The city of Minneapolis wants someone to build something on the Nicollet Hotel site, an asphalt desert on the end of the Mall. Of course we want something impressive, but that doesn’t always mean good. The Nicollet Hotel was impressive. So is an arctic glacier, but you wouldn’t want to live there.
The hotel belonged to the roster of grand hostels felled in the 1980s: the massive Leamington, which had housed several presidents. The Curtis, a sprawling block that added a California-style motel to supplement its blocky brick wings. The Andrews, a Hennepin Avenue mainstay that never seemed chic but probably gave businessmen a good rate. The Dyckman, with its Paris-themed cafes for those 25th-anniversary dinners. The old Radisson, once topped with an overhang of delirious baroque stone, then stripped and striped pink-and-white, then demolished.
The West was brought down in 1940, the Sheraton-Ritz 50 years later.
Lesser hotels like the St. Clair and the Ritz-Minnesotan went down without lament. The Sheridan was a necessary sacrifice for Progress, since its site was cleared for Orchestra Hall. It would have been impractical to save them all. It feels unforgivable that we saved not one.
Of all the old grand hotels, only the Radisson is still taking reservations. The Curtis site is a data center; the Leamington is a parking ramp. The rest are ramps or lots. The Nicollet Hotel’s fate seems the most peculiar, and damning: It was the center of the urban renewal plan to scour the city’s “slums” and raise high, bright towers.
And nothing happened. That might turn out to be a good thing — but we’ll get to that.
The Nicollet replaced a smaller hotel by the same name, a four-story structure from the city’s early years. A bustling locale: right by Bridge Square, where Hennepin and Nicollet met before bolting off on their own adventures. City Hall was here; the train station brought newcomers to gape at the tall towers and bright lights. Oscar Wilde stayed at the hotel in 1882. He complained about the drab furnishings. Imagine how drab they were when the hotel went down in 1921.
The announcement of a huge new hotel in the local press got the usual breathless-boosterism treatment from the ballyhoo age: “Within a short time after the project was first announced,” the Tribune reported on Sept. 1, 1923, “a united effort to sell stock resulted in the disposal of $1,259,000 worth.” Who bought it? “Leading business and professional men, clerks, plain citizens, women, and even children, [will] contribute to its erection through their subscription for stock.”
The article had a picture of the design, drawn up by those dependable purveyors of ’20s design, Chicago-based Holabird and Root. Four wings attached to a central core, sitting on a base of light-colored stones punctuated by tall storefronts. Nothing special, but more elegantly detailed than the utilitarian brute that eventually hunkered down on the site. Unornamented except for a few token stone vases and balconies, the final design looked like the box they’d use to ship a much more interesting building. The wings from the front looked like the paws of an enormous sphinx, and from the side like a faceless warehouse for tired souls.
But it was big, 600 rooms, and that helped. An instant landmark to impress the people getting off the train. Stores on the ground floor to serve the neighborhood. The Gateway was already a bit tatty and weary by the time it opened, however, and the retail district had moved up Nicollet long ago. No reason for locals to shop there.
Many reasons to party, though. The Minnesota Terrace and Chatterbox bar were hot-spots, and ads in the paper touted top bands and a glamorous night of dining and dancing. In the ’50s the Polynesian fad found a home in the hotel’s new Waikiki Room, complete with squat statues of grimacing gods, bamboo awnings and everything to remind Pacific war vets of places they’d rather forget.
Pictures of the exterior show a nifty neon sign for the Waikiki Room, but they also show something that signaled the hotel’s doom: except for a Walgreens, the retail spaces were bricked up. The Gateway pavilion had been razed in 1953, and what was left of the Gateway was a wino haven. The front of the hotel had no front door.
Dead on the street, dull above, tired within: The hotel’s decline matched the fortunes of the Gateway, and not even ownership by the Pick chain could save it. The hotel became a rooming house for an evangelical organization for a while, then closed and sat empty and sullen at the foot of Nicollet, brooding over the unpopulated result of urban renewal. The claws and the swinging ball brought it down in 1991.
By the time something fills the spot, a quarter-century will have passed since the Nicollet Hotel fell. It took that long for the last piece of the Gateway to heal, and perhaps that’s a good thing. If they’d built something right away — say, a retail complex with movie theaters and restaurants — it would’ve stood alone in a moribund district, and perhaps like Block E or other big projects intended to “revitalize” the area, it might have emptied out.
Now is different. The project will add to the urban hubbub, not attempt to create it from scratch. The last big empty block of the Gateway will come to life again.
It would have been nice if it could have been saved, along with a few other of the grand hotels, but at least the days of mauling downtown are over — partly because there’s little left to kill, but also because we’ve learned the value of the old landmarks. Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes, Oscar Wilde said, and when it comes to the treatment of our old grand hotels, experience is something we have in abundance.
James Lileks • 612-673-7858