By chance, Sona Mehring happened on Doors Open Milwaukee a few years ago. She marveled at how the event gave the public access to private places and how it revealed and explained "mysterious" spaces inside buildings she never would have noticed on her own.
She came home with a question: "When's the Doors Open in Minneapolis?"
It didn't exist. But it does now.
Next weekend, 115 spaces across the city — from the 110-foot-tall Witch's Hat water tower in Prospect Park to a Nicollet Mall manhole — will be open to the public. Some of the buildings are rarely so accessible, including the Scottish Rite Masonic Center and Hennepin County jail. Others, such as Izzy's Ice Cream, Mixed Blood Theatre and Westminster Presbyterian Church, are providing behind-the-scenes access or special tours highlighting history and architecture.
Doors Open Minneapolis is a massive undertaking — staffed by hundreds of volunteer greeters and supported by dozens of local architects — which includes free Metro Transit passes, parking spaces and phone charging stations. Nearly two dozen restaurants and breweries will offer discounts or signature specials to people who mention the event. There's even an Instagram photo contest at #dompls.
But it came together in less than a year, spearheaded by Scott Mayer, a local arts and culture impresario. Mayer, who started the Ivey Awards (recognizing the local theater community) and the Charlies (lauding local restaurants), wanted to add another event to celebrate the city.
"I was thinking it would be really cool to come up with some kind of civic project or celebration that really got people thinking about why this is a great city to live in," he said.
Although he had hoped to devise "some original brilliant idea," he settled on Doors Open, a concept that began in Europe and Canada decades ago and has spread to such places as Denver; Lowell, Mass.; and Buffalo, N.Y.; as well as Milwaukee, where it drew more than 30,000 people last year.
The architectural extravaganzas are as much about civic pride as they are about history.
"Doors Open makes attendees feel proud of the city," said Grace Fuhr, special events director for Historic Milwaukee Inc., which puts on the annual event. (Fuhr, an Excelsior native, said she plans to attend the Minneapolis event.)
Similar celebrations, called Open House, are held in cities around the world, including London, New York and Chicago. The whole idea is to bring members of the public into spaces they may not have visited, tell interesting stories and feature architectural highlights.
Mayer brought the idea to Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey's office — and got an enthusiastic green light. "The mayor loved it, and that was kind of that," Mayer said.
Frey said the event will allow Minneapolis to celebrate itself in a fresh way. "How many other occasions are there that get people moving all throughout our city with the express purpose of going somewhere new, of learning something new about Minneapolis?" he asked. "Doors Open Minneapolis is going to be a rocking weekend of civic pride and an awesome stretch to highlight our world-class architecture and our world-class businesses in new ways."
'Making it work'
Mayer's efforts began in earnest last September, and in the ensuing months he built an advisory committee, a marketing committee and a staff of 10. He checked out Doors Open Milwaukee in September and Open House Chicago in October.
Michael Kisch, president of American Institute of Architects (AIA) Minneapolis and a member of the Doors Open Minneapolis advisory committee, also took in the Windy City celebration, which was in its eighth year. He was struck by the wide range of people the event attracted.
"It was all over the board," Kisch said. "You run into families that just want to get out and explore the city, history buffs, people that are just passionate about their community. People just want to understand how the places they experience every day came to be, and hear the back stories."
Mayer set a fundraising goal of $250,000. Despite significant contributions from the Minneapolis Foundation and a mix of money and services from Comcast and other sponsors (including the Star Tribune and City Pages), he fell short. (The city is a partnering sponsor, but isn't providing funds.)
"I am making it work with less," Mayer said.
In addition to fundraising, a key part of the planning involved creating a list of potential venues, a process Mayer called "a bit organic."
"The AIA had some recommendations, and I just Googled, and searched, and I've been here so long. Most of it was just scouting," said Mayer, 62, who grew up in South Dakota and moved to Minnesota after college.
Minneapolis doesn't have a single, iconic building like New York's Empire State Building or Chicago's Willis (nee Sears) Tower, but Doors Open organizers felt real pride as they compiled a list of the most beautiful and intriguing spaces and tried to get the gatekeepers at each one to sign on.
