Urban skylines are defined by soaring skyscrapers and landmark buildings visible from afar, but it’s really the smaller, humbler buildings around them that shape a city.
The IDS Center in Minneapolis and the State Capitol in St. Paul are civic signatures, designed by celebrated architects. But far more important in our daily lives are the commercial buildings — the stores, apartments, warehouses and offices — that originally filled out our downtowns and lined our main corridors like Lake Street and University Avenue.
Urban planners call these structures “fabric buildings,” a term largely unknown to the general public. It’s time we learned what they are and just what they offer.
Virtually all of St. Paul’s Lowertown and the North Loop in Minneapolis are filled with two- to six-story buildings. Some are nondescript, but many were designed by architects and exquisitely detailed. Their real beauty is apparent when you see them together on the streets they frame. Although these commercial buildings were originally designed for manufacturing and warehouses, they have proved highly adaptable.
Lake Street in Minneapolis is a multigenerational case study in fabric buildings and their lasting importance.
Starting around 1890, Lake Street’s stores, offices and, eventually, car dealerships grew to create a rich architectural ensemble, which made the stretch from Uptown to the Mississippi River a great place for car “cruising.”
By the 1950s, young people found an evening of magic in Lake Street’s continuity of neon, bright storefronts and sidewalk vitality — all stemming from the perfectly ordinary buildings, theaters and small businesses that thrived there. Taken alone, these buildings were nothing special, but together these fabric buildings became a destination.
(The same could be said for Grand Avenue in St. Paul, which remains a shopping, business and restaurant hub today.)
But in the 1960s, places like Lake Street and University Avenue began to lose buildings to parking lots that fronted gas stations, muffler repair shops and banks — all of which were set back from the street, creating eerily exposed environments for pedestrians. On Lake Street, some blocks had so many parking lots that the street lost its unique draw and urban feel.
In the 1980s, cities encouraged economic revival through drive-up, one-story office and business parks, also with front-door parking. St. Paul transformed the Midway area with big-box stores such as Target, which was set even farther back from the street. This new chapter in commercial architecture ignored the lure, the continuity, the sense of community created by fabric buildings.
Catching up with the past
Fortunately, during the past 20 years, planners in the Twin Cities have grown to appreciate fabric buildings as affordable locations for small businesses, and their collective density draws visitors and enriches the pedestrian experience.
Both Minneapolis and St. Paul now encourage developers to learn to re-use fabric buildings and build new structures up to the sidewalk, just as they were a century ago.
There’s also a wave of new multiunit residential projects in the cities and older suburbs that function like fabric buildings. Because building codes allow less expensive wood construction up to five stories, many new apartments and condos are four to five stories tall, creating areas with buildings that are consistent in height and form.
And because of the need for housing, parking lots are being filled with new buildings that complement the older surviving buildings. The North Loop, Central Avenue NE., the 29th Midtown Greenway and Lake Street are filled with new examples.
American cities are starting to grow in population for the first time in 50 years. Thousands of old fabric buildings can be repurposed for the digital era, offering millennials an alternative to the postwar suburbs where many of them grew up.
But even more important, these buildings offer variety — in architectural period and style and in adaptability.
Great cities will continue to preserve and build architectural landmarks. But we also need to preserve and build a humble kind of architecture. We can never try to save all, or even most, of the fabric buildings in our cities. We are, however, finally learning how much they matter as cities evolve with every generation.
Frank Edgerton Martin is a consulting writer for architecture and design firms and a historic landscape preservation planner.