When the Star Tribune moves to its new home next week, it won't just be the end of the old Portland HQ's useful life. It'll be the end of newspaper buildings in downtown Minneapolis.

Almost 100 years ago, downtown had Newspaper Row, a stretch of 4th Street between 1st Avenue N. and 2nd Avenue S. Home to all the broadsheets and tabloids, it had the usual support systems — i.e., bars — clustered nearby to lubricate the scribes.

One by one the papers perished; the buildings, including some that were architecturally significant, were demolished. The Tribune was one of them, but just as today, it moved before the wreckers came. Its new home: the building you see today.

Well, almost. Back up a bit. At 5th Street and Portland Avenue S. stood the home of the Nonpartisan League, which started the Minneapolis Daily Star in 1920. The original building was an ordinary four-story brick structure with no particular merits, but once the Star and Journal were combined under ownership of the Cowles family, the building was remade in a crisp 1930s style, alternating floors of light and dark, with a sober black marble entry. It looked as if the Star building had decided that it would be a squat monochrome bee.

After the war, big plans: In 1947 the Star and the Tribune announced a new building that expanded the old Star's style into a grand edifice that ran the entire block. Its size would double. The stone front on Portland would proclaim STAR AND TRIBUNE for the centuries, and the famous medallions (designed by University of Minnesota art Prof. Ivan Doseff) representing the industrious pursuits of the people would tie the building to the state it served. For this wasn't just a business: It was a civic institution.

Granted, one that existed to sell advertising. It wasn't a public charity. But the new building was imagined as a place for the citizens to mingle and learn. A teletype chattered out the latest news. A world clock told the hour elsewhere on Earth, so one could stand in a Minneapolis office lobby in galoshes and consider the time in Rio. The extension office passed out booklets on cooking and other homemaking tips. It wasn't a library, and it wasn't a school, and it wasn't anything other than a private business — but on the other hand, it was all those things, in a way.

From the start it was apart from the business core, surrounded by neighbors with different professions: the Armory, the old City Hospital, a few warehouses, some low-slung commercial structures. Perhaps they thought that downtown's center of gravity would always include the great Temple of Print, but this was a misjudgment. The hospital was razed decades ago, and eventually replaced by — oh, joy — a juvenile justice center. The small buildings fell for parking. The Armory was abandoned. Downtown moved west, as if flinching away from the wound of the devastated Gateway; Washington Avenue a few blocks away was a shabby gutter.

The Star Tribune building looked like a glacier pushed to the edge of the city by implacable forces, left to stand alone, looking with a stern countenance at the towers of the core.

It's hard to imagine anyone wandering into the lobby today to check on war news or sports scores.

Name, medallions scraped off

We probably should mention the 1980s brown-brick Strib annex across 4th Street, known as the Freeman Building when anyone bothered to mention it by name. It was a charmless box whose erection required the sacrifice of a large brick warehouse that would have made for an excellent condo rehab. The Wells Fargo complex in Downtown East would have been a tougher sell, perhaps, if the old warehouse were still standing: Combined with the Star Tribune HQ, two diverse and substantial structures would have been sacrificed. One old building is a relic, an impediment; two make a historical district.

The annex went down last year, a funeral with no mourners. The Star Tribune building suffered the removal of its name and the medallions, the words and circles replaced with new stone that shines a different color when it rains, the way a broken bone aches when a storm's coming. It's still the same building, but with its name gone it reminds you of someone blindfolded with a cigarette in his mouth, waiting for the firing squad to chamber its rounds.

Over the years, renovations have removed most traces of its 1947 glory. Here and there, a metal banister with Buck Rogers flair; letters on a pebbled door; remnants of machinery in the basement where reporters' words were fed to great clattering banks of presses, glass blocks on a side entrance. It's hard to explain to outsiders, but the heart has gone out of the place. The strong stone facade is just that — a front. Inside, it's tired. Everyone who's ever worked there will feel a sympathetic pang when the claws start to dig into the stone and pull it down. But it's not the place it once was, and hasn't been for decades.

After dozens of years on the bleak margins, the newspaper is back in the center of downtown. And you will not have to scrape your boots should you visit. For as long as I've worked at the paper, the ceremonial start of winter has been the appearance of a boot-scraper in the side entrance. It has an elegant "S T" logo. Must be 50 years old. One of the guys who keep the building running drags out the scraper when winter comes, and puts it away come April. It was there for the people who came in to place a classified ad, or see the presses on a school tour, or just kill some time looking at the news posted on the wall.

It's not the only bygone remnant. On the second floor there's … a phone booth. With a rotary phone. Accordion doors. A button for FAN in case you had a cigarette going when you sat down. A coin slot: 5, 10, 25. The other day I sat down and pulled the door shut and picked up the receiver. The phone was a beautiful thing, in its own way, a standard piece of postwar design. Like the building itself: practical, heavy, with a dash of machine-age romance.

I almost expected to hear a dial tone, but there was nothing. It was dead.

It had its day. It did its job.

James Lileks • 612-673-7858