Regrets about the demolition of Minneapolis' "skid row" in the 1960s helped bring about the city's historic preservation laws. Now the same rules may save a Brutalist building that replaced those skid row buildings of yesteryear.
City planners want to spare 21 N. Washington Av. from the wrecking ball of a developer hoping to build a 27-story apartment building in the downtown core. They recommended that the citizen-led Heritage Preservation Commission vote against the demolition at a meeting this week.
The debate over the building illustrates a new complexity in historic preservation, as buildings from the era of freeway development and suburban flight grow old enough to qualify for protection.
Knutson Construction erected the concrete building between Hennepin and N. 1st Av. in 1969 as its headquarters. Knutson was the master developer responsible for redeveloping the Gateway District, where 17 blocks of the city's oldest buildings were leveled.
Many of those replacement buildings are now gone, such as the Food and Drug Administration office that stood at Hennepin and Washington avenues from 1965 until 2004. But 21 N. Washington lives on as a testament to 1960s urbanism.
The city staff report argues that the building merits further study for possible local historic designation based on factors like its strong association with the Gateway redevelopment and early use of prefabricated concrete construction.
"The building is characterized by its unique geometric patterns and depressions of alternating precast concrete panels and glazing, as well as the building's car-centric design with parking located at the first level and office stories above," the report said.
City Council Member Steve Fletcher, who represents the area, said he was surprised by the staff recommendation to deny the demolition permit. The City Council will have final say in the matter, following the Preservation Commission's vote.
"I will need some convincing that there's something special about that building, because it's not obvious to my eye," Fletcher said.
Development is already reshaping the area, long marked by empty lots. A 22-story building is going up next door on the corner of Hennepin and Washington, across the street from another 37-story building on the old Nicollet Hotel block.
"Hennepin and Washington feels like a very important crossroads," Fletcher said. "That's a place where we would say we want density."
Illinois developers Harlem Irving and CA Ventures proposed the 27-story apartment building, which would combine more than 400 apartments with commercial space and a parking ramp. The same development team is behind the 22-story building next door.
The Minnesota chapter of Docomomo, which advocates for preserving modernist architecture, supports studying the property for possible historic designation, said board member Todd Grover.
"Is this an important component to the Gateway District? Potentially, yes," Grover said. "And is there something architecturally significant to this building? Potentially, yes."
He added: "We need to know that information so we're not making taste decisions on a project. We can make objective decisions based upon the facts."
One study of the property's significance has already been completed, on behalf of the developers. Historical preservation consultant Amy Lucas, in a lengthy report on the building, concludes that the building does not meet the standards for protection.
"In general, the building and setting have been significantly altered and no longer retain sufficient integrity to meet local significance," Lucas wrote, adding that precast concrete construction was "well established" by 1969.
A 1960 photograph shows that the site was once peppered with liquor stores, bars and hotels in brick buildings dating to the turn of the 20th century. City permits show the block was razed in 1962.
Knutson had a decade to put new buildings on that land, but development had slowed by the mid-1960s, according to Lucas' report.
"The Gateway Center contract deadline for development was looming in November 1968 when Donald Knutson announced construction of the company headquarters building in the project area," Lucas wrote. "The concrete-panel construction building was lauded as a fast mode of construction with completion expected in 120 days."
Knutson remained in the building until 1984. It was later purchased by an advertising executive and then 21st Century Bank, according to Lucas' report. It changed hands again in 2019.
The city's Heritage Preservation Commission will discuss the building at its meeting Tuesday.