Bank, bridge, book arts, bordello, and brewpub. Hotels and high-tech. Lofts and linseed oil. Mill ruins, museum, and medical clinics. Shelter, supportive housing, and sculptures. Theater and threshers. Downtown East has it all, from the 19th century to the 21st. And yes, one big indoor football stadium that has gotten a lot of attention surrounding its 2016 opening. Plus more.
The geographic area containing all this is compact enough that I could have walked it in one outing, but I chose to leave a portion near the river for another day, in part so that I wouldn’t be quite so overwhelmed, and in part so that I could come back on the opening day of the Mill City Farmers Market.
Downtown East is situated across Interstate 35W from the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood and extends as far west as Portland Avenue. The southern border is mostly on 6th Street South, though partly on 5th Street, while the northern border is in the middle of the river. My main loop (shown in blue) started and ended at the U.S. Bank Stadium station, which is served by both Metro lines. I also walked various back-and-forth spurs, shown in red.
Initially heading west on 4th Street from the station and crossing Park Avenue, my first sight straight ahead was the Commons: a park-like area associated with the stadium. Likewise, looking back to the east, I was able to see the stadium itself, a sight that frequently recurred throughout the walk. Enough has been written about these two facilities that I’ll confine myself to two remarks about the Commons, both supported by my photo. First, the seating includes table-and-chair sets as well as benches, a convenience in light of the food trucks parked there. Second, the climbing structure is essentially a tetrakis cuboctahedron, though you have to imagine one of the order-4 vertices being embedded into the ground together with the four adjacent triangular faces and the eight edges adjacent to those faces.
A one-block northward spur on Portland Avenue took me between the two high-rise towers occupied by Wells Fargo and alongside the slick box of a Radison RED hotel. Each of the Wells Fargo entrances is flanked by round limestone medallions. A plaque explains that
The six limestone medallions adorning the Wells Fargo entry plazas were reclaimed from the Minneapolis Star Tribune building, which stood immediately to the south of this site until 2015.
The medallions were designed and carved in place by Ivan Doseff, University of Minnesota sculptor, and installed as part of an addition completed in 1949. The medallions depict the six principal industries of the upper Midwest: Agriculture, Dairy, Lumber, Milling, Mining and Tourism.
The authors of the plaque may have been too modest to mention that a contemporary list of the state’s largest industries starts with the financial sector.
After returning to 4th Street and wrapping around the Commons, I headed north again on Park Avenue. As I crossed 3rd Street, I got a good look at the Advance Thresher Company and Emerson-Newton Implement Company buildings, now collectively known as Thresher Square. There’s so much to love about these buildings that it’s hard to know where to begin. One of my favorites is the terra-cotta seals on the Advance Thresher part showing someone climbing onward and upward carrying a banner emblazoned “Advance.” At a bigger-picture level, there’s also the quirk of these two harmoniously mated buildings, constructed only a few years apart (1900 and 1904), having different numbers of stories. (Advance Thresher has fewer but taller stories, whereas Emerson-Newton has more stories, spaced more closely together.)
One block further north, I turned west on Washington Avenue back to Portland Avenue, which I used to cross Washington into the mill district. Between 2nd Street and West River Parkway, the area to the east of Portland Avenue is occupied by the North Star Lofts in the old North Star Blankets building. I was particularly interested in a ghost sign between a balcony and a loading door: “North Star Warehouse Inc,” together with the address. This reflects the period in the second half of the 20th century when the space was used as a warehouse after the textile mill moved out. It’s easy to forget about that transitional use between mill and condos, so it’s nice to have a visible reminder.
After passing the North Star building, I crossed West River Parkway into the Mill Ruins Park. I’m saving most of the park for my return visit, but this day I used it to access the Stone Arch Bridge, built in 1883 for the Great Northern Railway and today used for pedestrian and bicycle paths. For me, it provided a great vantage point back into the neighborhood, from which I could see the Gold Medal Flour signs atop the Washburn-Crosby Elevator Number 1, the Guthrie Theater with its signature “Endless Bridge,” the Mill City Museum’s combination of glass and ruins, and the North Star building with its prominent North Star Blankets sign. (I also did look down at the river passing under the bridge.)
