When it opened in 1973, the IDS Center had a startling impact on the Minneapolis skyline, rising far above the Foshay Tower, which had long reigned as the city’s tallest building.

But the center’s height wasn’t its only radical departure. The IDS complex was also the first commercial project in the heart of downtown to take up an entire block.

In so doing, it set the template for numerous full-block projects to come, inaugurating a decadeslong period of growth and consolidation that has transformed the downtown core into a gathering of monoliths.

Today, most of the 70 or so blocks in the city’s central core (usually defined as the area between Hennepin Avenue, 5th Avenue, the Mississippi River and 11th Street) support no more than four buildings, and quite a few have just one or two.

The blocks that still manage to maintain a greater variety of buildings tend to be around the edges of the core, especially along parts of Hennepin Avenue.

For many decades, however, the central core was a great architectural hodgepodge, with many blocks containing buildings in a variety of sizes, shapes and styles. Block-sized buildings of any kind were rare — Minneapolis City Hall, built beginning in 1889, was perhaps the first.

Before the IDS, most of the full-block developments downtown occurred near the Mississippi River as part of the Gateway Center Urban Renewal Project. More than 200 old buildings were razed for the Gateway project in the 1960s, after which modern-style buildings — often one to a block and seldom memorable — rose in their place.

But the big commercial district to the south, centered around 7th Street and Nicollet Avenue, was well out of the Gateway’s zone of destruction, and over the years redevelopment there occurred on a piecemeal basis. Northstar Center, completed in 1962, was probably the biggest modern-era project in the downtown core before IDS, but it doesn’t occupy a full block.

The IDS Center represented a huge advance over the Northstar project both in size and the quality of its design, and it showed how a fully built-up block at the very center of downtown could be remade on a scale that had never been attempted in Minneapolis.

The block on which the IDS Center stands — bounded by 7th and 8th streets and Nicollet and Marquette avenues — presented a complex and daunting challenge for the project’s developers. By my count, at least 10 buildings occupied the block in 1970, ranging in height from two to eight stories, and some of them were quite large.

The biggest and tallest building on the block, at 7th Street and Marquette Avenue, was the eight-story LaSalle (later Marquette Bank) Building, completed in 1917. In its original form, the building, clad in creamy terra-cotta, was a rather fussy exercise in the Classical Revival style popular in the early decades of the 20th century. In 1949, however, it received a makeover — bands of brick and stone replacing the terra-cotta — to provide a more “modern” look.

At 8th Street and Marquette stood another building that had undergone a modern face-lift. Dating to 1910, the four-story brick building was initially home to William A. French and Co., a furniture and decorating firm perhaps best known for its extensive work at Glensheen, Chester Congdon’s enormous mansion in Duluth. The New England Furniture Co. was also a longtime occupant. Quite elegant as designed, the building was recast in vertical stripes of light and dark brick in the mid-1950s, an alteration that did not enhance its appearance.

Perhaps the block’s outstanding work of architecture was the five-story Woolworth Store, a sleek Art Deco building from 1937 at 7th and Nicollet.

Back in the 1950s, when I was regularly dragged downtown to go shopping with my mother, Woolworth’s lunch counter was a frequent stop, usually after an excursion through the nearby Dayton’s and Donaldsons departments stores.

Just past Woolworth’s on 7th was another Art Deco building (albeit in the form of a circa 1940 face-lift) where the Davis and Ruben Furniture Co. did business for a number of years. Also near Woolworth’s was the six-story Wilmac Building at 719 Nicollet, built in 1892 to the designs of Harry Jones, one of the city’s greatest architects. Like almost every other building on the block, the Wilmac was later enlarged and remodeled to accommodate new uses.

The IDS block even had a pair of small, two-story shop buildings on Marquette that probably dated to the late 19th or early 20th century.

Gone, mostly forgotten

All of it was cleared away in 1970, but there is no reason to lament what happened.

The IDS Center, which includes a hotel and the marvelous Crystal Court along with its signature 57-story office tower, is justly regarded as one of the city’s defining works of architecture. It also may be the finest building ever designed by the architectural team of Philip Johnson and John Burgee, who produced gaudier but not necessarily better skyscrapers in several other American cities.

After IDS, it wasn’t long before other blockbusting projects appeared nearby.

Some of these megaprojects were well designed, others not so much (think City Center). But progress is always a calculus of gain and loss, and today’s central core with its dueling glass monoliths lacks the architectural variety and texture that characterizes other parts of downtown such as the Warehouse District and the riverfront.

It’s a loss worth noting: The central core simply isn’t as interesting a place to walk around in as it used to be. But what happened was probably inevitable.

Most other American cities, including St. Paul, rebuilt their downtown cores from the 1960s onward, often with unhappy results. But Minneapolis is fortunate that its first big blockbuster turned out to a project of rare excellence.


Larry Millett is an architecture critic and author. He can be reached at larrymillett.com.