Love Southwest? He wrote the book on it

If in the past 18 months you’ve seen a bearded, bespectacled man doing laps past your home on a bicycle, consider it a compliment. Larry Millett, former architecture critic for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and author of the hefty “AIA Guide to the Twin Cities: The Essential Source on the Architecture of Minneapolis and St. Paul,” has recently published a smaller offshoot, the “AIA Guide to the Minneapolis Lake District.”

Millett does much of his research on two wheels, and the Lake District (which encompasses Southwest) became the subject of this new pocket-sized companion that offers a deeper look into the area’s architectural roots — and “It’s also got more pictures than the large one!” laughs Millet of the original tome.

Why a book devoted solely to this area of Minneapolis?

I think the Lake District has several signature neighborhoods, including Lowry Hill and much of Southwest. It’s a large area but kind of a defining residential area — it’s what you think of when you think of Minneapolis.

How do you decide which buildings make the cut?

First, I sit down and get info about all the usual suspects. Then I use my own years of research, secondary sources, and I get on my bike and cruise around the city. Probably 10–15 percent of the guidebooks are buildings that were not on anyone’s radar; they were discoveries even for me. They’re little surprises.

What would be one of those hidden treasures?

The Giles house at 41st and Vincent. It’s up on the hill almost hidden away west of Lake Harriet and it’s a weird prairie school Viennese Secessionist style. It has unusual colors and it’s basically out of sight in the summer.

Did people often invite you into their homes?

Because I was dealing with thousands of properties, it wasn’t feasible to knock on every door, but I did get into some of them. In the guidebook I didn’t do a lot of extensive interior descriptions because it’s private space and realistically most people are not going to get into them. But if someone was in the yard when I was looking at their house I’d always stop and say hi.

Does the Lake District have a predominant style to the homes and buildings?

When people think of the Lake District it’s not a single house but a certain environment of wood, water, trees and period-revival houses — those houses best represent the district. I think more as an environment with pleasant-looking Tudor revival houses and water flowing and people going around lake — it’s the totality of environment that makes it special.

What Lake District building do people ask about the most?

The Purcell-Cutts home by Lake of the Isles is among the most important works in the Lake District. Minneapolis has one of the biggest collections of high-style Prairie houses outside of Chicago, and that’s one of them.

Do you have a lot of readers suggesting buildings you missed or wanting to submit their own homes?

I thought I’d get more than I have, but people here are very polite. People send me information about their house and say, ‘I thought you might find it interesting; it’s quite a house.’ I already have a list of buildings [to use] if I ever do a second edition or update.

Do you have a favorite house or structure in the district?

I am big fan of Prairie style, so I think the Purcell-Cutts house is very nice. The Parker house on Colfax is one of my favorites and I’d be happy to own it if I could afford it! But really there are a lot of nice houses. And everyone who tours the Lake District loves that wonderful house with the big corner porch and open plaza on the east shore of Lake of the Isles.

Which home or structure has the most interesting back story?

Almost all the houses have interesting histories. One that’s not there anymore, the famous Gates house, was the largest private house ever built in the Twin Cities. It was even bigger than the James J. Hill house. It was built in 1913 and then demolished 20 years later because the guy who built it died not long after it was finished and no one else could afford it.

What kind of house do you live in?

I live in the oldest row house in St. Paul, built in 1871, over in the West 7th neighborhood. Of course, the present interior is by Menard’s! But it’s a fun, funky neighborhood with many strange people.

Monica Wright can be reached at 436-4394 or [email protected]