Free Idea: Main Street Minnesota

You know what I don’t think we have enough of on Huge, improbable, thought-provoking ideas.

We’re all familiar with Nicollet Ave and a lot of the buildings that reside on it. It’s the Main Street of Minneapolis, representing a lot of what’s great about both cities. However, that’s Minneapolis; it’s not all of Minnesota and as we’ve seen in the recent political conjecture, sometimes the cities get a little too much focus leaving outstate in the dust.

So I’ve come up with a plan that combines two of the best parts of Minnesota: its rural heritage and its urban character.

There are tons of little towns in Minnesota, some you’ve heard of, some you haven’t. But the fate of these little towns (in my opinion) is clear; they won’t make it to the end of the century.

We can’t pin exactly how cities thrive or die, but we know they come and go often leaving behind ghostly reminders of their existence. Sometimes those are nothing more than ruins, sometimes they seem to be perfectly good buildings. The latter is what I want to focus on.

Vernon Center is a city of about 330 people located just south of Mankato. This city has very little hope of surviving unless Mankato simply gobbles it up in its quest to sprawl. However, this doesn’t mean that Vernon Center is worthless or that it should simply be forgotten. In fact, you can see on Google Maps that it has at least one quaint, charming main street building.

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This is where Minnesota Main Street (Editor’s note: this Free Idea is not part of the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota’s Main Street Program) comes into play.

The idea is that you would pick a city, in this case I would say Mankato, and find a street worth redeveloping (we have plenty of them.) As Vernon Center continues to decline a group of volunteers (individuals and companies alike) fueled by federal/state aid and donations, comes to Vernon Center, buys the building and it is  moved to the aforementioned street in Mankato. The building is then brought up to code and marked with a plaque summarizing its history.

These “Main Streets” could pop up all over Minnesota metros homaging the smaller villages that simply went out of existence. The program would preserves history and gives us some great buildings that a lot of architects seem negligent to build.

I realize that the plan is half-baked, but hey, what’s wrong with that? Sometimes ideas are just conversation starters which end up being real plans with actionable missions.

I think it would be a cool lesson in history and a great way to recognize our forefathers who built these cities.

9 thoughts on “Free Idea: Main Street Minnesota

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    The idea is interesting, if decline of such a village were inevitable — like, the building is abandoned and shows no hope of finding a future use there. However, it appears that the building has one or two tenants already (Vinnie’s Shaved Ice and Vernon Center Lumber).

    Other than the fact that it’s small, is there a reason you think Vernon Center’s decline is inevitable? I have no direct knowledge to refute it, but from a cursory Street View session, I see a lot of signs of life — streets and buildings in fairly good repair, a lot of destinations (particularly churches).

    Being 25 minutes from Mankato, towns like this still serve a valuable role as a rural center to the surrounding farmland (plus to the 300-odd people who live in it).

  2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    There are some analogies here to Dundas and Northfield, although they actually border each other, and the size difference is less stark. However, Dundas is much smaller and has much less of a viable town center — basically one side of one block, plus a single isolated building in the old business district.

    The isolated building (a private home today, I believe) is beautiful, if out of place. But I’d hate the idea of picking it up and setting it down on Northfield’s Division Street just to make it part of a more idyllic downtown.

    Whether historically protected or not, buildings like this are built in a context, and I think we rob them of their history (and rob the former site’s vicinity of its past) to move them unnecessarily.

  3. Matthias LeyrerMatthias Leyrer Post author

    Yeah, this is pure speculation if it were going to happen. There’s nothing to say that Vernon Center will necessarily die, but it’s more likely than not that it will.

    I’m simply talking about saving architecture and making the building potentially more useful and giving it the ability to be admired by more people.

  4. Scott

    Much as I hate to say it, I think this idea has some merit. My wife’s hometown (pop 350, west central Iowa, too far from Omaha or Sioux City to be a bedroom community) had a beautiful old brick bank building that stood empty for years. Finally, it just fell over into the street. Now it’s landfill someplace, and the lot is vacant.

    Many of these smaller towns will never come back. They served thousands of farm families when a family could survive on 80 or 120 acres. Now a family needs 640 acres minimum, with many farms over 1,000 acres. Do the math, that’s up to 90 percent of the farm families just gone and never coming back. Farms continue to grow by the year, with farm population continuing to decline. Sure, there are a handful of organic, locavore exceptions, but they are few and far between.

    Preserving the best of the architecture and structures from these towns before it is lost due to neglect and collapse is an interesting idea.

  5. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    The corrolary idea is to have a bunch of urbanists literally take over a town, or at least a block or two of a main street. Given the prices I see on this real estate, it would be quite easy for some of us city slickers to literally just write checks for chunks of a town. Especially if we did it in an organized way with a particular desired outcome. It wouldn’t take many people to get a critical mass… maybe a half dozen.

  6. Joe ScottJoe Scott

    I’ve thought about this before and discussed the idea with a real estate developer/general contractor. He said that with current practices, it would be prohibitively expensive to move these buildings any significant distance, particularly into the metro. A big part of the expense would be paying utility companies to temporarily move power lines etc. I realize practicality isn’t the point of the post, and I’m definitely on board with the idea. A cool followup post would be trying to get a (probably pretty speculative) quote from a building mover on this building, if you can find any that are willing to humor you, and then try and figure out how close you could come to building a substantially similar building on a vacant lot in Minneapolis for the same price.

    1. Matthias LeyrerMatthias Leyrer Post author

      You’re not wrong, but I guess in my mind’s eye I saw it more as brick buildings than anything else. So you’re essentially disassembling brick buildings and then re-assembling.

      A lot of the mortar used in some of these old buildings (in this area any way) comes right out with a hammer and chisel without damaging the brick.

      I know it would be cost prohibitive, but so are stadiums and I feel like my idea has more cultural capital then a glass effigy to Ziggy.

  7. Joe ScottJoe Scott

    Then why not just build a traditional building with new or other salvaged bricks? The illegal plundering of bricks from old buildings has been an issue in St. Louis and other places, but I would assume legally purchasing the building to disassemble it would cost more per brick than new, even if you were trying to faithfully match period bricks.

    1. Matthias LeyrerMatthias Leyrer Post author

      Oh, yeah, I mean that would definitely be ideal. And yeah, I’m sure it would be more expensive, but maybe a hybrid then? Something like, if it’s going to be destroyed, you get as many bricks and other stuff out as you can and then you mark it in a new building?

      Again, very infantile planning here, but I think historic salvage should be given some kind of grant.

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