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Photo Tours, Travelogues, And Random Topics

Odd Twin Cities — The Downtown Edition

A Photo Tour Of Odd, Unusual, And Weird
Sites In The Twin Cities Downtown Areas

Introduction Here are a collection of odd, unusual, and interesting locations in the Minneapolis and Saint Paul downtown areas that I have stumbled over in the past 20 years since I have moved to the Twin Cities. If you know of other similar stories or things in the area that are just plain odd, please let me know.

Note—click on each photo to see the full size image.

Weisman Art Museum This pile of stainless steel at first glance looks like something that is still being built, or is being taken down. As it turns out, it was done that way on purpose, just as it was designed by famous architect Frank Gehry. The building itself is the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum on the campus of the University of Minnesota.

Critics have described the design process as crumpling up a piece of tin foil, unfolding it, and then building the result full size. On lookers have called it a jumble, humorous, dynamic, and angular. At any rate, the building has certainly accomplished its three main goals, that is, of being a work of art itself, of being a great art museum, and being a signature building for the community.

Gehry has gone on to build several more vastly more ambitious buildings in this style. These include the Guggenheim in Bilbao (Spain) and the Experience Music Project in Seattle. While these buildings are done completely in this style of flowing slabs of metal, the Weisman Museum is remarkably covered three fourths in brick on the exterior. The building acts as an optical illusion to pull your eyes towards the stainless steel slabs, and you never notice the brick until it is pointed out.

U of M Library This is the secret back-door entrance to the University of Minnesota's Elmer L. Andersen Library. While part of the library is built above ground high on the river bluffs, the bulk of the storage space is located far underground in two huge man-made caverns. These two story caverns required a total of over 100,000 cubic yards of material to be mined and removed. The reason for going underground is the climate. The underground rooms are naturally very close to the ideal temperature and humidity for storing library materials.

By the way, this isn't the only underground facility used by the U of M. The Civil Engineering building is 95 percent underground, and the High Energy Physics Lab is 2500 feet underground in an old iron ore mine in northern Minnesota.

Minneapolis Skyline The IDS Tower (left in the photo), built in 1973, is 775 feet tall. It has long been the tallest building in the twin cities, or so we thought. The idea is that since downtown is in the flight path for the MSP airport, anyone who wants to build taller than the IDS would need to do a new and very expensive impact study. Those building shorter than the IDS can use the existing IDS Tower impact study. The Norwest Center (now Wells Fargo Center, center in the photo) was built to 774 feet, one foot shorter than the IDS.

The First Bank Place (now 225 South Sixth, right in the photo) was also designed to be 774 feet. But during construction, 14 more inches of height had to be added to the crown to hide the HVAC equipment. When the 14 inch problem was discovered, an additional 10 inches was added to make it an even 2 feet. Thus, the 225 South Sixth building is actually 776 feet tall, and the tallest building in Minneapolis.

But in the mean time, a shed was built on top of the IDS Center to house the window washing equipment. The 12 foot tall shed should make the IDS Center 786 feet tall, putting it back into the lead. But as the official rules go, any part of the building structure as built counts (which includes the crown on the 225 South Sixth building), but items built afterwards do not count if they are not structural components. As a result, the shed doesn't count.

Wabasha Caves What appears to be a building front built along a cliff is just that. The building face serves as an entrance to the Wabasha Street Caves.

The Twin Cities area is built over a layer of sandstone. This rock is easy to mine. Ford mined it for decades to make windshields. Nature also carves out caves—opening are all over the area, especially near the river.

In the early 1900's, Saint Paul was an open city for criminals. As long as they didn't commit crimes in the city, criminals were welcome to visit and stay for a spell without risk of arrest. During prohibition, these folks needed a place to party. The caves were a natural, and a huge speakeasy was built in the caves just off of Wabasha Street. After prohibition was repealed, the caves went mainstream and opened as a legitimate business. Today, the caves serve as a venue for parties and special occasions.

Note—do not enter these caves at any time for any reason. There is little or no airflow in these caves, leading people to pass out from lack of oxygen. You can pass out and die before you know it hits you. Also, if you see someone pass out, do not attempt to help them, rather go to fresh air and call for help.

Federal Reserve The U-shape in this building is called a catenary. It is the shape that a wire takes when it is strung between two supports, such as two telephone poles or like the cables of a suspension bridge. In fact, this building is the only suspension building in the world. The catenary is a band of steel that is strung between the outside concrete towers. There is no support on the bottom of the building other than the catenary.

