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From the Archives: Vintage Makeover Ideas for a Downtown Thoroughfare

“Hennepin facelift a tough problem.” That 1970 headline from the Minneapolis Star still has relevance today, as a new vision takes shape to revitalize the city’s legendary Hennepin Avenue—or more precisely, its two-mile segment downtown, running between the Mississippi River and the Walker Art Center/Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Back in April, I wrote about Plan-It Hennepin, […]

Hennepin Avenue in 1973. Photo: The National Archives

“Hennepin facelift a tough problem.” That 1970 headline from the Minneapolis Star still has relevance today, as a new vision takes shape to revitalize the city’s legendary Hennepin Avenue—or more precisely, its two-mile segment downtown, running between the Mississippi River and the Walker Art Center/Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Back in April, I wrote about Plan-It Hennepin, an initiative in which the Walker has partnered with Hennepin Theatre Trust, Artspace, and the City of Minneapolis; after a year gathering research and community input, the group’s draft plan for a Hennepin Cultural District has just been released for further public comment.

As a fixture on Hennepin from its earliest days, the Walker, not surprisingly, has historically had an interest in its vitality; what follows are outtakes from its coverage of some of those efforts in Design Quarterly, a magazine it published from 1954 to 1991.

1982 “Design Quarterly” magazine cover featuring Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown’s plan for Hennepin.

In 1879, T.B. Walker founded the first public gallery west of the Mississippi, putting works from his vast art collection on view to the public in select rooms of his mansion at Eighth and Hennepin. He also owned a building at 719 Hennepin that housed studios for the Minneapolis Art School. More than 20 years later, the lumber magnate sounded off against the contested development of Gateway Park along downtown Hennepin’s northern blocks—perhaps the earliest effort to revive an area in need, as many saw it, of a cleanup. As Joanna Baymiller noted in “History of an Avenue,” published in 1982 in Design Quarterly No. 117, Walker explained his views in a pamphlet: instead of creating a more attractive view, he declared that “the park will make one pertaining more to bleakness, surrounded by secondary architecture which, under the circumstances, never will be reconstructed or rebuilt into important structures.”

Walker was both passionate and prescient: Even if bleakness and secondary architecture didn’t come with Gateway Park, they did accompany its demolition in the mid-60s as part of “urban renewal” efforts.

Ideas from “Ground-Breaking Mind-Stretchers”

In April, 1970, not long after the blight was cleared, a two-day public forum convened in downtown Minneapolis to brainstorm ways to help out the down-on-its-luck thoroughfare. Organized by the Walker, the Minneapolis Planning and Development Department, and the Minneapolis Downtown Council, “Hennepin: The Future of an Avenue” brought together a host of visiting designers, architects, sculptors, and artists—or “ground-breaking mind-stretchers,” as Minneapolis Star columnist Daniel M. Upham  wryly described them, “untrammeled by the need to hang around to see how it all comes out.”

Upham, author of the column accompanying that “facelift” headline, was one of several journalists covering the standing-room-only events for Minneapolis’ two daily papers; later that year a selection of news clips and photos was compiled for a special section in Design Quarterly No. 78/79 (an issue otherwise devoted to “conceptual architecture,” conceptualism then being sufficiently new to require quotes).

opening page from Design Quarterly’s special section on Hennepin Avenue, 1970

Philip Johnson, architect of the IDS Center then under construction a block away on Nicollet Mall, recommended that “Hennepin fill its teeth” (i.e. its empty blocks) with prefab buildings that could feature “stores, exhibit halls, shooting galleries or whatever draws a crowd,” reported the Minneapolis Star’s Barbara Flanagan. (She could have been referencing the Rifle Sport arcade, which in the later ’70s became the legendary Rifle Sport Gallery on Block E, a small slice of Hennepin both loved and hated for its notorious seediness.) Johnson also reportedly proposed that the historic Butler Building become a teen center, with rock bands on each floor. Never mind that the Butler actually stands a block west of Hennepin, on First Avenue. Also, it was unlikely that Johnson knew that just a block from the Butler, The Depot—a bus station-turned-nightclub later to be named First Avenue—had just opened a few weeks earlier. Nevertheless, his idea was ahead of its time in the worst way, presaging the string of ill-conceived entertainment/mall developments—Mississippi Live in particular comes to mind—that downtown would get saddled with in the coming decades.

A “video park” proposal from landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg was forward-thinking, both artistically and in terms of the growth of public surveillance: “Take a parking lot next to the blank wall of a big building. Mount TV cameras in trailers to photograph passers-by and throw their images on the wall, which becomes a giant TV screen. Interspersed with the passing scene would be the regular pickup of news programs—such as the moon shot (or a baseball game)—anything that draws a crowd.” (Freidberg went on to design the 1975 Peavey Plaza, another Nicollet Mall landmark that is currently the subject of a battle between preservationists and the city.)

