We think of intersections as challenges and problems — a light we want to make, a crosswalk we hope to cross without getting nailed by a car. Some of the names of the streets are familiar. We might even know a bit about their histories. But the intersections themselves have stories. Let’s take three well-known intersections where big-name streets converge, and see if they bear any resemblance to their origins. (Hint: Nope.) 

Hennepin and Nicollet

One of the most important intersections in Minneapolis history — a compact, thriving, bustling triangle too messy for the postwar urban ideal — was obliterated by progress. In its day, the junction of Hennepin and Nicollet was at Bridge Square (with Washington Avenue charging in perpendicularly, just to add to the fun).

The symbolism was tidy: Hennepin Avenue and Nicollet Avenue both began at the banks of the Mississippi River, when the territory across the river was the rival town of St. Anthony. But like quarreling twins with different characters, they diverged as soon as they grew. Hennepin was devoted to theaters, bars, hotels — all the messy pleasures of the flesh. Nicollet was retail, genteel but no less profit-minded, with its shops and banks. They could agree on only one thing: Minneapolis started here, at this triangular interchange.

Union Depot, a long-forgotten train station, held down the south side of Bridge Square. Travelers would walk out the door of the depot and see a four-story stone structure with thin windows and a mansard roof, nothing particularly impressive, but it parsed the traffic like a rock in a busy river.

This was City Hall (and, by the way, the original home of the Minneapolis Tribune). Old photos show impossible throngs of horses and carts, cars and trolleys and a forest of utility poles carrying dozens of wires. The din — and stink — must have been remarkable.

By the early years of the 20th century, the city fathers no doubt tut-tutted over the boisterous chaos and the shabby structures. City Hall had moved in 1895 to its current location, but the old building was still there, a remnant of a tired architectural style. Solution? Raze, pave and plant.

After World War I, the city replaced the old building with Gateway Plaza, a serene classical temple whose columned wings opened their arms to people coming across the bridge over the Mississippi or leaving the new train station on the north side of the intersection. When the Nicollet Hotel rose behind the Gateway Plaza in 1924, the intersection looked like a theatrical stage.

The script, alas, turned out to be “The Drunkard’s Curse,” or “Sloshed by Noon.” As often happens, a nice new building doesn’t mean you get nice new people. The area sunk into decrepitude — cheap beaneries, dim bars, flophouses. When the post-World War II urban renewal came along, the Gateway was leveled for the common good and the Hennepin-Nicollet intersection was massacred.

Nicollet no longer connects with Hennepin. The Voya Financial building, a modernist temple on Washington, stretches its portico across what once was Nicollet Avenue. It’s almost as if Nicollet Avenue wants to deny it was ever related to Hennepin. That rogue? Please. 

Hennepin and Lyndale

Given Hennepin’s goat-path origins, it’s not surprising that the avenue crossed another major avenue: Lyndale.

Today, the intersection is a godless expanse of streets, major thoroughfares, interstate highways and perpendicular interlopers all crashing together by the Walker Art Center and Loring Park.

It’s a testament to the designers that it works as well as it does. But like the vestiges of Bridge Square, it’s a place whose modern version has no character, and would prefer that you didn’t know what it once looked like.

Back in the day, they called it the Scissors: Hennepin crossed Lyndale diagonally, and Lyndale did the same to Hennepin. That worked when your conveyance is a slow-trotting Dobbin.

Add cars. Add tens of thousands of residents. Add rush hour. And you’ve got hot tempers, blaring horns, crunched fenders. Misery on the best of days.

Yet the intersection had an oasis: The Plaza Hotel, an elegant hostel whose postcards showed verdant views from Loring Park. Plopped in the middle of the mess as it was, you wonder how anyone managed to leave once they’d checked in.

The Plaza had to be obliterated if traffic was going to move. The modern intersection is not perfect. (In fact, it’s being redesigned now.) It’d be nice if there were buildings along the streets to give the intersection a sense of focus, instead of scattering the museums and churches here and there like chess pieces on a board played by drunks. But at least you get a view of Loring Park as you pass. Or, more likely, as you stop and wait. 

Seven Corners

When two streets meet at a right angle, you know which is which. But when one curves and becomes the other, when does one street stop and the other begin?

Before Interstate 35W trenched through the edge of downtown and sawed off the West Bank, Seven Corners was connected to downtown by the long blocks of commercial buildings on Washington Avenue. If you were heading east you’d see the neon sign of Hagen’s appliance store, the cowboy on his horse tossing his glass lasso. Then you’d curve right, and you’d be in Swede Hollow. At some point, Washington became Cedar Avenue. Or rather stopped being Washington. There’s no marker. It just happens.

Seven Corners is better than ever today, aside from some stubborn vacancies on the block with Bullwinkle’s bar, and a certain raw ache where everything ends because the freeway blasts along below the bridge.

But two substantial housing projects add heft. The theaters make you think something interesting happens after dark. Some old structures prevail. And the rounded slab of the Courtyard Marriot hotel rises like a wall, giving the intersection boundaries and definition. For good or bad, the Washington Avenue bridge approach — another trench, like 35W — cuts off the neighborhood, making it seem like an island.

Those are just three intersections of note in the Twin Cities. In upcoming Streetscapes columns, we’ll look at intersections in St. Paul and the suburbs, where time either stands still, or has barely started.

For all intersections, one rule applies: The worst of them are all about traffic, the best are all about things you look at — when you’re stuck in traffic.