Exploring Architecture in Minnesota

Great Buildings and Historic Houses

Gold sculpture of man with staff in a chariot pulled by four horses, dome pillars in the background
Gold Guilded Sculpture by Daniel Chester French Atop the Minnesota State Capitol Building Since 1906. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Archive Photos/Getty Images (cropped)

Whoever thinks to go to Minnesota to experience America's greatest architecture? Some of the most prestigious architects have built in Minnesota, a land that showcases an architectural history lesson of styles. Here's a sampling of the built environment in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, with a bent toward the modern but beginning with the stately Capitol Building in St. Paul.

Capitol Building by Cass Gilbert, 1905

Cass Gilbert-designed Minnesota State Capitol, St. Paul, Minnesota
Cass Gilbert-designed Minnesota State Capitol, St. Paul, Minnesota. Photo by Jerry Moorman/E+ Collection/Getty Images

Long before he designed the US Supreme Court building in Washington, DC, a young Ohio-born architect named Cass Gilbert was inspired by what he saw in Chicago at the 1893Columbian Exposition. The mix of Classical architecture with new technologies gave him ideas that would influence his competition-winning design for the Minnesota State Capitol.

Ancient architectural ideas combined with modern technologies in Gilbert's plans for the Minnesota State Capitol. The vast domed structure was modeled after Saint Peter's in Rome, but look carefully at the symbolic statuary high up in the dome. The four ton, golden statue entitled "The Progress of the State" has greeted visitors since 1906. Before he sculpted Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, Daniel Chester French was commissioned by Cass Gilbert to create a grand sculpture for Minnesota. Made of copper sheathing over a steel frame, the statue is described this way by local historian and researcher Linda A. Cameron:

Titled “The Progress of the State,” the sculpture group features a chariot pulled by four horses that represent the forces of nature: earth, wind, fire, and water. Two female figures holding the bridles control the forces of nature. They are “Agriculture” and “Industry” and together symbolize “Civilization.” The charioteer is “Prosperity.” He holds a staff bearing the name “Minnesota” in his left hand and cradles a horn of plenty filled with Minnesota produce in his right arm. The pineapples emerging from the hub of the chariot wheels are a symbol of hospitality. The forward motion of the group suggests the future progress of the state of Minnesota.

The Minnesota building was designed to have electricity, telephones, modern climate-control systems, and fireproofing. Gilbert said that his plan was "in the Italian Renaissance style, in quiet, dignified character, expressing its purpose in its exterior appearance."

Building such a massive structure posed problems for the state. A shortage of funds meant that Gilbert had to compromise on some of his plans. Also, controversies ensued when Gilbert selected a Georgia marble instead of local Minnesota stone. If that wasn't enough, the stability of the dome came under question, too. Gilbert's engineer, Gunvald Aus, and his contractor, the Butler-Ryan Company, ultimately created a brick dome reinforced with steel rings.

Despite the problems, the Minnesota State Capitol became a turning point in Gilbert's architectural career. He went on to design the Arkansas State Capitol and the capitol building of West Virginia.

Since opening day on January 2, 1905, the Minnesota State Capitol has been a model of modern technologies within stately, classic design. It may be America's greatest state capitol building.

Sources: Minnesota State Capitol, Minnesota Historical Society website [accessed December 29, 2014]; "Why the Quadriga sculpture at the state Capitol has pineapple wheels, and other fun facts" by Linda A. Cameron, MNopedia, MinnPost, March 15, 2016 at https://www.minnpost.com/mnopedia/2016/03/why-quadriga-sculpture-state-capitol-has-pineapple-wheels-and-other-fun-facts [accessed January 22, 2017]

Bob Dylan's Hibbing Home

Bob Dylan Childhood Home in Hibbing, Minnesota
Bob Dylan Childhood Home in Hibbing, Minnesota. Photo by Jim Steinfeldt / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

More humble than the Minnesota State Capitol building is the childhood home of musician and poet Bob Dylan. Before Dylan changed his name and settled in New York City, the future folk singer (and Nobel Laureate) was Robert Zimmerman in Hibbing, Minnesota. The home of his teenage years is not open to the public, but the house is a popular drive-by destination.

Zimmerman may have been born in Duluth, but no doubt the musician learned some guitar chords in a Hibbing bedroom.

IBM as Big Blue, 1958

blue-tinted windows of Eero Saarinen-Designed IBM Center, Rochester, Minnesota, c. 1957
Eero Saarinen-Designed IBM Center, Rochester, Minnesota, c. 1957. Photo courtesy Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Balthazar Korab Archive at the Library of Congress, reproduction number LC-DIG-krb-00499 (cropped)

The sprawling IBM campus near Rochester, Minnesota may not have been the first modern industrial complex designed by Eero Saarinen, but it firmly established the architect's reputation that perhaps culminated with the design for the iconic St. Louis Archway.

