since the late 1960s and early ’70s, they have witnessed the transformation of downtown into a towering corporate hub, the decline of retail, the redevelopment of the nearby riverfront and the massive growth of new downtown housing — for which they were the pioneers.
A new neighborhood
Designed by New York architect John Pruyn, the Towers was downtown’s first large modern-era residential project. At 500 units, it remains one of the largest homeowners associations in Minnesota. Dick Wistli, who came as a renter in 1966, recalls the early years when the Towers was home to young professionals, many of whom were recently divorced. In the early years, surrounded by parking lots waiting for Gateway redevelopment, the Towers was a self-contained community offering a small grocery store, hairstylist, newsstand, dry cleaner and even a secretary to assist residents with their work.
Framing a verdant plaza designed by celebrated landscape architects Sasaki, Walker and Associates, the Towers had a lively social scene, with community continental breakfasts every Sunday, poolside barbecues and frequent cocktail parties on all floors.
The Swinging Sixties happened here. Long-term residents share tales of famous neighbors down the hall, beloved bars and restaurants now closed, and social change as the Towers matured through the Mad Men ’60s into the Vietnam protests of the ’70s and beyond.
While listening to their stories, you can begin to imagine a television comedy somewhere between “Love, American Style” and “The Bob Newhart Show,” where Bob and Suzanne Pleshette lived in a perfect Chicago high-rise with idiosyncratic friends and neighbors who dropped by a lot.
As the home to academics, sports figures like Rod Carew and a bevy of Minneapolis Star and Tribune journalists such as Barbara Flanagan and cartoonist Roy Justus — the Towers had a cast of characters all its own. Wistli, and fellow longtime resident Clem Duffy, tell tales of romantic intrigue that seem almost quaint today.
In a convergence of political and social history, one memorable Towers event happened at 3 a.m. on Aug. 17, 1970, when antiwar activists bombed the front steps of the Federal Building a few blocks away. The blast blew out many of the lobby windows at the Towers. Residents headed in their sleepwear to the subfloor basement for safety. Several of them arrived in unmarried pairs, revealing who was “dating” whom, so to speak.
Beyond iconic memories of the early years, Towers homeowners (the place went condo in 1973) have stewarded their modern settings well. The public lobbies have been beautifully restored and updated with classic Herman Miller furniture. You can easily imagine Don Draper walking in for an assignation or client pitch. Updated by landscape architect Jean Garbarini in 2003, the plaza garden is one of the finest modern landscapes in Minnesota and a model for sensitive historic rehabilitation, with new trellises, curving paths and original “mushroom” light fixtures.
Architect and architectural historian Kara Hill lives atop Tower B with her husband and fellow architect Loren Ahles. They are relative newcomers and appreciate the construction and design of the Towers units. Hill notes that while much new residential construction downtown packs apartments deep into the center of the block and offers only limited windows on the exterior, “the Towers units stretch along the windows, providing daylight with stunning views of the Mississippi, garden courtyard and downtown throughout the living spaces.”
Hill adds that “the construction norm 50 years ago utilized cast-in-place structure, thick concrete floors and 2-inch-thick plaster walls with floor-to-ceiling oak paneling. Thus the building is solid and quiet, with timeless, elegant units.”
Many of the Towers long-timers describe how dismayed their suburban friends were when they first moved downtown. Where would they shop for groceries? Wasn’t it dangerous? But for those who chose to move downtown long before most others, there was a rich world of new architecture, social conflict and civic life to observe from the inside, over many years. Now that the Towers is turning 50 and so much has changed, many of its founding residents are glad they did.
Frank Edgerton Martin is a landscape historian and planner in Minneapolis.