When the era of modern redevelopment began in the Twin Cities after World War II, many downtown Minneapolis blocks consisted mainly of clusters of small commercial buildings ranging from two to four stories tall.
But the law of the downtown architectural jungle is that the small inexorably gives way to the big. This process of architectural enlargement, as I like to call it, has occurred in Minneapolis and virtually every other American city, including St. Paul, since the 1950s. As a result, an ever-dwindling number of small commercial buildings now inhabit most downtowns.
I’m not sure how many small buildings disappeared from downtown Minneapolis between, say, 1950 and today, but my research indicates there were at least 300 and probably more.
The Gateway Urban Renewal project, which kicked off in 1958, claimed close to 200 buildings alone, mainly along lower Hennepin, Nicollet and Washington avenues. Yet the Gateway’s small buildings were, for the most part, a rather nondescript lot. Dating to the early days of the city, they tended to be simple brick boxes with little in the way of architectural distinction.
Elsewhere around downtown, however, there were some delightful small buildings that possessed style and grace and provided a welcoming street presence. One of my favorites, now long gone, was the Northwestern Miller Building at 116-20 S. 6th St., between Marquette and 2nd avenues.
It was built in 1898 as the editorial offices and printing plant for Northwestern Miller magazine, which was to be the only occupant the building ever had. Designed by William Channing Whitney, the three-story building was a rare commercial example of the Tudor Revival style, featuring a rusticated stone base with brick above. Its most eye-popping feature was a tall step gable, the only one of its kind in downtown Minneapolis.
Stepped-up gables are usually associated with Dutch and North Germanic architecture but they did appear now and then as part of the English-based Tudor Revival style, which became popular in the 1890s and remained so through the 1920s. The style, often in watered-down versions, was widely used for houses, thousands of which still stand in residential neighborhoods across the Twin Cities.
Creative building, business
It’s not known why Whitney chose such an unusual look for the building, but one reason may have been to give it the feel of a clubhouse or urban townhouse as opposed to the typical office structure. He continued this approach inside, where the editor’s office was designed to resemble a cozy den, complete with a fireplace. The building also included a clubroom tucked beneath the gable.
Whitney (1851-1945), the leading Minneapolis society architect of his time, was something of a stuffed shirt, and his work, much of it in various classical modes, tended to be quite dry. But he clearly loosened his collar and had some fun with the Northwestern Miller Building, which was designed in a style he knew well.
During his long career, Whitney turned out numerous fancy Tudor Revival houses, among them what is now the Minnesota governor’s residence (1910) on Summit Avenue in St. Paul. Several of Whitney’s works, including the Alden Smith and Hinkle-Murphy houses (both from the late 1880s) and portions of the Handicraft Guild Building (1907), still stand in downtown Minneapolis.
Northwestern Miller magazine was as striking in its way as the building that served as its headquarters. Founded as a nuts-and-bolts trade journal in La Crosse, Wis., in 1873, the publication relocated in 1879 to Minneapolis, where the flour-milling business was booming.
It was a rather drab publication until William C. Edgar took over as editor in 1886. Under his leadership, the magazine continued to offer plenty of trade news, but also sought to entertain as well as inform its readers.
Edgar had a literary bent and he gradually turned the Northwestern Miller into a lively publication whose contributors included leading writers and artists of the day.
Short stories by the likes of O. Henry, Hamlin Garland and Frank Stockton (he of “The “Lady, or the Tiger?” fame) appeared in the magazine, with illustrations by such notable artists as Howard Pyle and Frederic Remington. A scribbler by the name of Mark Twain even sent a query about writing a tale for the magazine, for the princely sum of $500, but nothing ever came of it.
Edgar, who wasn’t a bad writer himself, contributed a regular column called “The Bellman” and in 1906 founded a literary magazine of the same name that lasted until 1919. He also wrote several books, including “The Medal of Gold,” a history of the Washburn-Crosby Co. (later General Mills) published a year after Edgar retired as the magazine’s editor in 1924.
As originally constructed, the Northwestern Miller Building was quite narrow, leaving room for what appears to have been a walled side garden. The garden didn’t last long, however. Around 1910, it gave way to a three-story addition that more than doubled the size of the building. The addition was in the same style as the original, but offered a dormered roof in lieu of another step gable.
It’s fun to think what the building would be today if it had somehow survived. An architect’s office? A condominium? The Step Gable Bar and Lounge?
But as with so many of its modest-sized downtown kin, the building couldn’t escape the steady push of redevelopment. Along with the four-story Evanston Building next door, it was razed in 1955 to make way for a new skyscraper for the First National Bank, which is now known as Canadian Pacific Plaza.
Northwestern Miller, meanwhile, moved to new suburban offices and remained in business until 1973, when its 100-year run finally ended.
Larry Millett is an architecture critic and author of 14 nonfiction books and eight mystery novels. He can be reached at larrymillett.com.