The Downtown West neighborhood, indicated with blue shading in the route map below, is approximately to the west of Downtown East, though that direction is considered “north” so far as street nomenclature goes. Indeed, the directions north, south, east, and west are not particularly useful in central Minneapolis, where the streets are aligned more nearly to the river than to the earth’s poles. Let’s try riverward, landward, upstream, and downstream. Downtown West is upstream of Downtown East, extending from the river landward as far as 12th Street. The first day’s route is a circuitous loop from the intersection of Hennepin Avenue and 12th Street back to that starting point, supplemented by a few spurs shown in red.
Proceeding initially riverward on Hennepin Avenue, the dominant feature is a mixed-use combination known as Hennepin Crossing, part of the larger Laurel Village development. The apartment tower is 25 stories tall, while the retail, garage, and patio portion is only 4 stories but considerably broader, spanning all the way from 12th to 11th Street.
Hennepin Avenue is the traditional theater district. The first theater I saw was the Orpheum, on the upstream side of the avenue midway between 10th and 9th Streets. The marquee advertises a succession of traveling Broadway shows, with Rent coming soon. How could such big shows be in such a narrow theater? This mystery would be cleared up a bit further into my walk.
In the next block, and on the opposite side of the avenue, I paused at the State Theatre to admire the details of its entryway. Built in the transitional period of overlap between the vaudeville and moving picture eras, the one constant was that going to a show was a big deal. Even if one were skipping both live and filmed action and merely attending a concert on the mighty Wurlitzer, the sense of grandeur would start before one even stepped inside.
Turning upstream on 8th Street, one block away from Hennepin I encountered a particularly confusing confluence of street names. Had I continued upstream (rather than turning back landward), I would have seamlessly switched from walking on 8th Street to walking on 9th Street. This transition would have happened as I crossed 1st Avenue North — except that at that very point, 1st Avenue North transitions into being Hawthorne Avenue. That is, by turning landward, I was turning onto Hawthorne, whereas had I turned riverward, I would have turned onto 1st Avenue. As I say, it’s confusing. I didn’t devote all my attention to street signs, though; I spared a little for the bold geometry of the district heating and cooling plant at that intersection, one of several that comprise NRG Energy Center Minneapolis.
One block landward on Hawthorne, 9th Street continues downstream to Hennepin, where I had previously crossed it. At the corner of Hawthorne and 9th, I saw the answer to the puzzle of the Orpheum’s size. The actual auditorium is this large block on Hawthorne, extending all the way from 9th to 8th. The narrow foyer on Hennepin is just enough to establish a toehold on that avenue; presumably no self respecting theater would have had its address a block off the main drag.
The skyway spanning Hawthorne from the Orpheum connects it to the Hawthorne Transportation Center, which in addition to being the intercity bus terminal is one of several large municipal parking ramps on the upstream periphery of the downtown. The planners’ vision was that passenger vehicles would be largely confined to this periphery, with their occupants entering the downtown and circulating within it via the skyways, leaving the surface streets largely free for delivery vehicles and the like.
Enough has been written about the merits and demerits of this vision that I’ll simply note that it was never fully realized. As I walked the surface streets, I encountered a range of people and vehicles sharing the streets with me. In part, this reflects the continued presence of smaller, non-skyway-accessible buildings. However, I saw signs of several other reasons for continued street use. For example, the master plan presumably didn’t foresee that an emphasis on clean indoor air would cause downtown workers to go out onto the streets for cigarette breaks.
Returning to 9th Street and crossing Hennepin, I passed the present-day YMCA and then next to it, at the corner with LaSalle Avenue, saw the original YMCA building from 1919, now the LaSalle Apartments. I don’t ordinarily associate the gothic style with high-rise towers, but this 12-story building is unmistakably gothic at both its bottom and its top, with vertical stripes connecting the two.
Continuing downstream on 9th Street, I looked landward down the Nicollet Mall as I crossed it. A substantial stone and brick building on the corner stands out for its renaissance details. The nameplate in the middle of the photo says “Elizabeth C. Quinlan” in elegant script, while the monogram over the door further to the left overlaps a Y with the Q. Why Y? Because Ms. Quinlan chose to carry on the name of her deceased partner Fred D. Young, although she was the sole owner by the time she had this building constructed. The story of this woman and her store is well worth reading.