This building once housed the Federal Reserve Bank. Due to design defects, all of the windows molded. It was determined that it would cost more to fix the building than what a new building would cost. So, the government built a new Federal Reserve Bank, and abandoned this building. A developer picked it up cheap, refurbished it, and put the building back into use.

Ivy Tower This is the Ivy Tower. It is registered as a landmark, so it cannot be torn down, yet nobody can figure out what to do with it. As a result, it sits abandoned, with developer after developer cooking up schemes to use the building.

The Ivy was built by the 2nd Church of Christ Science. Sky churches were all the rage in the 1920's when this was built. The plan was for four such towers, and a huge building in the center of the block, with the church on the top of the central building. Only this one tower was actually built.

Note—as of January, 2008, the Ivy has a new lease on life. A developer has built a 25 story condo tower and slightly shorter hotel tower wrapped around the Ivy Tower. The second floor skyway level features a conference center, while the 3rd floor has a high-end spa.

Flour Mill This appears to be the ruins of an old flour mill. It in fact was a flour mill. After the mill was closed, the facility was purchased for the eventual conversion into a museum. It would have made a great museum with all the space, and all the flour milling equipment still in place. Unfortunately, in the late 1980's, some homeless people set the building on fire. About all that was left was parts of the outside walls. Those walls have since be stabilized, and a new glass and steel museum building has been built within the confines of the historic building.

Note—it appears that the Mill City Museum has been a real hit, and people who have visited say it is well worth the time it takes to tour the facility.

Perpich Perch Perpich Perch This overlook is at the north end of Robert Street in Saint Paul, just behind the state capital complex. Locals tell me that this is Perpich's Perch, where Governor Goofy used to go to look over his flock. The location does have a pretty good vantage point, but alas, it has nothing to do with the former governor.

Rather, this is Cass Gilbert Park. Cass Gilbert is a famous architect. He designed a number of landmark buildings, including the Woolworth skyscraper in New York City. He lived in Saint Paul, and is the designer of the Minnesota State Capitol building, one that is considered among the most beautiful state capitol buildings in the United States.

Power Pole I once read the story behind these odd looking power poles, but now I am unable to locate any information. Please fill me in if you know the details. As an overview, Minneapolis likes to minimize overhead utilities in the downtown area. That wasn't possible when it came time to pull power across the Mississippi River from the Saint Anthony Falls power plant. So, to minimize the visual impact, rather than building the conventional lattice work electrical towers, these unusual three-legged structures were used instead. The hope was that they would be a little more like urban sculptures and blend in a little better.

Spoon And Cherry You don't see a giant cherry sitting on a giant spoon everyday, not unless you drive past the Walker Art Museum on a daily basis. There are a number of sculptures in the garden, but the spoon and cherry is the most famous of the works.

The sculpture is called Spoonbridge and Cherry. The spoon forms a bridge over a small pond. The cherry is a fountain, with water spraying out of the stem. The piece was a gift from Frederick Weisman. We met him earlier on this page as the benefactor for the Weisman Art Museum.

Skyway The vast majority of downtown Minneapolis buildings are connected by skyways. Saint Paul also has an extensive skyway system. Here, we have a skyway to nowhere. This is coming out of the west side of the 5th Street Towers complex. It once connected to the Powers Department Store, but that building has since been demolished.

Skyway If Minneapolis can have a skyway to nowhere, then so can Saint Paul. This skyway across Wabasha Street just north of 6th Street once connected the Daytons Store to Wabasha Court, a complex of small stores. Since then, Daytons has become Macy’s, and the vacant Wabasha Court building was demolished. Since a replacement building would be connected to the skyway system, the skyway structure remains in place. This odd item was pointed out to me by Luke Farrell.

Guthrie Theater This odd looking building started to show up along the river in Minneapolis in 2005. It looks like some kind of factory, with that thing coming out over the road being some kind of loading and unloading facility.

It turns out that this is the new Guthrie Theater. The Guthrie is a famous theater known world-wide. As of 2005, they are located on the west side of downtown next to the Walker Art Gallery. They decided that a world famous theater wasn't enough, so now they are building this new building near the Metrodome. People are still wondering what that thing hanging over the road is.

Note—the new Guthrie Theater has been very well received by the community. The Guthrie performed a major community service when they opened their doors to the public for free following the I-35W bridge disaster. While local police had done everything possible to prevent any viewing of the disaster site, they were unable to close down the Guthrie, which offered a very good view from the end of the infinite bridge. They deserve kudos for not giving into the paranoia.

Guthrie Theater Minneapolis has skyways linking most of the downtown buildings, such as this skyway at the Guthrie Theater. Except that this one is different. If you go up to the 4th floor of the parking ramp, you find that there is no door or other entrance to the skyway. What is up with that?