After retreating from the bridge, I walked past some modern apartments that oppose the North Star Lofts on 2nd Street and then crossed back over Washington Avenue on Portland, turning east on 3rd Street. The northeast corner of Portland Avenue and 3rd Street is occupied by the ten-story-high People Serving People, “the largest and most comprehensive, family-focused homeless shelter in Minnesota.”
To its east, the Northern Implement Company building provides a slightly later (1910) counterpart to Thresher Square, which stands just across Park Avenue from it. The ornate sides of the building, with their romanesque arches and terra cotta inlays, are those facing 3rd Street (pictured) and Park Avenue (not), but I’m also interested in the non-ornate sides. In particular, the western side (pictured) interests me because the ghost signage seems to reflect two different occupants. The top part seems to date from the somewhat more recent Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co., while below that is something about Plow Works, presumably dating from the original Northern Implement Company. (PPG arranged for alterations in 1920.)
I continued eastward on 3rd Street as far as a pedestrian can safely go, which is Norm McGrew Place (a renamed portion of 9th Avenue South). Beyond that, 3rd and 4th Streets are freeway ramps. Before taking Norm McGrew Place and 4th Street back to Chicago Avenue, though, I stopped to admire a complex occupying the entire north side of the 800 block of 3rd Street. It links new construction with an older building to furnish space for the Emanuel Apartments, which “provide single adults safe, sober, affordable housing in combination with support services that will facilitate housing stabilization, an increase in skills and income, and an increase in health and wellness.” The ground floor of the new building also includes a nurse practitioners clinic.
I took Chicago Avenue north to Washington Avenue, then turned north again from Washington onto 11th Avenue. Among the sights on Washington was another hotel, the Aloft in the 900 block. The basic boxy shape has any number of embellishments, but what interested me most was the “lofted” roofline, simply because one needs to be on the opposite sidewalk to see it — it’s an architectural acknowledgement that we pedestrians do exist.
The block bounded by 10th, Washington, and 11th Avenues and 2nd Street is almost entirely occupied by a large condominium complex (The Bridgewater) with ground-floor retail along Washington Avenue. However, when I turned north on 11th Avenue, I found one important exception to this block-scale development, a carved-out section in the middle of the block.
This area contains two points of interest. First, two attractive flowering trees flank a small parking area. They were the walk’s highpoint so far as celebrating Arbor Day.
In the background beyond the pink blossoms, you can see part of the condo complex. What you can’t see, alas, is the three-story brick building in a Romanesque-revival style (late 19th or early 20th century) that stands beside the tree. Although it includes some office space, it is primarily residential. I found it quite intriguing because it seems so out of place, not only with regard to its present-day context, but also with regard to my understanding of historical land use — I wasn’t aware of such stately residences being built so near the river during the city’s milling heyday. Although I failed to capture a usable photo, you can find images of 212 11th Avenue South from other sources, such as Google’s Street View.
My goal in the All of Minneapolis project is to focus on the present-day contents of each neighborhood as I encounter them on my walks — any history that has vanished without a trace is outside my scope. However, I do take an interest in those aspects of the past that help explain why the present looks as it does, whether in the neighborhood-level patterns of development or in the building-level context of when and for what purpose a particular structure was built.
For digging into the past of individual buildings, one of my standard go-to resources is the building permit index cards. In addition to showing when a building was built and altered, these cards often show the functions a building served over time and its owners. In the case of this particular building, the index card shows it as built in 1890 for “flats”; a plumbing permit from 1891 lists the same use. Alterations in 1892 and 1897 don’t specify any particular use. And then we hit the two electrical permits from 1899: one describing the property as a “sporting hse.” and other as a “hse. of ill fame.”
Viewed from the perspective of our present day, in which property uses are designated by computerized codes, it’s a bit odd to have two different names for the same thing. However, the contrast between these two descriptions is also fascinating in its own right. Was one permit written by someone with a positive view of bordellos and the other a few days later by someone with a negative view? Whoever viewed the fame as ill wasn’t about to let it stop them from ensuring the building had properly licensed electrical work.