Half a block further downstream on 9th, an alleyway provided a view riverward with several styles of buildings juxtaposed. In the foreground on the left, the Medical Arts Building is another gothic high-rise, this one with truly massive amounts of terra-cotta facade. (The section shown here, constructed from 1928 to 1930, is 19 stories tall, while the Nicollet Mall section completed six years earlier is 10 stories tall.) No one photo can do this building justice. Indeed, even two of mine don’t, but stay tuned for an interior shot when I later looped back via the Nicollet Mall.
Returning to the present photo, in the middle ground, the 13 and 20 story RSM Plaza buildings (formerly Midwest Plaza and then McGladrey Plaza) translates some of the same light-colored verticality into the less-detailed style of the late 1960s, while the glass curtain-wall IDS Tower in the background makes a complete stylistic break.
Continuing to look at the riverward side of 9th Street, each of the next two blocks also has a striking tower: first the iconic 1929 obelisk of Foshay Tower, then the modern 1985 curtain-wall Campbell Mithun Tower. The following photo shows them both; indeed, the Foshay is included twice, as the fragment at the far left and as the more extensive reflection in the center of the photo.
Across 9th Street from the Campbell Mithun Tower, a considerably older and smaller building interested me just as much. The three-story Oakland Apartments are built of brick but faced in a lovely combination of stone and terra cotta. In particular, zoom in on the ornate nameplate surrounding the two round windows at the center of the photo. Not many apartment buildings from the 1880s are standing any longer, despite what a boom decade that was. (The population of Minneapolis soared from 46,887 to 164,738.) Unfortunately, I don’t know whether the Oakland will be able to remain as an exception. The broken window at the left of the photo is just a little clue; later when I viewed the building from the rear, I was able to see more clearly how extensively it was damaged in a three-alarm fire caused by an electrical outlet in 2016.
Crossing 3rd Avenue provided the opportunity to look back riverward and upstream at the Campbell Mithun tower, seeing how the close-up view of the entrance compared with my earlier view of the tower as a whole. Just as the top of the tower is distinguished by its stair-stepped tiers, so too the entryway is highlighted with analogous tiering.
At 5th Avenue South, I reached the downstream border of the neighborhood and turned back upstream on 10th Street. On the riverward side of both 9th and 10th Streets, this peripheral part of the neighborhood includes low-rise hotels, the Normandy Inn and the Francis Drake Hotel. The latter, dating from 1926, consists of two wings, each three stories plus a garden level, that look much like apartment buildings of that time period, aside from the “hyphen” connecting them.
Immediately upstream from the Francis Drake, at the corner of 10th Street and 4th Avenue South, a garden adjoins the side of Gethsemane Episcopal Church’s parish hall, which is painted with a welcome. This is the Gethsemane Garden, intended “to increase awareness about the importance of food justice and engage the community in our efforts. Produce from plots gardened by Gethsemane Church and its collaboration with other downtown congregations, as well as business and community partners directly provide fresh produce weekly for the clients at the Shelf of Hope, located next door. By opening the garden to the community, we strive to create a positive, safe and nurturing downtown community space.”
As I crossed Marquette Ave., my eye was caught by the sheet-music mural on the building on the riverward side of 10th Street. If you zoom in, you’ll find the dynamic markings repay close examination. There are a couple instances of “p subito,” meaning suddenly quiet, but also at the top a “p schmittito.” What the heck? Maybe I quit piano lessons too early, but I never learned “schmittito” — it doesn’t even sound Italian. That was my clue that this mural dates from when the building housed Schmitt Music; Andy Sturdevant retells the story of its creation as well as its subsequent brush with fame. Meanwhile, the landward side of the street contains a historic landmark of its own, the 1907 Handicraft Guild Building.
From 10th Street, I turned landward on Harmon Place between the First Baptist Church and the University of St. Thomas’s Minneapolis Campus. The church’s cornerstone indicates that it was built in 1885 and rebuilt in 1923. The university buildings are clearly from the late 20th and early 21st centuries but seek to evoke the traditional collegiate gothic style.
