Established as a territory in 1849, Minnesota occupies what was the frontier edge of the old “Northwest”—a remote and distant corner of the Louisiana Purchase. By the 1850s, early settlers relocating from New England brought with them progressive goals for education and parklands, along with urbane tastes in architecture. The result is that the cultural landscape of Minnesota, which became a state in 1858, is a fusion of East Coast styles, including Greek and Romanesque Revivals, with new and pragmatic solutions developed for the Midwest, such as cast-in-place concrete grain elevators and balloon-frame farmhouses.
Minnesota is home to three distinct ecologies: rolling prairies in the south and west, dense coniferous forests in the north, and deciduous hardwood forests in the state’s hilly and unglaciated southeastern corner. Native Americans often traveled through wooded river valleys and trails still identifiable today, creating works such as the Jeffers Petroglyphs, a rock outcropping nestled amidst prairie grasses in southwestern Minnesota. Located at a key trail and trade crossing point, here the first Americans left carvings telling a story spanning more than 7,000 years.
Minnesota’s natural resources were bountiful for settlers from Scandinavia, Germany, Ireland, Finland, and elsewhere. Using granite, limestone, wood, clay, and rivers to move the materials, farmers cleared the prairies and erected farmsteads, such as the George Stoppel Farm in southeastern Minnesota. They also built other structures common to their homelands, like the sauna, which was prevalent in Finnish settlements. Two of the state’s most ubiquitous local stones are the dark, lavender-toned Cold Spring granite from the St. Cloud region and Mankato limestone from southwestern Minnesota, both of which were used extensively in the state and across the country. Cold Spring granite continues to be used for important civic buildings, while the lighter beige Mankato stone features prominently in commercial buildings such as the Minneapolis Central Library and Wells Fargo Center (both designed by Cesar Pelli).
In the northwestern “Arrowhead” region of the state, cities, towns, and roads respond to the rigors of winter, the stunning shoreline of Lake Superior, as well as to the shipping and the mining industries. Once the world’s richest source of iron ore, Iron Range towns showcased a variety of architectural styles. The high-style houses, churches, and office buildings of Duluth, designed by such architects as Bertram Goodhue and Daniel Burnham, were perceived as the pinnacle of urbanity. Buildings like the Glensheen Mansion express the extraordinary wealth created by the iron industry at the dawn of the twentieth century.
The railroad moved settlers into and westward through Minnesota. Small towns throughout the state depended on the railroads for their economic success. Their stations were a source of civic pride and often the first local buildings to be designed by an architect. In Wayzata and Little Falls, the young St. Paul-based Cass Gilbert designed combined freight and passenger stations. Although Gilbert designed dozens of churches, commercial buildings, and houses throughout Minnesota, he also established a national reputation. Trained in the Beaux-Arts method at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and deeply influenced by his European travel and his work in the New York City offices of leading American architects McKim, Mead and White, Gilbert significantly shaped the architecture profession in Minnesota. When Gilbert moved back to St. Paul in December 1882 to open an office representing McKim, Mead and White, he brought a new aesthetic vision and professional standards to the young state and helped it move from a practical and apprentice-based system to one that recognized pedagogical developments and national and international stylistic sources. This story is exemplified by buildings like Gilbert’s Minnesota State Capitol and the St. Paul Cathedral, designed by the Beaux-Arts trained Emmanuel Masqueray.
Many key designers in the history of American architecture in the twentieth century have worked in Minnesota, including Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Eliel and Eero Saarinen, Marcel Breuer, Phillip Johnson, and Frank Gehry. Their work reveals the rise of modernism and postmodernism in a variety of building types, including Sullivan’s National Farmer’s Bank in Owatonna, the Saarinens’ Christ Church Lutheran in Minneapolis, Breuer’s campus for Saint John’s Abbey and University near St. Cloud, and Gehry’s Winton Guest House formerly on Lake Minnetonka.
In recent decades, thanks to changing scholarly interests, there is a new awareness in the state of the impact of, for example, the New Deal on state parks, the effects of racial segregation on automobile travel, and the evolution of postwar suburbs. As a result, Minnesotans now have a deeper understanding of the cultural contexts and character-defining features of long-neglected but important aspects of the state’s built environment. Increasingly, Minnesotans have used historic preservation to bring them back to public awareness. One such example is Peavey Plaza (1976, Hardy, Holtzman and Pfeiffer), a sunken garden in downtown Minneapolis that had become rundown over the years and is currently being restored by landscape architects Coen and Partners after years of controversy and litigation over its historic value. Although significant buildings have been lost to demolition, many have survived the test of time and changing tastes. Whether serving their original purpose or rehabilitated for a new use, such as the Pillsbury A Mill Building, the sheer variety of Minnesota’s architecture lends character to its landscape.
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