A passion for the past

Tangletown’s Lileks vividly catalogues Downtown of yesterday and today on his website

James Lileks’ words flow passionately at a rapid clip as he describes the Downtown of his dreams and the old buildings whose loss he mourns.

His arms gesture extravagantly to the point where one wonders if he’d be able to talk without them. All the while, the Tangletown dad has one eye trained on his one-year-old daughter, Natalie Claire. She plays with toys and looks at the TV, but it’s clear that she’s used to her mostly stay-at-home father’s undivided attention.

But Natalie does have to share some of daddy’s time; in addition to writing the nimble "Backfence" column for the Star Tribune, Lileks has crafted a website displaying his passion for Downtown.

The site, lileks.com, is a hodgepodge of pages about his dog, his daughter and his hometown, but it’s also a voluminous photographic and narrated catalogue on "Downtown Today" and "Long Gone."

"Downtown Today" is a portfolio of buildings that, for the most part, are still standing. The pictures are coupled with nuggets of history and Lileks’ musings. For instance, who remembers when the club First Avenue was a Greyhound bus depot?

"Long Gone" offers a glimpse of what Downtown used to look like when the buildings were smaller and thicker.

"You can use the pictures and use your imagination to think about what people like you used to do," Lileks said.

Your cubicle here

Lileks describes himself as "somebody who has a deep, abiding interest in Americana."

Browsing through "Long Gone," office workers at the Pillsbury Center can discover that the site of their South 6th Street and 2nd Avenue building at one time held the National Building, an office tower built on a retail arcade.

In one photograph of the National, a man sits in front of a window, stooped over a manual typewriter. In the text, Lileks wonders about the man. "We have no idea if he had a toothache, wanted to give up cigarettes, couldn’t wait to go home to see his wife, was regretting that extra slice of pie he had for supper, worried about his bowels, was still chuckling over last night’s Lum & Abner, read the Star or the Tribune."

Except that the black-and-white man had a window that opened, he’s probably not unlike his counterparts in the Pillsbury Center today.

And Rand Tower employees can look up their building and see that Radio Cleaners and Dryers used to live on the location. The name may seem to make no sense today — Radio Cleaners and Dryers?

"At the time ‘radio’ was high-tech and super-modern, like cyber is today," Lileks said. "When you look at that, you understand it’s no different between them and you."

A hobby gone hog wild

Lileks didn’t start his exhaustive site as a way to help Downtowners connect to their surroundings. He made it because, in the mid ’90s, websites were so "in."

"In 1995, home pages were the thing," he said. "So I just did one because it was the thing that people were doing. I had no idea it was going to go this far."

Lileks can’t say how far he’s come. He doesn’t have a counter on the site, so he has no idea how many hits he gets.

"If I looked at how many people went to my website and saw 50 hits, I’d be depressed," Lileks said. By the same token, he’d feel the pressure if he saw thousands of daily hits, he said.

Lileks does have an inkling about the site’s popularity. When he put up a page about ’70s-style interior design, it got so much traffic that he had to shut it down for a while.

The Downtown section began while he worked at the Star Tribune. Construction crews were tearing down the Thorpe and Merchants buildings, and Lileks decided to chronicle the demolition with photographs. He put these pictures on his site and did research with the Star Tribune archives.

His hobby grew from there. "I decided to do another building and another. Soon I decided to do all of Downtown," he said.

The jasper dog site

Lileks once wanted to be an architect, before turning columnist and author. While his site shows Downtown’s architectural progression, it is not a definitive guide.

The old black-and-white pictures are mostly publicity shots from the Star Tribune archives. While not candid, they show the city in its Sunday best. "It’s like seeing your parents at 25, in a tux and a ballroom gown," Lileks said.

And for those who could care less about Minneapolis or architecture, there’s always the Jasper Dog page. Jasper is Lileks’ dog, and according to Lileks, some people know his site simply as the Jasper Dog site.

"People have an aspect of the site that they like," he said. "Even Jasper gets letters."

On the web www.lileks.com