Clearly this building permit index card is just the entry point into a much larger story. I might have sunk a lot of time at the library into this one building, had I not found that Penny Petersen had already done the work for me. Instead, I happily checked out her book, Minneapolis Madams: The Lost History of Prostitution on the Riverfront. Among much else, she tells the story of this building and its proprietor, Ida Dorsey, a particularly well-connected madam.
From the book, I learned that even at the time the building was constructed in 1890 for “flats,” it was in fact intended as a bordello, even if not openly recorded as such. This explains the presence of such a swank building in that neighborhood. Nor was it alone; a map on page 111 shows more than 20 bordellos clustered along both sides of this block of 11th Avenue as well as the adjoining (south) sides of the 1000 and 1100 blocks of 2nd Street, as of the 1910 peak. Beyond the places and people, Petersen’s book describes the larger social context — it’s well worth a read!
Turning west onto 2nd Street, the area to the north is occupied by Gold Medal Park, a privately-created park run by a conservancy. Although the center point of the park is a mound climbed by a spiral path, I was particularly interested by two sculptures that I had previously seen at the Walker Art Center’s Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.
Across 2nd Street from the park are two high-rise residential structures that are typical of 21st-century development in the area: the Zenith condos from 2008 and the Encore apartments from 2015–2017. The photo below, taken from 9th Avenue, shows both. The Zenith is the red building to the left; its ground flood includes another medical clinic. The Encore is the blue/grey building in the background.
While crossing back over Washington Avenue southbound on 10th Avenue, I had an opportunity to photograph Open Book, which occupies much of the south side of the 1000 block of Washington. I had stopped in there earlier when my route took me past it, but wasn’t able to photograph it when so close.
This “home for literary and book arts” is well worth a visit. When visitors to Minneapolis ask me what museum they should see, I always mention the Minnesota Center for Book Arts’s exhibition galleries. Sure enough, the two exhibitions I saw on my walk (one of asemic writing and the other of Judaica) are stunning. Both are up until May 28th  and like all MCBA exhibitions are free, so there’s your [formerly] hot tip.
Some of the Open Book’s resources are more suited to scheduled use than drop-in, but I was also able to duck into the MCBA’s fascinating gift shop and wander through the cafe into Milkweed Books. I was a day early for Independent Bookstore Day, but really any day is a good day for such a bookstore.
One block south of Washington Avenue, 10th Avenue curves eastward into an isolated segment of 3rd Street, which ends by curving back northward into 12th Avenue. This area contains multiple buildings belonging to the Valspar paint company, each of which has its own interest. In the interests of brevity, I’ll limit myself to the original five-story building from 1904 and its three-story addition from 1913. The original building has some family resemblance to the Northern Implement Company building, whereas the addition is more unabashedly industrial. I walked the 11th Avenue side of the original building later in my walk, so stay tuned. Also, more information can be found in the National Register of Historic Places nomination.
Once I returned to Washington Avenue via 12th Avenue, I initially detoured east, to the mid-freeway border with Cedar-Riverside, before returning back westward. On the south of Washington Avenue, Bobby & Steve’s Auto World was using an outdoor grill to advertise themselves with a meat-scented smoke plume, the Minnesota Tech Center clustered with other University buildings.
At the corner with 11th Avenue, just before turning south again, I stopped in at Day Block Brewing Company for a lunch break. This brewpub is named for its 1883 building and thus for Leonard Day (1811–1885). In addition to offering their beers on tap, they have a full bar (particularly well endowed with whiskeys) and an intriguing list of specialty cocktails; sometime when it isn’t 11:30 AM I’ll need to go back and see if they live up to their promise. Plus, and perhaps most to the point, they have a restaurant menu, focused primarily on pizzas but also offering sandwiches, salads, and other items.
There were enough good-looking items on the menu that I needed to consult the helpful bartender, Luke, as well as ultimately flipping a coin. The winner was the shakshuka, which is to say eggs poached in a spiced tomato sauce. They topped it with feta before popping it in the pizza oven and serving it accompanied by an equally large ceramic “boat” of spent-grain bread.
