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In 1960 the State Capitol Credit Union asked Ralph Rapson to design a community bank near the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus. The client, a banking cooperative serving the University of Minnesota and state employees, wanted to supplement its bank and office facilities with an all-purpose room to serve the needs of both the institution and the general community. The Credit Union selected a site within a commercial district known as “Dinkytown” at the southwest corner of the intersection of Fourth Street and Thirteenth Avenue.
The pavilion-like design suggests the work of Mies van der Rohe with its sense of transparency and its floating roof plane. Rapson achieved this with board-formed concrete, a waffle-slab overhanging roof, and sixteen regularly spaced supports. Freestanding and cross-shaped, the concrete columns are gently tapered and rise the full building height; they are arranged in a grid of four by four columns, twenty-seven-feet on center.
Access to the building is from Fourth Street up a short flight of three concrete steps leading to a landing and a second flight of four steps to the credit union’s main level, approximately four feet above sidewalk elevation. A smaller concrete canopy over a double set of doors extends out toward the street to demarcate the entry, which features nine-foot-tall, dark-stained wood doors framed by white-painted steel trim and full-height side windows. A second set of double doors leads to the main space from a vestibule “airlock” between inside and outside. The concrete, lid-like roof extends another six feet beyond the entry canopy and the building edges on all sides.
Set beneath a seemingly floating roof and behind columns, the building form creates a sense of extension into the neighborhood and a protected space for the bank itself. Because of the fixed roof edge, Rapson is able to arrange the interior space by “punching out” the walls into positive and negative space, irregularly alternating voids and solids, and modulating between transparent glass and opaque masonry walls. The brick and glass walls rise nine feet to meet a white-painted wood cap; a clerestory extends from the top of the cap to the underside of the roof and runs the full perimeter of the building, lending the roof the appearance of floating above the supporting walls.
Despite the tight city lot, Rapson accommodated parking behind and beneath the structure, setting the building upon a raised concrete platform planted with grass. The concrete surface of the retaining wall is designated on the original building blueprints as bush-hammered Portland cement. A drive-through passage designed for night depositing at the Credit Union squeezes by the right (northwest) side of the building and the property line, and turns south to descend down a slight ramp to exit onto Thirteenth Avenue. When a branch of the Hennepin County Library moved into the building in 1967, this night deposit vault was adapted to serve as an after-hours book drop.
Upon entry, the interior space opens to a double-height ceiling composed of a three-foot-square, concrete coffered grid, well lit by natural light. As with the exterior, the effect is of a floating lid due to the clerestory windows encircling the building. In addition, supplemental artificial lighting in the form of white lollypop pendant fixtures (a Rapson favorite and also used in his 1962–1963 Guthrie Theater) are randomly placed throughout; square framed units of fluorescent lights (added much later) are fitted inside many of the coffers of the concrete ceiling grid, and here and there square concrete light tubes extend downward to let in soft-filtered daylight. The square tubes vary between three- and six-foot modules and are randomly placed to maximize natural light throughout the interior.
The floor plan for the library is largely unchanged from the original credit union arrangement: it is essentially square in plan with a central, large open space containing low-height desks and furnishings and enclosed offices around the perimeter that afford floor-to-ceiling glass exterior views. Office walls are the same exposed brown brick as the exterior and extend up to nine feet high, topped by a painted wood cap that serves as the sill for the clerestory windows on all sides. Floor surfaces throughout the first-floor interior are quarry tile and brick edging at expansion joints and area demarcations.
Many of the original design blueprints are initialed as being drawn by a duo of Rapson and Associates stalwarts, RM (Richard “Dick” Morrill) and KL (Kay Lockhart), who went on, as educators, to influence a number of younger architects graduating from the University of Minnesota School of Architecture. These blueprints list a room schedule for the first floor indicating an all-glass corner waiting area facing the street intersection, immediately to the left of the entryway (now used for casual reading), five private offices on the left side, and a central “lobby and teller area” (now circulation desk, reference section, and librarian staff desks). Along the back wall of the building are the rear exit/entrance from the on-site parking area at back, a grouping of two telephone booths (currently used as closets), men’s and women’s toilets, a thick-walled “vault” (currently used for library circulation materials staging), and a storage room with built-in shelving (currently a teen reading/hangout lounge); to the right side is the night depository (now used for after-hours book drop/drive through). The far right corner of the building has a brick-enclosed stairwell that leads to a lower level community room accessible from inside the main central space and from within the main entry vestibule on the right. Here, the interior doors can be locked to allow the public after-hours access through the exterior set of doors.
At the center of the basement level a large room, once used for credit union dining events (listed on the blueprints as a “lounge”), is partitioned at midpoint by a retractable folding wood wall that divides the space into two smaller rooms. At one end a projection booth is built into the width of the space, accessed through a small door at one side. Unusual for the time, the suspended plaster ceiling has large, tapered, conical light tubes projecting down from the ceiling like stalactites, the tips cut on the bias to angle the light toward the center of the space. These are arranged along the length of the larger room with two rows of light “cones” on either side of the dividing wall track.
Also in the basement level are several other features: men’s and women’s locker rooms with showers and toilet stalls; built-in hallway storage cabinets on several corridors (all of dark-stained wood); a recessed area adjacent to the dining hall, indicated on blueprints as space for a “portable bar”; a boiler room and mechanical room; and access to the underground garage, which is not heated but open to the outdoors and secured by a sliding iron grill gate hung from an overhead track. The garage exit ramp leads up to Thirteenth Avenue and is parallel with the down ramp from the above parking located behind the building, directly above the garage.
At the time the building was converted to library use in the late 1960s, the branch catered to the interests of the nearby university student population. A collection of protest books was displayed there in 1969, and a sunny corner was devoted to a collection of periodicals. In 1970, a consortium of private environmental interest groups leased space in the library’s basement and set up an Environmental Resources and Information Center in an agreement that proved helpful to both parties.
By all accounts, because of its transparency and open central space, the building is perfectly suited to its present purposes as a neighborhood public library. It has aged gracefully and its owner, the Hennepin County Library System, has updated it periodically.
Benidt, Bruce Weir. The Library Book. Minneapolis, MN: Minneapolis Public Library and Information Center, 1984.
Hession, Jane King, Rip Rapson, and Bruce N. Wright. Ralph Rapson: Sixty Years of Modern Design. Afton, MN: Afton Historical Society Press, 1999.
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