Another architect who recently made news with his retirement, Robert Venturi in 1970 hadn’t yet co-authored the controversial classic, Learning from Las Vegas. But its ideas were very much in evidence with Venturi’s audacious claim that Hennepin is “almost all right now.” He nixed benches as too European—reportedly telling the forum crowd “Here if you sit on a bench you’re a bum”—but recommended bigger signs. Columnist Flanagan, however, took issue with his recommendation to “discover the ordinary”: “I have and that’s why I think Hennepin needs work,” she wrote. “It’s too ordinary for an entertainment street.”

Anticipating the coming age of “interactive” public art, James Seawright proposed “an electronic sculpture that could be programmed to relate to the passersby or be rigged to respond to a dialed telephone number. Like fellow sculptor Tony Smith, he also pitched wider sidewalks and mid-block shopping squares. In splitting up Hennepin into five sections for “different kinds of celebrations,” architect Walter A. Netsch (designer of the Air Force Academy Chapel) gets props for the oddest idea. He would assign movies and light shows their own sections, with a third for “the tassel trade”; the remaining two might be devoted to tree plantings and—in a nod to one of the forum organizers—the Walker Art Center. He also thought banning cars from dusk to 5 am might help draw people.

Female Trouble

Speaking of the tassel trade, Art Seidenbaum, the forum’s moderator and a Los Angeles Times columnist, alluded to Hennepin’s long history with strip clubs and streetwalkers in summing up its plight: “Hennepin isn’t voluptuous enough to be seductive and it isn’t wrinkled enough to be replaced—just like a 45-year-old courtesan.” The Star’s Upham was thinking along similar lines: “The real problem of Hennepin … is to save it from blight without destroying its bawdy charm,” he wrote. “The factor which attracts the visiting stockmen, the boys in town for the sales meeting, and other free spenders? [sic] When the chips—or rather the shoulder-straps—are down, can a stripper really do her stuff if they air out the joint and sweep the floor?” Then there was Johnson’s pithy and au courant declaration, “What killed Hennepin was TV and the pill”; and Ms. Flanagan’s equally telling description of designer Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, the lone female guest at the forums, as “a little girl who designs big signs.” For the record, Solomon, a pioneer of Supergraphics, favored large, boldly colored swaths of paints as a low-cost temporary spruce-up for the avenue.

The second page of the 6-page section, with photos by Andrew Power

By 1982, Hennepin had gone further downhill, from aging courtesan to ailing spinster, if you will. In Design Quarterly 117 editor and former Walker design curator Mildred Friedman wrote about how the street “took on the air of a jilted lover” with the rise of the suburbs in the 1950s, existing “in this state of ambiguity for many years,” with “many empty storefronts; former movie palaces converted into evangelical centers or … dispensers of pornography; strip joints and stand-up bars.” Civically speaking, Hennepin was “always the bridesmaid”: a place “discussed in committees” but whose problems “never met with concerted action.”

Friedman also noted “positive changes,” however, in the form of a new Hennepin Avenue Urban Design Plan, to which that issue of DQ was devoted. Denise Scott Brown, writing on the plan created by her firm, Venturi, Rauch, and Scott Brown, made a playful reference to the inevitable “pressure … to exchange the red silk petticoat image of Hennepin Avenue for a gray flannel one.” Considering what her partner Venturi advocated for back in 1970, it probably surprised no one that the firm favored Hennepin as a good-time girl over any kind of reputable matron makeover. However, their plan’s central visual element—36 “reflector trees” arching over the street to create a dance of lights at nighttime, per the rendering above—met with controversy.

“Reflector Trees” sketch from Design Quarterly No. 117

The “trees” were actually to have a “fan-like silhouette,” one “carefully disciplined so as not to suggest overhanging branches,” a muddled-yet-dazzling gesture meant to give the street a “unique character” and “help provide an attractive environment”—even though Scott Brown acknowledged that “entertainment will never be the predominant use on Hennepin again.” In that same issue of Design Quarterly, “An Opposing View” of the plan, written by a special committee of the Minneapolis Arts Commission, took issue with the trees’ “overwhelming scale.” More significantly, the committee suggested that this single, showy design element would bear too much “responsibility for attracting the essence of an entertainment district, that is the business activities.”

Hennepin Avenue, 1985 (BRW Architects, image courtesy Hennepin County Library’s Minneapolis Photo Collection)

Those reflector trees never did debut, and six years later Hennepin’s Block E was finally razed. Even sitting as a parking lot for more than 10 years, it remained a flashpoint for the persistent woes along the avenue. The mall that eventually filled the space and is now left for dead is but one reason why the “Hennepin facelift a tough problem” headline still applies today.

The jury’s still out on the fresh set of prescriptions for a Hennepin Cultural District, as envisioned by the Plan-It Hennepin initiative. But compared with the host of plans, proposals, and ideas from past decades, a couple factors could make a considerable difference going forward. One is that the District so far avoids any expensive investment in grand visual gestures like reflector trees. Another is the role of artists. In 1982, they were reduced to forming a “special committee” so they could object to a plan they had no role and no stake in. Plan-It Hennepin has included artists in the planning process from the start, thanks partly to a “Creative Placemaking” grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Come to think of it, maybe the arts could play a role in creating a fresh, 21st-century female archetype for a transformed Hennepin—an update on its longstanding, troubled, lady-of-the-evening image. Proposals, anyone?