More than two decades ago, Bette Hammel began a writing career, introducing herself as the widow of Dick Hammel, the prominent founder of HGA, Minnesota’s largest architectural firm.
Now, at 88, Bette Hammel has made a name for herself, helping to write three books about iconic Twin Cities houses, writing many columns and articles on every major commercial building in the metro, and serving on civic groups such as the current one in Wayzata that is shaping the biggest changes to the city’s lakefront in her 30 years there.
“We refer to Bette as ‘the unsinkable Bette Hammel,’ ” said Karen Melvin of Plymouth, a friend and architecture photographer who describes Hammel as a “feisty, determined little Irish lady” who easily connects with people. “She inspires just about everybody she comes in contact with.”
After 30 years living in a modern house on Lake Minnetonka, Hammel is entering a new chapter in her own life, spending the holidays packing to downsize to a new Wayzata condo in January.
But retirement isn’t even an afterthought for Bette. She’s starting a blog and branching out into writing a mystery novel and a memoir. “Living alone for 30 years, I’ve just had to be busy,” she said.
Inspired by smell of ink
Born in 1925, Bette Jones was raised in St. Paul and went to the University of Minnesota to study journalism, inspired by childhood trips to see her father, who was a printer at the Pioneer Press.
“That’s when I first smelled printer’s ink,” she said.
But it was radio that ultimately drew her into journalism.
After she graduated in 1947, she was hired at General Mills to write radio scripts about Betty Crocker. She went on to write about cooking and food for several radio stations — getting her closer to her dream job as an ad copy writer in New York City.
But she was told she needed more experience, so she returned to Minnesota to work at BBDO, launching a 20-year career in ad writing at different agencies for radio and TV.
In 1969, a friend she knew from a downhill skiing club, architect Carl Graffunder, introduced her to a fellow architect, Richard Hammel.
He had founded Hammel, Green and Abrahamson in 1953 with Curt Green and Bruce Abrahamson, and it had grown to be one of the largest architectural firms in the country.
Bette and Dick married in 1970 — his career further cementing her love and awe of architecture.
“I do feel architecture is the noblest of arts. It’s the one that stays and speaks to you,” she said from her home’s living room, where floor-to-ceiling windows show off a panoramic view of Lake Minnetonka. “I mean, look at this house — it’s different, it’s original.”
The couple bought the modern house in 1984, but Dick Hammel died unexpectedly two years later at age 63.
His death inspired Bette to write a history of HGA and to learn the language of architecture in “From Bauhaus to Bow Ties: HGA Celebrates 35 Years” in 1989.
She got to know local architects, shifting her career into print journalism. “I finally became a reporter,” she said.
A bulldog reporter
For several years, she wrote for Skyway News — what’s now the Downtown Journal — and she has written for many publications, including Minneapolis/St. Paul Magazine, Architecture Minnesota and Architectural Record.
“She’s an absolute bulldog; she’s fearless in getting the first interview,” said Chris Hudson, editor of Architecture Minnesota.
Hudson described a visit from legendary architect Frank Gehry: “She’s 2 feet shorter than everyone, but she just motored past everyone and said, ‘Hey Frank.’ ”
Added Tom Fisher, dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Design: “She’s brought local architecture to a national audience.”
In 2009, Melvin and Hammel produced a book about Lake Minnetonka houses, boating around in Hammel’s Sea Ray Sun Deck as they learned about the megamansions and boat houses that she had cruised by so many times.
“Legendary Homes of Lake Minnetonka” was followed by a book on Minneapolis homes on the Chain of Lakes. In October, Melvin released a third book — about St. Paul mansions on Summit Avenue — with help from Hammel and three other writers.
Hammel also has been involved with civic groups, including the current one in Wayzata helping to decide changes to the city’s lakefront.
“She’s really sort of the keeper of architectural purity and heritage in Wayzata and throughout the area,” Wayzata Mayor Ken Willcox said.
Now the energetic Hammel has no plans to slow down. She wants to write a memoir and a mystery novel involving the old hotels that dotted Lake Minnetonka. And, of course, she’ll keep writing about architecture.
“She’s looking forward, not back; there’s a lot of exciting things she plans to do,” Melvin says. “She has this desire to keep writing and working … to get the scoop on projects.”
From Hammel’s solarium, a sunny living room with a wall of windows overlooking the lake and a lagoon, she goes over a stack of drafts from the many articles and columns she has written over the years.
She got an offer on the 3,300-square-foot house within three days of putting it on the market. Although she’s sad to be downsizing, she’s moving only a short distance to a new fourth-floor condo senior apartment at Presbyterian Homes’ new Folkestone building in downtown Wayzata that will still afford her a view of the lake.
She still boats on the lake in the spring and summer, and she cross-country skis on it during the winter. She also likes to dance, volunteer and meet up with friends at “The Muni” — the Wayzata Bar & Grill.
“She’s like an Energizer Bunny — she just keeps going,” the U’s Fisher said.
But it’s her career as an architecture writer, activist and preservationist that’s made her well-known in the Twin Cities — far beyond just being an architect’s widow.
“Everyone here seems to think I was an architect, too,” she said. “But I’m just a journalist.”