What is Minnesota Modern?

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Updated August 24, 2018
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People often don’t recognize what they have in their own backyards, according to Larry Millett, author of Minnesota Modern, and that goes double for Midcentury architecture in Minnesota and the Twin Cities. According to the former St. Paul Pioneer Press architecture critic, it’s a style that played a dominant role in defining the look of the region’s cities and suburbs, but the canon of great works goes well beyond big names such as Ralph Rapson, or world-renowned projects such as Marcel Breuer’s Saint John’s Abbey Church.

The Elam House is an exceptionally large example of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian style. Its boldest feature is an upthrust roof that soars over a glass-walled living room. Photograph by Denes Saari and Maria Forrai Saari

“The modernism of Minnesota was certainly more buttoned-down than what you’d find on California or the coasts,” he says, “but it’s all over the houses and churches of the region, the outstanding building types of its era.”

Article originally published on Curbed.com

The June Halvorson Alworth House (Marcel Breuer, 1955) seems to leap off the hillside toward the lake. The lower-level family room, to the right, was added by the current owners, Neal and Iola Vanstrom. Photograph by Denes Saari and Maria Forrai Saari)While he was compiling buildings and stories for Minnesota Modern, which came out last month, Millett made sure to cover the entire range of building types and typologies, from the private homes to theaters, school and office buildings, to provide a look at how this universal style was given local context. While many high-profile architects such as Wright and Saarinen left a legacy of great projects in the area, local designers and firms, from Leonard Parker and Donald Haarstick to the prolific Thorshov and Cerny, added their own distinctive spins to the style between the postwar era and the mid ’60s. The region also served as a center for daring religious architecture. At a time many considered buttoned-down, congregations across Minneapolis were commissioning inventive churches, according to Millett, “absolutely unlike anything you’d see elsewhere.” These structures serve as some of the many arguments Minnesota Modern makes advancing the notion that this region was a fertile ground for architectural creativity during an era of experimentation.

“I hope people will have an appreciation for the value for all this, because preservation is so important,” he says. “Right now, it’s hard to identify the main idea in contemporary architecture. During the modern era, people strove to create a new image and redesign old building types. There was a belief that architecture and design could build a better world. That was pretty fun.”

With its grand portico, the Northwestern National Life Insurance Building in Minneapolis by Minoru Yamasaki has often been likened to a Greek temple. Completed in 1964, it hovers somewhere between authentic grandeur and high kitsch. Credit: Photograph by Pete Sieger.

St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Edina, designed by Ralph Rapson and completed in 1956, features a centralized worship space, with the congregation arrayed around the altar. Photograph by George Winterowd, College of Design Collection, Digital Content Library, University of Minnesota

IBM Building, Rochester, Minnesota, 1958, designed by Eero Saarinen. The two-toned, cobalt blue curtain walls were less than a half-inch thick, the thinnest ever up to that time. According to Millett, the modular structure is “one of the
great midcentury palaces in Minnesota,” but sadly, one that few people get to visit or truly experience. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Balthazar Korab Archive (LC-DIG-krb-00479).

Architect Donald Haarstick’s two-story brick-and-steel home (St. Paul, 1955) stands behind a sinuous brick fence that sweeps around the house like a colorful ribbon and shelters a side terrace. Millett says it was incredibly well built, a “beast” of I-beams and concrete. Photograph by Denes Saari and Maria Forrai Saari

The Experimental City project, proposed in the last ’50s, conjured up many improbable ideas, including the dream of a vast, climate-controlled dome that would protect residents from Minnesota’s climatic extremes. Credit: Minnesota Experimental City Authority Records, Minnesota Historical Society

Designed by Elizabeth and Winston Close, the Lippincott House—with its flat roof, unadorned walls, and ribbons of windows—introduced the international Style of Midcentury Modernism to Minnesota in 1938. Another early modernist icon, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Willey House, is just across the street. Photograph by Denes Saari and Maria Forrai Saari

The Terrace’s multilevel lobby had the feel of an especially large and elegant midcentury home. Amenities included built-in seating, a fireplace, and plenty of ashtrays. Millett calls this movie theater, built in Robbinsdale in 1950, a “real knockout,” but its irregular layout has challenged groups trying to preserve and repurpose the space, which closed down in 1999. Credit: Liebenberg and Kaplan Papers (N36), Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries, Minneapolis

Christ Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, designed by Eliel Saarinen and built in 1949, was among the most influential designs of its age. This view shows part of the classroom wing added in 1962 by Eliel’s son, Eero. Photograph by Pete Sieger.

At dusk, the Richard and Dorothy Babcock House (Golden Valley, 1961) has a soft, inviting glow. The narrow windows on the brick-clad lower floor contrast with the much larger windows on the main level, which is sheathed in bleached redwood siding. (Credit: Photograph by Pete Sieger.)

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