Has there been any decent architecture in St. Paul in the last 30 years?


I was having coffee with friends last weekend, and the conversation turned to which city was more livable: Minneapolis or St. Paul. One guy argued that St. Paul is a more pleasant city to walk around in because the architecture is more cohesive. “Sure,” replied another, “but name one building that’s gone up in St. Paul in the last 20 years that you’d look at and say, ‘Now that’s great architecture.’ Or 30 years—I’ll even give you 30 years!”

The topic changed before anyone could rise to the challenge, but my interest was piqued. It’s true that Minneapolis gets a lot of showy new buildings—some obviously bad (Calhoun Square, the construction of which inspired a “Dump Updale” campaign), some obviously good (the Weisman), and some with strong partisans on either side (the new Guthrie, the Walker addition)—but it’s not easy to rattle off a list of superb, or even arguably superb, new buildings in St. Paul. So I decided to pose my friend’s challenge to some local architecture experts; here’s what they had to say.

Geoffrey Warner
Principal, Alchemy Architects

The Schubert Club Heilmaier Memorial Bandstand on St. Paul’s riverfront was done by James Carpenter (a New Yorker!) in 2002. Simple, elegant, it is not quite a building, but a great structure reinterpreted from saddle arches made popular in the 1950s.

Paul Clifford Larson
Co-author, St. Paul’s Architecture

I share your friend’s pain. Great architecture has been a rarity here, not just in the past 30 years but since the late 1930s, with the exception of a brief burst in the 1950s that created two phenomenal residential neighborhoods (Stonebridge and east University Grove).

But there are some outstanding exceptions of recent vintage. I don’t like beauty contests at any level so I refuse to name just one. But here is my list of buildings of great merit put up within the last 30 years, in chronological order:

Ordway Center (Ben Thompson, 1984)
Minnesota Judicial Center Addition (Leonard Parker Associates, 1989)
Minnesota Children’s Museum (James/Snow Architects and Architectural Alliance, 1995)
401 Building (Architectural Alliance, 2000)
Schubert Club Heilmaier Memorial Bandstand (perhaps a structure rather than a building, James Carpenter, 2002)

But for their thoughtful responsiveness to their sites—one of their chief strengths—I think any of these could stand proudly in any city.

Todd Melby
Blogger, Building Minnesota

Minnesota History Center. It’s substantial, elegant in an I-am-an-important-building sort of way, and offers a great view of the Capitol.

Philip Koski
Design columnist, METRO magazine

Como Park Conservatory addition by architect Kara Hill at HGA. Finished a few years ago, the fern room is especially awesome for both its tropical humidity levels and the glassy enclosure patterned with a random pattern of solar cells that both provide on-site energy and create the dappled shade ferns thrive in.

Minnesota Children’s Museum. It was very cool and different when it was designed in the early 1990s. Won some awards.

Minnesota History Center. Yes, it’s postmodern and tries hard to fit in, but the public halls and spaces are heroic and precisely crafted with top-shelf materials. Another HGA building.

Orville L. Freeman Building, by Pickard Chilton and HGA. Clean and modern, though a little staid.

Finally, the Schubert Club Heilmaier Memorial Bandstand.

All in all, I regard my friend’s challenge to have been more than satisfactorily met: St. Paul has seen some great architecture in the last 30 years. Further, the consensus seems to be that if the City of St. Paul is looking to see even more great architecture, giving money to the Schubert Club and the Ordway isn’t a bad idea.

Jay Gabler (jay@tcdailyplanet.net) is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.