A parable of progress

Author and architectural historian Larry Millett on the Metropolitan Building

Streetcars on Third Street, circa 1890, moving past the recently completed Northwestern Guaranty Loan Building. Electric streetcars were introduced in Minneapolis in December 1889, and the tracks here temporarily had three rails after being converted from narrow to standard gauge to accommodate the new trolleys. Credit: Minnesota Historical Society.

Just a few months before the first sledgehammer blow landed on its stone exterior, a 14-year-old Larry Millett made his one and only visit to the Metropolitan Building.

It was the summer of 1961, and Millett and his father joined the scores of Minneapolitans paying their respects to the old downtown landmark, then slated for demolition as part of a Minneapolis Housing and Redevelopment Authority plan to remake the seedy Gateway District. They came to glimpse the building’s light-filled central atrium, to walk its glass-block galleries and ride an elevator up to the 12th floor — just beneath the massive skylight — where the future author and architectural historian leaned over one of the ornately decorated wrought-iron railings and gazed at the lobby far below.

Millett’s latest book, “Metropolitan Dreams,” tells the story of this vanished wonder, from its rise as the Northwestern Guaranty Loan Building in 1890, at the tail end of an early boom period for Minneapolis, to its fall amid a mid-century fervor for urban renewal. It opened as a monument to the fraudulent financial empire of Louis Menage and closed 70 years later as an anything-but-ordinary office building, showing its age but still admired by many.

Millett gave a talk on his new book, published by University of Minnesota Press, Jan. 5 at Minneapolis Central Library and afterwards sat down for a conversation with the Southwest Journal. The interview has been edited and condensed.

View from bottom of the Metropolitan Building's light court, 1961. The 56-by-90-foot court, with its superb ironwork and glass-floored galleries, was one of the supreme spaces of its kind in the history of American architecture. The ghostly figure on the fourth floor is one of the building's janitors. Credit: Minnesota Historical Society.
View from bottom of the Metropolitan Building’s light court, 1961. The 56-by-90-foot court, with its superb ironwork and glass-floored galleries, was one of the supreme spaces of its kind in the history of American architecture. The ghostly figure on the fourth floor is one of the building’s janitors. Credit: Minnesota Historical Society.

Southwest Journal: What do you think it is about the building that, even today, we tell this story in Minneapolis as almost a parable of progress versus preservation?

Millett: I think it’s the touchstone building for that whole Minneapolis parable. And, you know, the same parable really applies in St. Paul, in every other American city. They’ve all done their thing, especially in the downtown areas.

There’s something about the building that just sort of radiates, and people look at those pictures (of the Metropolitan) and they say, “Man, I would’ve liked to have seen that.” And not many buildings have that particular quality.

It’s the starting point of historic preservation in Minneapolis. Even though it didn’t get saved, it got people thinking about historic preservation where no one was really thinking about it before.

Two years earlier they tore down the New York Life building, which was a very fine building by New York architects, and it had a magnificent lobby with a double-helix staircase. That thing went down with hardly a whisper.

If you’re a Minneapolitan in 1890 and you see this thing, what are you thinking?

It was the ultimate coming-of-age building.

Minneapolis in 1880 was a fairly small city. The population was 40,000 or something, and it just jumped by huge numbers during that decade. There were like 50,000 buildings built in the city. It was just this enormous growth.

So, I think the building, especially in its location — it was in the Gateway, and there weren’t a lot of tall buildings at that time — it really stood out. Everything around it was really low, so it must’ve seemed like a castle in the center of the city. The king’s keep.

The fact that it was all built on quicksand — 

Financial quicksand.

Yeah, it’s a classic American story.

Menage, I don’t know how he financed this. It’s not really clear. He probably just leveraged the hell out of it.

And then he unloaded the building to another corporation just before the crash (of Northwestern Guaranty Loan Company) occurred. When it came time for the receivers to figure out the assets of the corporation, the building wasn’t among them.

Ruins of the Metropolitan Building in 1962, toward the entrance on Second Avenue South. The rock-faced walls of New Hampshire granite that formed the lower three floors were four feet thick. Credit: Minnesota Historical Society.
Ruins of the Metropolitan Building in 1962, toward the entrance on Second Avenue South. The rock-faced walls of New Hampshire granite that formed the lower three floors were four feet thick. Credit: Minnesota Historical Society.

The building was fully occupied at the time of its demolition in 1961. It was a little rough for wear at that point, though, right?

Sure. The rents would’ve been relatively cheap. It would’ve been considered what we call today a class C office building.

Was it an immensely profitable building? Probably not. Did it have some deferred maintenance issues? Yeah, I’m sure it did. But it wasn’t a dead building by any stretch of the imagination.

Some of the buildings (Housing and Redevelopment Authority) took were in effect dead buildings, but they took a lot of going buildings. They took hotels that were still going concerns. They ate it all up. They just hoovered it.

Would some compromises have been made to the Metropolitan Building if it were still standing today?

You would’ve seen the exterior pretty much the same. Obviously new windows, and that’s not a big deal, because they were simple double-hungs for the most part. They would’ve had to do some tuck-pointing and stone repair, would’ve cleaned it, hopefully, in a good way, and gotten some of the color back.

The interior would’ve presented some issues. I’m sure they’d have to sprinkler it, because any time you’ve got a big atrium you’ve got a flue-like effect in the event of a fire. But you can sprinkle them, you can make that work.

The old office space would’ve been substantially redone to one degree or another, depending upon what the uses were.

They would not be able to maintain those elevators as they were. They would have to have been electrified and made automatic, and they’d be different cabs from the one they would’ve had.

They would’ve replaced the skylight, I hope.

It would’ve been a multi-multi-million project, but very doable. I think any historic preservation architect would say, “Oh yeah, give me a shot at that building. I can make it work.”

 

“Metropolitan Dreams” is available for purchase on the University of Minnesota Press website.

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