When the design of the Norwest Center was revealed, the main reaction might have been not awe, but relief. It wasn’t another featureless flat-top box like Multifoods or Pillsbury, but no one had expected that it would be. The architect was Cesar Pelli — a lanky, genial, Argentinian who was one of the finest architects of the 20th century — and he’d produced a solid addition to downtown’s towers. The tower was a glass-and-stone square that rose 45 stories, tapered slightly, and ended in a pyramid that would transform the skyline.
Perhaps you’re scratching your head and thinking, hold on, that doesn’t sound right. That doesn’t sound like Norwest at all. You’re right. Pelli went back to the drawing board after the project’s original partners changed and the site was split in two, and returned with the slender, Rockefeller Center homage we now call the Wells Fargo Center. The original design joined the ranks of unbuilt projects that would have made Minneapolis look quite different — and in almost every case, we should consider ourselves lucky.
1. Almost every case. Consider first the Lincoln Tower, now known as 333 South Seventh Street Tower. A late postmodernist design from Kohn Pedersen Fox. Monochrome stone in a pleasing arrangement; classical proportions; a ziggurat roof that recalled the exuberant tops of Jazz Age skyscrapers built at the end of the 1920s boom. There’s a nice lawn out front, trees, lawn chairs and sofas in the warm months. When you look at it from one angle, you can’t imagine it’s missing anything.
But it’s only half the project. The original design included a second tower, a mirror image of the other, built on the plot where office workers now play beanbag. The market crash of the late 1980s doomed Phase 2, and now the tower looks like a twin that lost its sibling and lives out the rest of its life alone. Together, they would have been a formidable pair — but the green space, across the street from the park outside Government Center, makes for a nice oasis. Two buildings would have been better. One has worked out just fine.
2. Speaking of Hennepin County Government Center: Early plans anticipated a thicket of office buildings rising up around the slit-windowed behemoth, stuffed with lawyers to toil in the courts. One design had identical structures about 15 stories tall lined up perpendicular on either side, a junior-league Brasilia. It didn’t even look good on paper. To be fair, a row of handsome International Style buildings — black glass with nickel trim, glowing from within when the sun began to set — would have been a crisp rebuke to the block-straddling Colossus of Government. But it was too late to hope for something simple and elegant. They would have built mirror boxes, one after the other, or dull brown brick slabs with copper-tinted windows. That’s all they knew how to do for a while.
3. Speaking of International Style black boxes: That aesthetic morphed into something less graceful by the late ’60s and early ’70s. Less glass, more stone. In the late ’60s a skyscraper was proposed for 5th Street, where the curvy duo of the 5th Street Towers now stands. The tower was sheathed in dark rock and metal, all business, no joy. You would have expected winged monkeys in gray flannel suits to fly out of its upper floors. The only mention of the proposal was a photo in the Star Tribune archives; perhaps it was commissioned just to frighten small children and reassure bad architects that almost anyone could design one of these things.
4. The LSGI project. This would have put a dome over several blocks of downtown, creating an indoor mall. It could have worked! See also Block E, Gaviidae Phase 1 and 2, and City Center.
5. The Nicollet. This 56-story condo tower on Nicollet Mall at 10th Street would have been the tallest residential tower outside of Chicago, New York and Miami. It featured an arc that swooped through the facade, like an abstract sail full of wind. Nixed in 2008 by Old Man Recession, the design was downscaled into a squat block of condos, like mushrooms growing out of the stump of a sequoia. That was canceled as well, and now Target has offices in the renovated 1920s building that managed to survive. Apt name for the previous tenant of the space: Let It Be Records.
6. LeRoy Buffington’s 28-story skyscraper. The height — 28 floors! — was shocking in 1888. That was more than twice the height that stone-walled buildings could reach. Buffington had devised the metal-frame system on which all modern skyscrapers are based, and patented the idea in hopes of watching the royalties roll in. He never built the proto-skyscraper, though. A 1942 account of his career said “Buffington later admitted that he never really intended to put up the twenty-eight-story building, but was using it only as a publicity device.” The courts would later rule against his patent claims, and the man who would be “The Father of the Skyscraper” spent $30,000 in legal battles against other architects before filing bankruptcy in 1901.
He did get one royalty payment: $2,250 from Rufus Rand, who slipped him some money when he built the Rand Tower in 1929. He felt bad for LeRoy, and thought it was the decent thing to do.
Buffington’s tower rose straight up and culminated in a triangular cap. It’s not impossible to think that Pelli’s first Norwest design was a nod to Buffington, and it would have been a sweet piece of vindication, if the design hadn’t gone in another direction. But you can still imagine both Pelli’s and Buffington’s designs if you’re driving through northeast Minneapolis on southbound I-35W. If the light is right and the sun’s heading down, there’s a moment when the silhouette of the nearby Cream of Wheat building — a square tower, a pyramid top — looks like it could be part of the distant skyline. For once the unbuilt rises up, and reminds you what could have been.
But what we did get … was better.