As it turns out, the Guthrie has its scenery shop located in a building built on top of the parking ramp across the street from the theater. Scenery and sets are stored in this skybridge, and wheeled into and out of the theaters during the shows in what turns out to be a very innovate use of space. So, this is not a people skyway, but rather, an industrial skyway.

Milwaukee Road Train Shed This is the train shed at the former Milwaukee Road Rail Road depot in downtown Minneapolis. The train shed sat empty (the depot as well) for many years. Development idea after idea fell apart. A few pretty good ideas came along, but they were torpedoed when PCB contaminated oil was found in the basement of the depot. Money became available during the late 90's to clean up the mess. The city selected a developer for the project. They put in an upscale hotel and a water park. Part of the train shed is used for parking, the rest for an indoor ice skating rink. It is nice that they were able to save this great old structure and put it to a new use.

Note—I happened to see a Neil Young concert during one of his grunge tours. While Neil spoke only a handful of words to the audience, he did comment on what a nice train shed we had, and how it was worth preserving. Neil is a major railroad buff and railfan. In fact, he is the major stockholder in the Lionel Train company, the company that makes toy trains for boys of all ages.

U of MN Beams Sculpture This sculpture, consisting of three steel beams, is on display behind the newly refurbished Education Science Building on the University of Minnesota campus. What is odd about this sculpture is that there is no sign or plaque explaining what it is or giving credit to the artist.

As it turns out, it was created on an impromptu basis by Kevin Ross, the project manager for the retrofit of the old Mineral Resources Research Center into the new Education Science Building. Ross didn't want to toss out the old beams, which once supported a blast furnace, so he planted them in concrete behind the building along the Mississippi River. What a wonderful idea. Ross commented, "Ironically, the beams seem to get more comments than the actual artwork we paid for."

Metrodome After Roof Collapse Metrodome After Roof Collapse This is a view of the west side of the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis on the afternoon of Sunday, December 12, 2010. What is so odd about this scene? The roof. Or rather, the lack of a roof. Heavy snow accumulated on the roof, which caused seems in the roof to fail, which resulted in the roof deflating and falling down into the field of play. Fortunately, it happened at 5 AM, so no one was injured.

Minnesota has had major blizzards before. The Armistice Day Blizzard is remembered for its loss of life, and the Halloween Blizzard was part of the legendary Perfect Storm in 1991. The twenty inch snowfall on December 11 is being referred to as Snowmygawd. The Metrodome roof, which is help in place by air pressure, has deflated three times in the past due to snow, including events in 1981, 1982, and 1983, but a new snow management plan has prevented repeats of those collapses for 27 years.

The roof collapse lead to the Vikings-Giants game being moved to Ford Field in Detroit. The damage at the dome is severe enough that additional games might have to be moved, and it is possible that the Vikings will not be able to play any more games at the dome this season. The delay of game might have worked in the Vikings favor. Star quarterback Brett Favre was injured the week before, and was iffy on Sunday. The extra day might allow Favre to be ready for the game at Ford Field, keeping his consecutive game start streak alive.

Update—Favre's streak did come to an end at 297 games. The Vikings were not able to play at the dome the following week, but rather, they played at the new University of Minnesota football field. Another section of the roof failed later in the week, dumping tons more snow on the playing field narrowly missing a group of workers. The second photo is a view looking west across Interstate highway I-35W towards downtown Minneapolis a week after the collapse.

Harvest States Grain Elevator Does anyone else find it odd that there are space photos painted on the side of this gain elevator along Hiawatha Avenue? Perhaps not. After all, if you are going to paint giant space photos, what better place to put them than a huge concrete structure along a very busy highway?

This structure started life in 1930 under ownership of the Farmers Union Terminal Association. The Farmers Union Terminal Association grew out of the co-op movement where farmers wanted a bigger piece of the commodity sales pie, and wanted to join together to have leverage in negotiations with the railroads on shipping costs. This co-op had several name changes, then fell under government control in the Great Depression, and later went back to private ownership. It is currently owned by the Harvest States Cooperatives, which is part of Cenex.

The city of Minneapolis commissioned artist Sara Rotholz Weiner to paint this mural in 1992. The mural has two faces. When looking directly at the side of the elevator, you see lines and colors that look like shadows of nearby structures such as electrical towers and power lines. But when you look at it from the end, you see a series of 8 photos including four historical photos and four space scenes. The photos were very vivid when they were new, but they have faded a bit over the past 18 years.

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Authored by John A. Weeks III, Copyright © 1996—2016, all rights reserved.
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