"I would stack our architecture and our city up against any other one in the country," Kisch said. "You sometimes, in passing, forget. The buildings become background, and this is a way to celebrate them."
In the end, the committee asked the owners of about 200 buildings to participate, and got 115 yeses. The result spans a century of architectural history and includes everything from the IDS Center and Lakewood Cemetery to a neighborhood barbershop.
From City Hall to the river
Once the lineup was determined, AIA Minnesota contacted its members to find architects to act as docents (whom the association calls "subject matter experts") at some of the buildings.
They won't be the only volunteers. Doors Open organizers recruited 900 people to be greeters throughout the two day-event, welcoming visitors to every venue and, if lines get too long, suggesting nearby spots to visit instead. Another important detail: Organizers made sure there were places for people to charge their phones.
"The biggest deal when I was in Milwaukee and Chicago was that you use GPS, and your phone is, like, dead in an hour," Mayer said. "With charging stations, thanks to Comcast, you can hang out and get recharged."
They also found six parking lots to provide free space during the event, and convinced Metro Transit to suggest the best routes to Doors Open venues and provide free transit passes (downloadable at doorsopen minneapolis.org).
Mehring, president of the Minneapolis Rowing Club, will welcome visitors at the club's award-winning boathouse building on the Mississippi River.
Of course, City Hall is part of the event, but the mayor is doing more than just opening up the Richardsonian Romanesque building; he's inviting visitors into his third-floor office.
They may not find him at his desk, though.
"I'm planning to kick things off at my office, and will likely be guiding a few early tours for visitors," Frey said. "But I also want to experience the action, so I'll be out on the street."
As the event approaches, Meyer is worried about one thing. Well, two things.
"My biggest fear is that no one shows up, and my second biggest fear is that everyone shows up," he said.
16 buildings you'll want to see
Behind the scenes
Scottish Rite Masonic Center
Prominently rising above Hennepin Avenue since 1894, the building has rarely been visited by folks who don't belong to the fraternal society. Even Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey has yet to see it. The Doors Open event is his "shot to finally see the inside of the building," he said.
Despite their supposed secrecy, the Masons are delighted to have an opportunity to show off the grand rooms in their Romanesque Revival building, said David Kampf, personal representative for the Scottish Rite in Minneapolis. "We have been wanting to have an open house," he said.
Built as the Fowler Methodist Episcopal Church, the quartzite and sandstone-clad building has been home to the Masons since 1915. Must-see features include the 24-foot-diameter stained glass window with a Knights Templar cross and crown. It lets sunlight into the grand, vaulted auditorium where members of the society perform their one-act plays, called "degrees." The club room is one of several spaces the society has updated in the past few years. Look for the nearby hallway that's dominated by rows of tiny lockboxes, built to hold Scottish Rite caps. Masonic symbols abound, from the ubiquitous two-headed eagles to the large letter "G" (which stands for God or geometry) in a meeting room. (2011 Dupont Av. S. Note: The center will be open on Sunday only.)
Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 S. 4th St. Visitors to this 1887 firehouse-turned-theater will be able to go behind the scenes — into a rehearsal hall, dressing room and more.
Izzy's Ice Cream, 1100 S. 2nd St. The kitchen of this shop, designed by celebrated Minnesota architect David Salmela, will be included in the tours. Another draw: There will be samples.
Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, 90 Hennepin Av. S. The Fed is giving Doors Open visitors a look at how it stores and processes U.S. currency. There will be free samples, too — of shredded money.
Minneapolis Rowing Club
Inside the club's boathouse, a sliding panel opens to expose an entire wall to the Mississippi River, flooding the building with light. Laminated wood and steel come together beautifully in this 2001 structure, designed by local firm VJAA. The roof — which folds in a hyperbolic parabola — looks intriguing from the outside, but is even more stunning from inside, where the row of beams that hold it up is arranged to suggest motion.
"This is [designed] to look like the sweep of the oar," said Sona Mehring, the club's president. "It's a very simplistic building, but very functional, and very beautiful. We row early in the mornings, and I love how the boathouse looks in the morning. There's just this glow through the windows, and then the mist is coming off the river."
