A tale of historic preservation in the Twin Cities

By , Special to The Christian Science Edition

This is a tale of two buildings, a tale that tells volumes about the identity crises confronting the Twin Cities, those proud and changing neighbors on opposite sides of the upper Mississippi.

When I lived in St. Paul, we didn't have much time for bigger Minneapolis (and Minneapolitans thought us St. Paulites quaint, out of date), but the old intercity rivalry seems to have been swallowed up by time and a connecting Interstate. So I will refrain from arguing that the two buildings -- the Landmark Center in St. Paul, a wonderfully restored, turn- of-the-century, turreted courthouse, and Byerly's, a recently opened supermarket of Pompeiian extravagance on the edge of Minneapolis -- are a reflection of their surroundings.

Both cities, in other words, have taken up historic preservation in a big way , and both celebrate the supermarket as a high form of social and cultural expression.

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On each trip back I make a pilgrimage to the Landmark Center, St. Paul's onetime Old Federal Courts Building, which narrowly escaped the wrecking ball in the late 1960s, was reopened in 1978 after a $2.5 million overhaul, and which continues to clear space in its airy, high-ceilinged rooms for new cultural tenants, revolving art exhibits, and free concerts. A cafeM soon to be upgraded to a restaurant, was recently planted in a corner of the skylighted inner court, or Cortile. It is called Torsdag, and the young man behind the counter explained why:

"Torsdag is Thursday in Scandinavian, and Thursday happens to be the name of our caterer. Thursday is also supposed to be the maid's day off in Scandinavia, the day you have to eat out." There is a strong Nordic strain in the Twin Cities , so the theme works. The cafe's light-wood Scandinavian Modern furniture and the towering national flags above the counter -- Danish, Norwegian, Finnish, Swedish -- somehow fit into the splendid redesign of this Middlewest 1900 rathaus.m So do the Louise Nevelson dark wood sculpture on a salmon-colored wall (she incorporated wood fragments from the original, crumbling interior) and the exhibition gallery at the center of the Cortile (on this day displaying photos form the first 10 years of Life).

On Wednesdays there are "brown bag" opera performances in the Cortile, and some days a band plays in Rice Park across the street from the center, but I was glad to have a quiet bench in the park on a musicless Monday, the better to gaze on this surviving pocket of history and stability in a downtown rapidly being chewed up for redevelopment. I shouldn't complain. The old town needs a boost, and the torn blocks are a sign that St. Paul and its crusading mayor George Latimer are getting somewhere. This will not mean the demolition of the architecturally noteworthy buildings east of the Landmark Center, such as the Pioneer Building with its cage elevators (I still get a tiny scare soaring up through the atrium) and several art-deco government buildings.

And surely the Hamm Building will be spared. From Rice Park (itself a historic treasure, seven years older than Central Park, and the scene of a joyous 1883 reception marking the completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad, attended by President Chester A. Arthur and Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman) I got a view of the Hamm Building's best face. It is a full block with intricately carved beige stone walls, and each window is shaded from the western sun by small orange awnings. "Very World War I," I said to myself, imagining victory parades and straw-hatted crowds, and when I crossed the street , I found my guess wasn't far off. A plaque said "Hamm Building 1919."

On the ground floor is a new restaurant, the Cafe Praha, whose owners have brought a taste of Czechoslovakia to St. Peter Street. On the menu is a Bohemian Burger. In the window are tiny glassed-in models of historic Minnesota buildings, further proof, if I needed it, that historic preservation is catching up with fishing and football as the fiercest local passions.

Twin Citians, it occurred to me a few visits ago, also go grocery shopping with a vengeance. I sometimes visit Lund's supermarket on Lake Street Near Hennepin in Minneapolis less to shop than to observe the customers -- as sociable and expectant as art mavens attending a gallery opening. Lund's and Byerly's are the Macy's and Gimbels of Minneapolis, and a few months ago Byerly's jumped ahead with the supermarket to end all supermarkets.

It is in St. Louis Park, a suburb on the western fringe of Minneapolis only a short drive from the city's lovely chain of lakes and parks. It is a squat, brown, nondescript building, but inside it rambles for 92,000 square feet (about two football fields by my reckoning) with brightly striped carpeting, serpentine glass chandeliers, and aisles the width of a Manhattan side street. Beneath the low-hanging ceiling are a flower shop, candy shop, a cooking school, restaurant, post office, pharmacy, stationers, exotic kitchenware section, bagel counter, seafood department with crappies from Rainy lake and fresh Atlantic eels, and all the obligatory shelf items displayed so neatly one is almost afraid to pluck , pat, or examine.

The store never closes, and already it is a growing tourist attraction, maybe not in company with the towering IDS building in downtown Minneapolis but perhaps gaining on the Walker Art Center, the Institute of Arts, and the Guthrie Theater. We Monday afternoon rubberneckers were probably most astounded by the Byerly Gallery, a shop with an armed guard in front. The shop sells fine crystal and porcelain at up to five figures, the kind of place, its two young owners from Philadelphia told me, that normally belongs on 5th Avenue or Rodeo Drive. Orrefors and Skippy's under one roof? Historic preservation and conspicuous consumption in the same afternoon? I was developing an identity crisis of my own.

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