Say hello to "Lost Twin Cities," a monthly column by Larry Millett, a man of history and mystery. Millett is a born-and-bred Minnesotan who has written 12 books of history, including the bestselling "Lost Twin Cities," as well as eight mysteries (most of which involve the Twin Cities and a certain British private detective known for his wits and his Calabash pipe).
To introduce Millett to Streetscapes readers who might not know him, we talked to the longtime architectural author, historian and critic about how the local landscape has changed, how he makes architecture interesting and how the heck Sherlock Holmes ended up in the twin towns.
Q: How did you get interested in architecture?
A: I can't explain it. I was a blue-collar kid. All my friends were fixing cars and I was drawing buildings.
It may be because I pretty much walked through the whole Gateway destruction on my way to school [DeLaSalle High School on Minneapolis' Nicollet Island]. I remember the Gateway as it was and saw it being systematically torn down.
Q: Obviously, we lost many spectacular buildings before, during and after the urban renewal projects of the 1960s. There must have been enough left to keep you here and interested.
A: This isn't New York or Chicago, but we have a good body of architecture. When I go out East, it's all Colonial. Here we have a lot of variety. We also have two cities. A hundred and seventy years of history.
Q: Your books — including "Once There Were Castles," "Minnesota Modern" and your guide series — have been popular and populist. Why?
A: I've never been the kind of architectural writer who goes into a dissertation about the influence of a certain style. I've always been a storyteller first. That's how I write my books.
Q: "Lost Twin Cities," which has been in print since 1992, is your best known and bestselling book. Why do you think it struck such a chord?
A: I have to admit it wasn't an original idea. (I had an original idea once in about 50 years and I forgot it.) It was based on similar books, "Lost New York," "Lost Chicago."
To me, cities are structures in time. They're very rich, dynamic human creations. And architecture and buildings are doors into history, the people as well as the places.
Q: What will your monthly "Lost Twin Cities" column in the Star Tribune be like?
A: What I hope to do is offer people a glimpse of the past that's surprising. I'm not doing just Victorian buildings. I hope to do stuff from different periods and different building types, even lost landscapes. Did you know that the Twin Cities had lots of waterfalls that have been lost? I hope to help people take a look at a Minneapolis and St. Paul they've never seen. And I'll definitely walk out into the suburbs, too.
Q: Won't that entail a lot of research?
A: I have this big huge database I've developed over the years. I'm sitting on all of this information and I thought, "Why don't I tell some of the stories I haven't been able to get out yet?"
Q: Do you have any more books in you?
A: I'm at work on a book about the late, great Metropolitan Building in Minneapolis. It's a crazy, sad story with lots of crazy characters. That might be my last architecture book.
I may do a few more Sherlocks in Minnesota.
Q: I have to say that architecture and Sherlock Holmes seem worlds apart. What's the connection?
A: A lot of the research I'd done for the architecture books helped me set the stage for Sherlock and historical fiction. If you're dealing with a murder mystery set in St. Paul in 1896, I know what buildings were there. I can give a nice description of what Holmes and Watson were seeing as they walked down the street.
Q: So how did you get the world's greatest detective to come to Minnesota?
A: When I was a reporter at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, I got assigned to do a story on the 100th anniversary of the Hinckley fire. After that story I thought, "There's got to be a mystery here." I grew up on Sherlock Holmes, so I brought him in. I mean, why couldn't he come here?