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American Swedish Institute Nelson Cultural Center
In the late nineteenth century, Swan J. Turnblad (1860–1933) emerged as the leading Swedish language newspaper publisher in the country. In the 1880s, he became the manager of Svenska Amerikanska Posten, which soon became the first Swedish language newspaper to employ a Linotype machine and, eventually, introduce color images. By 1900, the Minneapolis-based newspaper had reached a national circulation of 40,000. With his newfound wealth, Turnblad sought to build a residence for himself, his wife, and their daughter that would proclaim his success. In 1903, he purchased six city lots on Park Avenue and 26th Street, then the most fashionable neighborhood in the city, and commissioned architects Christopher Boehme and Victor Cordella. Eventually, their design cost an extraordinary $1.5 million when completed in 1908. Turnblad’s Chateauesque mansion was soon known as “the castle” throughout the city.
Now the home of the American Swedish Institute (ASI), the turreted limestone mansion remains one of the most lavish residential buildings in the state. The mansion survived the fate of demolition that fell upon many of its Park Avenue neighbors as the neighborhood declined after World War II. For many decades, the ASI used the mansion for exhibits, concerts, and to house a growing collection of Swedish furniture, art, and crafts. Yet visitorship was small and the building remained visually forbidding to the public. Furthermore, the relatively dark and ornate interiors were inadequate to provide visitor services and suitable exhibition space for the institution’s large and unusual collections.
In 2012, HGA designed the Nelson Cultural Center, a twenty-first-century complement to the fortress-like mansion. The 34,000-square-foot addition offers a light-filled public entry and visitor services including retail, gallery, performance, and event spaces, along with a café. The mansion continues to house several galleries, a library and archives, and performance space.
The addition is clearly contemporary yet makes reference in form and materials to the original Turnblad residence. The Nelson Center’s exterior is wrapped in slate tiles—the same material as the mansion’s roof. The L-shaped addition creates an elegant courtyard focusing on the mansion’s glass solarium set over a porte-cochère. The addition expresses the concept of a Swedish gård, or courtyard, framed by the old and new buildings. A light-filled transparent corridor links the two architectural periods with a clear sense of visual separation that highlights the character of each. With its canted roofs and skylights, the Nelson Wing makes a modern interpretation of the mansion’s complex roof forms. Yet the addition is restrained, in its colors and transparency, keeping the mansion as the visual centerpiece of the site.
Anticipating the expansion, the ASI spent several years acquiring the entire block in order to create a more sustainable campus with integrated water management, pervious paving, native plantings, and increased parking to the south. The ASI represents a superb adaptation of a former house and house museum into a cultural center with an array of public and private spaces for experiencing Swedish art, food, crafts, and history.
Lewis, Anne Gillespie. Turnblad's Castle. Minneapolis, MN: American Swedish Institute, 1999.
Millett, Larry. Minnesota’s Own: Preserving Our Grand Homes. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2014.
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