Saarinen's mid-century modernist architecture firm had created an architectural template for this type of office campus with the influential General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan (1948-1956). Saarinen Associates continued that success in the sprawling IBM campus.

Guthrie Theater, 2006

Jean Nouvel's Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis
Jean Nouvel's Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Photo by Raymond Boyd / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Minnesota attracts the work of Pritzker Laureates, and the design architect for the "new" Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis was no exception. Back in 2006, the French architect Jean Nouvel received the commission to put up a new venue by the Mississippi River. He embraced the challenge of designing a 3-stage modern facility within a city known for its sawmills and flour mills. The design is industrial, looking like a silo, but with a metal and glass exterior of reflective blue, a color that changes with the light. A cantilever bridge juts out into the Mississippi River, with no charge to the casual traveler for that experience.

Walker Art in Minneapolis, 1971

Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo by Raymond Boyd / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images (cropped)

The New York Times called Walker Art "one of the most appealing environments for contemporary art in the United States.one of the most appealing environments for contemporary art in the United States" - better, perhaps, than even New York City's Guggenheim designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Architect Edward Larrabee Barnes (1915-2004) designed the interior in what the Center calls a "unique spiral configuration,"  reminiscent of the Wright's Guggenheim. "Barnes’ design is deceptively simple and subtly complex," writes Andrew Blauvelt, Design Director and Curator of the art museum.

Barnes' Walker Art opened in May 1971. In 2005, the Pritzker-winning design team of Herzog & de Meuron expanded Barnes' vision inside and out. Some may want to visit the Walker Art Center for its contemporary art collection. Others for the art of museum architecture.

Sources: Edward Larrabee Barnes, Modern Architect, Dies at 89 by Douglas Martin, The New York Times, September 23, 2004; Edward Larrabee Barnes by Andrew Blauvelt, April 1, 2005 [accessed January 20, 2017]

St. John's Abbey in Collegeville

Black and white elevation photo of St. John's University Abbey designed by Marcel Breuer
Marcel Breuer's St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, South Side Elevation. Photo 092214pu courtesy Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, HABS, Reproduction number HABS MINN,73-COL,1--3 (cropped)

When Marcel Breuer taught at Harvard University, two of his students would go on to win Pritzker Prizes. One of those students, I.M. Pei, believes that if Breuer's Saint John's Abbey were built in New York City, it would be an icon of architecture. Instead, the massive concrete banner that reflects the winter sun into the abbey is located in Collegeville, Minnesota.

Lucky for Collegeville to have Marcel Breuer's architectural masterpiece. But, who is Marcel Breuer?

Vikings Stadium, 2016

US Bank Stadium (2016) in Minneapolis, Home of the Minnesota Vikings
US Bank Stadium (2016) in Minneapolis, Home of the Minnesota Vikings. Photo by Joe Robbins / Getty Images Sport / Getty Images

The US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis is built with state-of-the-art ETFE. It may be without a retractable roof, but the Minnesota Vikings and their fans will have all the sunshine they need under this super plastic construction material. This stadium is filled with light and lightweight. It is the future of sports stadia.

Weisman Art Museum, 1993

Frank Gehry's Frederick A. Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis
Frank Gehry's Frederick A. Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Photo by Raymond Boyd / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

In a long list of Pritzker Laureate Frank Gehry's curvy, wavy, deconstructivist designs, the Weisman Art in Minneapolis was one of the very first of his experiments. The stainless steel curtain wall made people question whether Gehry was an architect or a sculptor. Perhaps he is both. Minnesota is lucky to be part of Gehry's architectural history.

Christ Church Lutheran, 1948-1949

church interior designed by Eliel Saarinen and Eero Saarinen
Christ Church Lutheran, 1948, in Minneapolis. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge / Archive Photos / Getty Images (cropped)

Before Big Blue for IBM, Eero Saarinen worked with his architect father, Eliel Saarinen. The Saarinens had moved to Michigan from Finland when Eero was a teenager and after Eliel took on being the first president of the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Christ Church Lutheran in Minneapolis is Eliel's design with an addition (an education wing) designed by the son, Eero. The main church in its understated modernism has long been considered Eliel's architectural masterpiece. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2009. 

Source: National Historic Landmark Nomination (PDF), Prepared by Rolf T. Anderson, February 9, 2008 [accessed January 21, 2017]