Minneapolis — The word from Minneapolis was that the city had made some bold moves to tame the infamous winter and, by the by, had stoked its already crackling cultural oven.
So what popped up the moment we entered Minnesota airspace but a paralyzing, late November snowstorm that had Minneapolitans, my mother included, recalling the Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940. Once ensconced downtown, though, I found it possible to stroll about comfortably in shirt and slacks. This was made possible by the extended Skyway passages and the new skylighted City Center, which together have faced down the elements and turned Minneapolis into much more of an indoor town than Mary Tyler Moore would remember.
As for culture, its healthy state was indicated when the first person I met on ducking out of the snow and into a limo shelter at the airport was an actor - an employed actor - on his way to a job at the Mixed Blood Theatre Company near downtown. ''New York's the only city that has more live theater than Minneapolis ,'' he said. ''There are 30 theaters in the Twin Cities. Why? The arts are heavily endowed by business - Pillsbury, 3M, General Mills, Dayton's.''
If one can peg the date when Minneapolis first stood up to winter it was 1972 , when the 51-story IDS Tower opened, looming like some giant grain elevator across the tundra. Overnight its eight-story indoor Crystal Court became a sort of Middle Western Piazza San Marco, alive with music and the shuffle of feet. The inside trend continued in 1982 with the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, and just this fall Minnesota's answer to the Milan Galleria, the City Center, arrived.
If there were doubts that Minneapolis was ready for the center's high-toned businesses, for Laura Ashley, Caswell-Massey, the swank Amfac Hotel, and the ultimate novelty shop, Brookstone, they have been dispelled by the unceasing droves of shoppers. For years it was thought Minneapolitans would never desert their beloved ''Dales,'' Southdale, Ridgedale, and other, related suburban malls. Now, for the first time, downtown stores are staying open until 9 p.m. daily and from 12 to 5 on the once inviolable Sunday.
Even as buildings spring up left and right of the Nicollet Mall, downtown planners seem to be balancing the old with the new, the glassy with the granite. Just a block from the City Center, a converted 1906 warehouse called Butler Square stacks its boutiques and eating places, offices, and craft shops around an eight-story, skylighted court, with massive pillars and wood beams.
Minnesota has never sold its wares loudly, perhaps owing to the Scandinavian reserve, but an ambitious shop in Butler Square, Hello Minnesota, peddles ties, sweaters, and other items decorated with the loon, the state bird. I chuckled over a pair of Execuducks, tweedy duck-shaped slippers as big as satchels.
Another period building, of limestone blocks and little upper-floor balconies , has been neatly turned into the Hennepin Center for the Arts. Home to three theaters and a dance and a craft office (and several cafes), the center brings the arts more squarely downtown.
For almost 10 years, the chief downtown cultural tenant has been Orchestra Hall, set back from Nicollet Mall, an unfinished symphony of brick walls and exposed ducts. Beside the hall, the sunken Peavey Park Plaza will this winter be covered with ice in the manner of the Rockefeller Center skating rink; rental skates and hot beverages will be available. Outlanders may learn a pointer or two; skating is a Minnesota art.
For a generation, the Nicollet Mall has been the unifying downtown force and a role model for sensible shopping streets everywhere. The tree-lined, bus-only lane is decorated in winter with loops of white lights, and in the bus shelters one hears not only the trill of piped Christmas carols but the boom of weather reports.
On Ninth Street just off the mall is a favorite downtown institution of mine, Peter's Grill, which has repeatedly dodged the wrecking ball. This art-deco wonder would appeal to Edward Hopper and Sam Spade. Its high-backed wood booths and serpentine counter are filled by noon each day. The soups and pies are justly famous in the region.
Thanks to an extension of the mall and a general improvement of the once raffish Loring Park just to the west, you can stroll to another recommended luncheon spot, the cafeteria of the Walker Art Center. The white-walled Walker, astride the equally noted Guthrie Theater, is one of the more impressive and pleasant modern art museums in the land. From the cafeteria you gaze out on a modern cityscape - urban freeways, a cathedral spire, and open prairie space, a vast piece of photo realism.
Along with commerce and culture, downtown hotel life has been sharply revived. Besides the gleaming Amfac Hotel, there is a newish Hyatt on the mall, a spruced-up Northstar Inn with its esteemed Rosewood Room restaurant, and the smart, well-camouflaged Marquette, tucked into the IDS Tower. Staying at the Marquette and availing yourself of the Skyways, you can do a day's business or pleasure without putting on a coat, at least in theory. The Marquette's third-floor restaurant, the Gallery, looks onto the Crystal Court, that Midwest Piazza San Marco, and has a Mary Tyler Moore table with a photo of MTM. I think Mary, Rhoda, Lou, and Ted would like the moves Minneapolis has made, indoors and out.