In the early 1960s, architect Ralph Rapson was immersed in what would become two of his most lauded landmarks, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, and the Pillsbury House on the shores of Lake Minnetonka in Wayzata. Each has been demolished.
At the same time, his office was involved in a third project: a branch of the State Capitol Credit Union, near the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis.
Several years after it opened, the building was converted to a city library. Fortunately, this pint-size exercise in Modernism and Brutalism not only survives, but it’s thriving, thanks to an $11.6 million investment from that leading proponent of civic architecture, the Hennepin County Library.
A 13-month renovation and restoration has revealed every square inch of the building’s rough-hewed beauty and practical nature.
The structure’s primary characteristic is a massive concrete roof, its underside dimpled with a waffle-like pattern. This canopy forms a gigantic square, roughly 100 feet per side, and it rests on 16 slender, cross-shaped pillars.
A continuous ribbon of clerestory windows surrounds the building’s outer edges, furthering the illusion that all those tons of concrete somehow are floating daintily on those tapered concrete pillars. What a great sleight-of-hand.
The exterior walls aren’t blandly ruler-straight, either. Instead, Rapson relied upon an irregularly placed series of brick-and-glass cubes to animate the building’s outer edges.
“Rapson was always playing with geometry,” said architect Todd Grover of MacDonald & Mack in Minneapolis, which managed the renovation in collaboration with Quinn Evans of Washington, D.C., and the Minneapolis landscape architecture firm of Damon Farber. “The walls pull and push against that strong grid. It’s not just a box.”
With all that heaviness overhead, you might assume that the interior would be gloomily bunkerlike. Wrong. Because the widely spaced pillars do all the heavy load-bearing lifting, Rapson was able to keep the space surprisingly open and airy.
“It’s such a user-friendly building,” said Grover. “Brutalism and Modernism can sometimes feel cold, but this building’s warmth and coziness offers a different perspective. People are seeing that these midcentury buildings deserve the same sensitivity and expertise that a 100-year-old building deserves.”
During the renovation, the building’s underused basement proved to be both a puzzle and an opportunity.
Persistent water leaks had left the space uninhabitable for the past decade. But by venturing downward, the library could more than double the main level’s 5,800 square feet. One hitch: It was a dark, windowless space. The solution? Connect the two levels with a 14-by-23-foot opening.
MacDonald & Mack placed the opening directly below the canopy’s three largest skylights (Rapson scattered another 19 smaller skylights across the roof), which flood the lower level with sunlight. The opening also provides a dazzling new perspective for viewing Rapson’s dynamic waffle slab.
“Your eye automatically looks up,” said Grover. “You don’t feel like you’re in a basement. Before, you wouldn’t have wanted to be down there.”
Not much of the lower level’s original footprint remains. One detail that survived was Rapson’s funhouse light fixtures in the credit union’s boardroom. Grover calls them “light scoops,” but library staffers have christened them “cow udders” and “alien lights.” The amusing plaster-cast bump-outs instantly suggested “children’s library.”
The rest of the floor is occupied by a dedicated teen area, a central reading room, a large multipurpose meeting space, a staff lounge and several restrooms.
Throughout the building, MacDonald & Mack made discreet insertions and deletions. An outdated underground parking garage was removed, replaced by a larger number of surface spots. The building lacked an elevator and a sprinkler system; both were installed in ways that suggest that they were always in place. New electrical, heating and air conditioning systems were carefully hidden above the lower level’s ceiling.
When main-floor interior walls were moved, the building’s distinctive red-brown bricks were painstakingly salvaged or occasionally replaced with well-matched contemporary iterations. Access to the building’s two staircases was made readily apparent, accentuating that vital upstairs-downstairs visual link.
Several mementos from the building’s original tenant remain, including a small night deposit safe and what is destined to be the library’s biggest curiosity, an emergency air vent from the days when there was an airtight walk-in vault on the premises.
But the vault itself is a memory. Using a jackhammer and a surgeon’s precision, the project’s contractor, Shaw-Lundquist Associates of Eagan, devoted a week to carefully eliminating the vault’s thick concrete infrastructure. The space is now dedicated to staff functions.
The best of old and new
Every interior detail has been buffed anew. To contrast with Rapson’s original dark-stained oak doors, MacDonald & Mack designed bookshelves using light maple. They’re 16 inches lower than their predecessors, which were blocking sightlines.
Furniture, upholstered in warm, inviting colors, often mimics Rapson’s famous midcentury designs; a variation on his distinctive rocker will appear this spring on the library’s sheltered patio. Even the lollipop light fixtures — icons from Rapson’s Guthrie lobby — were salvaged, repaired and reinstalled.
Exterior alterations are minimal. The building remains perched, like an ancient temple, on a grass-covered platform that rises about 4 feet off the sidewalk. A ramp has been quietly inserted into that podium (“One of our hopes is to always provide universal access to the front door,” said Grover), and the concrete terrace that surrounds the building was replaced with more resilient concrete tiles. They’re tinted a pale red, a visual shout-out to the original (and long gone) quarry tiles that once graced the exterior.
The newly revitalized building also has a new name: Arvonne Fraser Library. It’s a fitting tribute to the women’s rights leader, who was a powerful advocate of the local library system and a longtime neighborhood resident. Fraser, who was married to former Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser, died in 2018 at the age of 92.
The former Southeast Library was open three days a week, while the Arvonne Fraser Library will operate six days a week.
“I’m making great assumptions that we’re going to be filled, all the time,” said Peggy Woodling, manager of capital projects and operations for Hennepin County Library.
“The library is so beautiful, it’s one of the most transformative renovations that we’ve done,” said Woodling. “It exceeds all of our expectations.”