A staircase good enough for the pope

A double helix Bramante staircase
A double helix Bramante staircase in the International Market Square building is considered one of the first of its kind in the nation. Photo courtesy of Peter Crouser Photography

Imagine wearing so many heavy clothes and thick robes that you needed a horse and wagon to haul yourself upstairs to your apartment. That’s what Pope Julius II endured in his early 1500s Vatican attire. Those horses and wagons took up a lot of space on the staircase, and then they had to turn around and go back down. The congestion got to be too much. So the Pope hired architect Donato Bramante to fix the problem. The architecturally famous Bramante staircase is the first known double helix staircase in the world. Two stairwells were intertwined — one was used to go up, and the other to go down. Like DNA spirals, only 450 years earlier. Leonardo da Vinci designed a similar one about the same time at Chambord Castle in central France.

Fast forward to Minneapolis in the late 1880s. George Munsing and two business partners moved here from Rochester, New York, and founded the Northwest Knitting Company. They combined silk with wool fibers to create “itchless” underwear. By 1919, when Munsing invented the one-piece “union suit,” the company’s name was changed to Munsingwear. The knitting wear giant’s factory was built on the corner of Glenwood & Lyndale. Between the years of 1905 and 1915, four more buildings were added to the growing company’s headquarters.

Pierced decorative rails
Pierced decorative rails enlivened the commute for Munsingwear’s scurrying employees. Photos by Linda Koutsky

At its height, more than 2,000 employees worked in the factory. The buildings housed knitting machines, cutting rooms and tons of sewing machines, and the workers had their own library, social clubs and educational opportunities that included English language classes for new immigrants. To accommodate the masses going in and out of the factory for their shifts, a double helix stairway was built in the 1910 building. One side was for employees starting their shifts, the other for those exiting. The two stairways commingled up eight stories. The Minneapolis staircase is considered one of the first of its kind in the nation.

After Munsingwear’s factory closed in 1981, it was remodeled and reopened as International Market Square four years later. As a designer showplace, IMS is filled with offices and home furnishing showrooms that sell “to the trade.” Visitors are allowed to browse, but purchases must be made through registered designers. The atrium, and a restaurant run by D’Amico, are open to the general public. And yes, the historic staircase remains. You can see it today. Just enter through the building’s lobby off the Glenwood Avenue parking lot. There’s no need to check in at the front desk; visitors are welcome. Then walk across the glass-covered atrium to the staircase on the far side. Go up and imagine what it was like for the crowds of workers making their way to the stations to make revolutionary undergarments that kept the country warm for a hundred years.

The penguin logo and Munsingwear brand
The penguin logo and Munsingwear brand are still active today and owned by Perry Ellis. This display was seen recently at Southdale’s Macy’s.

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Before International Market Square’s buildings were connected and covered with a glass roof to create the Atrium, trains pulled into the space and were filled with Munsingwear products that were sold throughout the country. 

Today you can enjoy freshly made sandwiches, salads and weekly specials at Market Square Bistro by D’Amico. Open 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday.

International Market Square

275 Market St., Minneapolis