The building at the foot of the Lake Street Bridge, which replaced one lost to fire, has won several architectural awards, including the 2001 American Institute of Architects Minnesota Honor Award. During Doors Open, members of the club, which dates to 1877, plan to have a training boat to give visitors a taste of rowing.
"I think a lot of people don't realize that this is even here," Mehring said. (2968 West River Pkwy.)
Westminster Presbyterian Church, 1200 Marquette Av. S. Built in 1897, with an acclaimed 2018 expansion by James Dayton Design, the church seamlessly blends the modern with the historic.
Weisman Art Museum, 333 East River Road. At 1 p.m. both days, there will be a free tour highlighting the architecture of the Frank Gehry building and sharing the starchitect's design process.
Fast Horse, 240 9th Av. N. David Salmela transformed a North Loop car repair shop to create an office building for the creative agency Fast Horse, crafting a facade from zigzagging steel fire stairs.
430 Oak Grove
Nearly every week, a Prince fan rings the bell at the leasing office of this imposing Beaux Arts beauty near Loring Park. Fans don't want to rent an apartment in the 90-year-old building — they want to see a bit of Twin Cities history.
In the 1970s, music manager Owen Husney had a studio on the first floor. A teenage Prince Rogers Nelson recorded some early material in the space, a set of unreleased songs called the Loring Park Sessions. A plaque now marks the location.
Built as the headquarters for Northwestern National Life Insurance Co., the five-sided building was designed by the prominent local architectural firm Hewitt and Brown to fit an irregularly shaped lot. Many of the limestone-fronted building's original gems remain intact in the grand entrance, including a large lamp depicting Minnesota wildlife that's thought to be the work of famed interior designer John Bradstreet and Co.
Much of the interior was renovated in 2012, but the fourth floor retains the original wood paneling from a 1930s office and conference room. The space is now an "executive suite" apartment, which rents for $3,625 a month.
Pillsbury A Mill, 116 3rd Av. SE. This 1881 mill is a "seminal" riverfront spot and key to the city's history, said "AIA Guide to the Twin Cities" author Larry Millett. Docents will share its long history.
Lakewood Cemetery, 3600 Hennepin Ave. S. This haven, founded in 1871, is significant in so many ways, from its Harry Wild Jones chapel to graves of city influencers and its newly-designed mausoleum.
Van Dusen Mansion, 1900 LaSalle Av. S. Almost demolished in the 1990s, this 1893 Richardsonian Romanesque mansion was home to grain baron George Washington Van Dusen and his wife, Nancy.
Hennepin County Public Safety Facility
Doors Open will include a rare public glimpse at what it's like inside the lockup of the Hennepin County jail.
Detention Sgt. Joel Field often shows his workplace to people who study or work in corrections, but the two days of Doors Open will be his first welcoming the general public.
The tour begins where arrestees start their journey — in the lower-level intake area where fingerprints, health checks and mug shots are taken. (Wildlife or animal videos play constantly on the TV screens in this area. It's calming, Field said.) After moving through the 839-bed facility, which opened in 2001, the tour ends in what Field calls "the happiest place in jail," the release center.
During the tours, inmates in orange scrubs will go about their business — making phone calls, shooting baskets in an exercise area, filing into the quads where they are held until trial.
The building is about function, not architectural details. And touring it gives a real sense of what it would be like to be detained — from the claustrophobic holding cells to the sound of one of the heavy metal doors clanging shut. (401 4th Av. S. Note: You must preregister to visit during Doors Open. Call 612-596-8050.)
Manhole entrance, 505 Nicollet Mall. No, visitors can't climb down into the sewers, but the city will open a manhole, set up a closed-circuit televising truck and show live video of the sewer system's workings.
Minneapolis Police Department K-9 kennel, 15 37th Av. NE. Officers will open up the kennel and training grounds to visitors and introduce them to some of the unit's dogs. Cops and K-9 partners will give demonstrations.
Hennepin County Recovery Center, 435 N. 5th St. This is where Minneapolis' garbage is burned and turned into energy. There won't be access to the waste pit itself (would you even want that?), but there will be a live video feed.
Erica Pearson • 612-673-4726