The last time I went to the Minneapolis Institute of Art, I scored what once would have been a presidential parking place: a spot on 24th Street directly at the end of the sidewalk leading up to the grand, neoclassic entryway, complete with steps, columns and an imposing portico.
But I didn’t gloat. Even as I pulled in, I was well aware that the door near my parking spot hasn’t been used much since the museum’s 1970s addition by Kenzo Tange, which included a new entry along 3rd Avenue South, making my supposedly primo spot about as valuable as a Rembrandt downloaded off the Internet.
It was not a complete loss, however. While making the block-long walk to the museum’s other door, which is near the parking ramp that is behind the building, I had yet another chance to ponder how we have become a back-door society. From the Art Institute to the American Swedish Institute, from Temple Israel to the St. Paul Cathedral, buildings that once proudly flaunted their elaborate front entrances now have little, if any, use for them.
Disclaimer: The annual Crashed Ice skating-race-cum-insanity that uses the front steps of the cathedral as a launching platform doesn’t count.
Even at home, back doors rule. Most houses have a coat closet near the front door, which would be really handy if we ever used the front door for anything other than picking up the newspaper off the steps. But the garage is accessed through the back door, so that’s the one we use.
It’s not the garage that’s the problem; it’s the cars that necessitate them. Buildings were laid out to accentuate their aesthetics as we approached them. Then along came the car, and all bets were off. Instead of artistry, we valued functionality. We wanted a place to park our cars, and once we did so, we wanted a shortcut into the building. It didn’t have to be fancy — in fact, most of them are not — it just had to be handy.
And, thus, the back door became the front door. Or at least it became the entrance that most people use, which pretty much means the same thing.
While undoubtedly more practical, parking lot-abutting back doors will never have the same panache as the elegant entrances they’re replacing. Imagine the classic scene in “Rocky,” except instead of racing up the magnificent stairway to the bold facade of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Sylvester Stallone had jogged across an expanse of blacktop leading to a revolving door. Cut!
Not to imply that the architects who designed the elaborate front entries did anything wrong. They can’t be faulted for not anticipating that society was going to completely rearrange its priorities around a machine.
Nor is this to say that the SuperTarget motif featuring a building fronted by 40 acres of parking stalls is the answer. No matter how elegant an entry might be, having to crane our necks to look at it over a row of SUVs is going to spoil the effect. At that point, why bother with anything but the most basic of portals?
Inside affected, too
Temple Israel tried for a compromise, adapting its back door to look like a front door by adding a large portico. It’s impressive, but the illusion lasts only until you enter the building and discover that you’re at the wrong end of it.
Which is another aspect of the obsession with back doors: The traffic patterns inside the buildings have had to be rerouted to get us where we would have been had we used the front door the way we were supposed to.
Granted, some places have tried to make the best of things. Leading to the parking ramp south of the building, Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis added a spacious lobby that’s used as a gathering area for members, complete with coffee and cookies. Then again, we might need a little sustenance after we discover that in order to reach the door to the sanctuary, we need to trek about half a block up a hallway.
At least the trip inside Central Lutheran is fairly straightforward. Plymouth Congregational Church also added a space it calls a “commons” adjacent to its parking lot. It’s a welcoming area with large windows overlooking a garden, but navigating your way from there involves traversing multiple hallways and cutting through Guild Hall. If you end up in the library instead of the sanctuary, you zigged when you should have zagged.
Teaching old visitors new tricks hasn’t worked much better. Walker Art Center tried to redirect patrons as part of its 2005 addition by adding a new main entrance on Hennepin Avenue to replace the one on the north end of the building that it had shared with the original Guthrie Theater.
But it had no access to parking, which means it had no appeal. People kept using the old door, and the museum finally has been forced to wave the white flag. Part of its current renovation includes a $23.3 million entrance pavilion at the site of the old Vineland Place lobby.
The old front entries still provide a marketing opportunity. The American Swedish Institute’s website prominently features a photo of the regal 1908 Turnblad house at 26th Street and Park Avenue S. Just remember that if you go there, you’re going to be a block away from the parking lot, which has its entrance on 27th Street and — of course — a handy door.
As I returned to my car outside the Art Institute, I was stopped by a family — tourists from some far-flung locale, like Iowa, perhaps? — that was raving over the workmanship that had gone into shaping the original entry. Would I take their picture standing in front of it? Of course, I said. At least it’s good for something.