This dish was tasty and satisfying. Piping hot in the thermal sense (as befits a pizza oven), it wasn’t particularly hot in the capsaicin sense — more deeply flavored with cumin, onion, and pimentón than burning with chili peppers. (Luke offered hot sauce in case I wanted to amp it up.) The Citra Pale Ale made a good partner to it, a classic example of the American Pale Ale style with the Citra hops used not only to augment the Centennial in the main hop bill but also for a subsequent dry hopping. It had enough oomph to cut the spicy sauce and rich eggs while remaining brightly citrusy. Of the other beers I tasted, I rather liked the Hop Taster, a double red IPA with a substantial rye component. However, I gather that it isn’t as regularly available.
After lunch, I headed south on 11th Avenue to 5th Street, which took me back through the middle of the Valspar area, and in particular alongside the original 1904 building. Once I could see the rear of building, I noticed that the loading-dock area attached to the back is painted with a colorful mural, one of several in the complex by Peter Busa. Above it a sign provides the company’s current name and the slogan “if it matters, we’re on it.” Apparently even a loading dock matters.
Looking up further on this southern facade, though, I see a ghost sign of an earlier name: “Minnesota Linseed Oil Paint Company.” Ghost signs are plentiful in this area, reflecting the predominantly commercial character of the historical land use. (I’ve spared you several.) Nor was this the only sign of a prior Valspar name: across 11th Avenue, the 1926 varnish building (312 11th Avenue) has a large chimney labeled “Minnesota Varnishes.”
At 5th Street, my actual route differed slightly from the map. The map shows two different paths to the intersection of 6th Street and 11th Avenue: a horseshoe-shaped spur back and forth along 5th Street, 13th Avenue, and 6th Street, as well as the straightforward inclusion of the 500 block of 11th Avenue in the main loop. This would have meant doing the longer of the two paths twice and the shorter one once, which is wasteful. The only reason I set it up that way on the map is because Google Maps refused to believe that this segment of 5th Street is passable to pedestrians and so balked at routing the main loop through there. (I draw the red spurs by hand.) When actually walking the route, I instead did the horseshoe-shaped path just once and the 500 block back and forth.
In any case, that little bit of 5th Street is interesting not only because it let me see the western end of the forthcoming Samatar Crossing but also because it took me alongside an interesting building. At the left of the photo below, it looks like a one-story building, largely glass sided, on top of a grassy hillside. However, as a recovering computer geek, I knew there is more to this building than meets the eye.
In fact, the view from 11th Avenue reveals that the building is two stories tall, with the bottom half of the north wall (at left in the next photo) sheltered by earth. Likewise, a substantial portion of the west (front) side of the building is blank concrete. This is the 511 Building, named for its address on 11th Avenue. Since fiber optics became a thing, this has been where all the major telecommunications companies’ fibers have converged. Unimaginable amounts of internet traffic flow through here, and secure “co-location” facilities within the building allow service providers to directly attach their server computers. (This is like drinking from the city’s water main instead of a water fountain.) The Elliot Park substation on the north side of 5th Street provides the electricity needed to keep all those bits moving. (The substation is named for the neighborhood to the south of 6th Street.) And if power from the substation should fail, generators to the east of the building can pick up the slack.
Turning my back on this high-tech infrastructure (as well as the lower-tech infrastructure of Interstate 35W), I completed my circumnavigation of the stadium by taking 6th Street east to Chicago Avenue, then Chicago north to 4th Street. Back at the Metro station, my final sight of Downtown East was a set of arches reminiscent of the Stone Arch Bridge — perhaps a reminder that I still needed to return to the waterfront area to see the farmers market and mill ruins park. These arches were designed by the artist Andrew Leicester together with the architects Hammel Green and Abrahamson. Leicester intended the brick patterning to suggest “textiles worn by immigrant groups that first settled in the nearby Elliot Park neighborhood.”
Editor’s Note: Max Hailperin is walking each of Minneapolis’ 87 neighborhoods, in alphabetical order. He chronicles his adventures at allofminneapolis.com, where the original version of this article was published April 30, 2017. We’re sharing them here at streets.mn.