The preceding photo of the campus is as seen from 12th Street, the start of a new phase of the route in which I weaved back and forth between 12th and 8th Streets. Before turning riverward toward 8th, though, I had one important landmark to see on 12th, the Continental Hotel, originally the Ogden Apartment Hotel, a residence for middle-class people who wanted private quarters (furnished or unfurnished) but without the trouble of a private kitchen. Not exactly a boarding house, nor an apartment building or hotel, it was a distinct class of residence, and this is the one example left standing. The National Register of Historic Places Registration Form and a recent Star Tribune article by James Lileks provide interesting background on the category, on this example, and on Mr. Ogden. A plaque indicates the building was “renovated by Central Community Housing Trust in 1993”. Today “The Continental offers stable, affordable apartment homes for 70 formerly homeless individuals” with an “on-site supportive services team.”
Aside from the Continental, this block of 12th includes a side view of the brutalist YWCA, which faces Nicollet Mall. Rather than proceeding directly onto the mall, I retreated to LaSalle Avenue, which took me riverward to 8th Street. One block downstream, I returned landward on Nicollet Mall. My first stop (in the 800 block) was at the Medical Arts building, where I admired the lobby and ordered a savory crepe at La Belle Crepe. The elevator doors feature a checkerboard arrangement of caducei and MA monograms.
At 11th Street, on its riverward side, the upstream side of the mall is home to a combination of seating and public art. Lest anyone wonder whether such features are actually used, my photo shows a (non-staged) citizen sitting and reading. Diagonally across the intersection, the area between the mall and Orchestra Hall is occupied by the tranquil, sunken Peavey Plaza.
I was interested to read two plaques at the plaza, both predating its 1974 construction. The first, placed on August 23, 1959, noted that this was the site of the first national convention of the American Legion, November 9–11, 1919. The second, placed on November 11, 1969, noted one of the convention’s accomplishments that had gone unmentioned ten years before: its chartering of the American Legion Auxiliary on November 10, 1919. As the plaque says, the auxiliary provided “faithful service to our nation and its veterans over [those] fifty years.”
After returning to 8th Street by Marquette Avenue and then using 2nd Avenue to come back landward again, I gawked at the Hotel Ivy, which lies on the landward side of 11th Street. Although the majority of the hotel is a gleaming modern structure, it incorporates a quite striking and almost entirely different portion, a “ziggurat” of exposed-aggregate concrete built in 1930 to be offices for the Second Church of Christ, Scientist, and converted to commercial office space (the Ivy Tower) in 1965. Today in addition to being part of the hotel, it houses the Monello restaurant and Constantine bar.
Continuing downstream on 12th Street, the entire block between 11th and 12th Streets and 3rd and 4th Avenues South is occupied by an Art Deco building, currently the Hennepin County Century Plaza but originally the Miller Vocational High School.
Turning upstream on 8th Street from 4th Avenue South toward 3rd Avenue South, another district energy plant from NRG occupied the foreground, even larger than the one on 1st Avenue North. The smokestacks are encased in a concrete tower that contrasts nicely with the Campbell Mithun Tower in the background, which is the color of reflected sky. (The Foshay Tower also makes another appearance.)
Walking in the landward direction on 3rd Avenue, across from the energy plant, I got to see the back side of the Campbell Mithun Tower, which is far less splashy than the tiered entryway I had previously photographed. And yet, it’s at least as interesting because of the door labeled “Bike Entrance Only,” with a corresponding graphic of a bicycle commuter. This supports the building’s LEED Gold certification.
From 3rd Avenue South, I turned upstream on 11th Street to head back to the vicinity where I started. As I crossed Nicollet Mall, I observed really quite spectacular multicolored terra cotta decorations on the far landward side. The corner retail space currently is emblazoned with the name of a coffee and bagel chain, but the building’s original name, the Lafayette, is above the 11th Street door.
Crossing Harmon Place, I had another chance to see Jackson Hall, which sits behind the First Baptist Church and is affiliated with it. Though built the same year as the Lafayette (1922), it conveys a more serious tone; this is a place for study, not bacchanalia. I could easily have mistaken it for one of the public schools built around that time.
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 May 24, 2017. We’re sharing them here at streets.mn.