In November 1956, Frank Lloyd Wright visited Minneapolis to give a talk on his optimistic design philosophy and the “Mile High” skyscraper he planned to build in Chicago.
Local boosters took the internationally celebrated Wright, then 87, on a tour of the city’s newest architectural landmarks.
Things did not go well.
Wright complained about the harsh climate, called the new Prudential building near Cedar Lake a “desecration of a park area,” and said that most of downtown Minneapolis should “be blown up, and only a few tall buildings left standing with room enough to cast a shadow.”
We know this because Minneapolis Star reporter Frank Murray interviewed Wright along the way and covered his speech to the Citizens League.
What may have shocked Minnesotans most was Wright’s outright rejection of Southdale, the first enclosed shopping mall in the country, which had recently opened.
“Who wants to sit in that desolate-looking spot?” Wright is quoted as saying. “You’ve got a garden court that has all the evils of the village street and none of its charm.” (To read the original story, go to https://tinyurl.com/ya7yfzby.)
During that visit, Minneapolis Tribune photographer Paul Siegel took an iconic portrait of the master: Wright draped in tweeds, with soaring Space Age birdcages of architect Victor Gruen’s Southdale behind him.
Wright may not have taken to the Twin Cities, but he nevertheless made his mark here — building structures that expressed his vision for the future of American cities.
Wright’s rise, fall and rise
Genius has its privileges. And Wright, who would be 150 years old this year, was clearly a genius of design with a healthy ego.
Starting with his apprenticeship with the brilliant architect Louis Sullivan in the late 19th century, Wright invented several original American design styles over the next 60 years, including the geometric beauty of the 1905 Unity Temple in Oak Park, Ill., the sweeping horizontality of the Robie House in Chicago in 1910, and, ultimately, the all-white Guggenheim Museum in New York City, which opened in 1959.
His first decades were promising and by 1920, Wright was known worldwide for his public projects, such as the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. But with the rise of Modernism and the Bauhaus School of design in Europe, he fell from the architectural leading edge.
Beginning with the Depression in 1929, his practice and income slowed to a standstill. Wright relied on the tuition and labor of his students at Taliesin in Spring Green, Wis., to survive. They cut wood, grew crops and lived as a nearly self-contained community.
Then, in June 1932, University of Minnesota professor Malcolm Willey and his wife, Nancy, invited Wright to design a home in Minneapolis’ Prospect Park neighborhood that could be a “creation of art.” Wright responded with a long, narrow, 1,200-square-foot design that he called Gardenwall. It came in over its $8,000 budget, but not by much. (Groups can tour the red brick and cypress home, at 255 SE. Bedford St., by making an advance request at thewilleyhouse.com.)
Though small, the Willey house was a turning point in Wright’s career because it became a prototype for the Usonian House, a vision for the American home that Wright would promote for the rest of his life.
Wright also designed the Elam house in Austin, Minn., a direct descendant of the Willey House. Completed in 1952, it boasts five bedrooms, three soaring fireplaces and massive limestone walls.
Larry Millett, author of “Minnesota Modern: Architecture and Life at Midcentury,” described the 4,000-square-foot Elam house as “by far the largest of Wright’s 10 Minnesota houses” and a “superb example of his work.” The home is one of a handful of Wright’s roughly 400 surviving houses where you can stay overnight, in this case by booking its 820-square-foot guest house (theelamhouse.com).
Gas station as social hub
The Park Inn Hotel in Mason City, Iowa, is the only Wright hotel that survives today, and you can stay there, too.
Completed in 1910, the project combined stores on the street level with a bank and a 42-room hotel. It became a prototype for Wright’s renowned Midway Gardens in Chicago and Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel.
After a long decline, the hotel closed in the 1970s. Through heroic efforts by the community, it reopened in 2011 with a restaurant, overnight stays and tours. (Along with the Park Inn, Mason City has a rich architectural heritage worth visiting, with homes as well as entire neighborhoods designed by leading Prairie School architects.)
Wright never built any hotels in Minnesota, but the year before he died in 1959, he designed the R.W. Lindholm Service Station in Cloquet. The unique building features a cantilevered copper canopy over the gas pumps and upstairs glassy lounge.
Although this is the only gas station that Wright completed, he intended to build hundreds of them for his Broadacre City idea. Wright disliked the density of cities, so he came up with his own version of suburbia, low-density communities where Americans would live in simple Usonian houses and drive. In this new world, Wright saw service stations as landmarks and social centers — hence the lounge at the Cloquet service station.
The dozen or so Minnesota buildings that Wright designed represent a tiny fraction of his output over 60 years. But some of them were new experiments or marked a turning point in his career. We’re fortunate that 150 years after Wright was born, we have examples of his groundbreaking design that we can still visit through a tour, an overnight stay or just to fill up your car with gas.
Frank Edgerton Martin is a Minneapolis based writer and landscape historian.