“Then and Now” is a monthlong series by Alan K. Lathrop, curator of the Manuscripts Division at the University of Minnesota Libraries from 1970 to 2008. He is author of Minnesota Architects and Churches of Minnesota.
The Twin Cities are a rich lode of art deco architecture, compared with other American cities of equal size. Despite having many art deco structures disappear in decades past, a number of examples (including some very good ones) still remain scattered about, mostly in downtown areas.
Art deco began as a post-World War I rejuvenation of art nouveau. This was expressed in the exuberant and highly exaggerated vegetable and animal forms that became — and still are — popular in architectural ornament, pottery, jewelry, and stained glass in Europe around 1900. Art nouveau was rooted in the Vienna Secessionist and similar movements of the late 1890s. The movement lasted under a decade before being absorbed into other art and architectural expressions. In the U.S., one of these was the Prairie School, popularized by Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Henri Sullivan, and their followers, including William Gray Purcell and George Grant Elmslie in the Twin Cities.
The Prairie School, or “progressive” architecture (a term preferred by its adherents), faded in the late 1910s and was replaced by an olio of styles that, by and large, harkened back to previous centuries. Art deco emerged in a show held in Paris in 1925, “art decoratif,” which featured forms that seemed to be minimally simplified modifications of those of art nouveau. But art deco in the U.S. quickly evolved into forms that were sleek and smooth and shiny, as architects created “streamlined” shapes incorporating sweeping curves to evoke the new age’s love of speed and that utilized new kinds of building materials, such as pressed nickel-based “monel metal,” plastic, and glass block.
Early on, the Twin Cities saw the construction of several outstanding examples of art deco and streamline moderne, into which the former morphed late in the 1930s. The area was fortunate in having a handful of architects who quickly adopted the style: Harry Firminger, Holabird & Root, Liebenberg and Kaplan, Myrtus Wright, and Werner Wittkamp. These men brought art deco to Minneapolis and St. Paul around 1930, and fortunately, a number of their works are extant today.
The best examples are:
• The St. Paul City Hall and Ramsey County Court House (1932; pictured above), designed by Holabird & Root of Chicago with Ellerbe & Company of St. Paul. Its cool, glossy lobby features the statue God of Peace (at left), carved in onyx by Carl Milles in 1936.
• The Dain Tower (also known as the Rand Tower) in Minneapolis (1929-30), by Holabird & Root. Its lobby is on a much smaller scale than the St. Paul City Hall, but is a masterpiece of quiet dignity and sleekness in marble, frosted glass, and monel metal. The sculpture Wings, by Oskar Hansen, stands in the lobby.
• The bar at the Commodore Hotel, St. Paul (1930). It’s no stretch of the imagination to picture Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald hanging out there in its heyday. The compact but comfortable bar was designed in glass and mirrors by Werner Wittkamp, a former Hollywood set designer who drifted into architecture.
• The Hollywood, Varsity, Uptown, and Grandview theaters (1933-39), the former three of which were designed by Jack Liebenberg, a master at art deco and streamline moderne eye candy, to lift people dragged down by the cares of the Depression into the escapist world of the movies for a couple hours. The Grandview (1933, 1937), in St. Paul, was created by an unknown named Myrtus Wright. Both of the existing art deco theaters in the city, the other being the Highland, were designed by Wright.
• The Forum Cafeteria (1930), by George Franklin who worked for the headquarters of the Forum Cafeteria chain out of Kansas City, assisted by local architects Magney and Tusler. Its interior is a masterpiece of black glass, mirrors, and some monel metal light fixtures which, despite being dismantled and reinstalled in City Center, is basically intact.
To walk into any of these marvelous spaces is to go back to a time that appreciated quiet exuberance and escape from the cares and worries of the everyday. To enter them is to enjoy them.
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Images in this post are from Creative Commons.