The architectural legacy of Hennepin Avenue

Hennepin_Avenue_Bridge_5492BY DEBRA KEEFER RAMAGE

Hennepin Avenue has been a vein of history since before it existed as a named road. Like many other main streets of North America, it follows the course of a walking trail of the Native Americans, in this case a route between what the Europeans called St. Anthony Falls and what they called Lake Calhoun. Currently, Hennepin Avenue goes from the Father Louis Hennepin Bridge to the gates of Lakewood Cemetery. On the other side of the river, it is East Hennepin until it crosses the county line and becomes Larpenteur Avenue. Speaking of history, although it’s not the same physical bridge, the Hennepin bridge was the very first to cross the Mississippi River when it was completed in 1855. Prior to that time, it was necessary to ford or take a boat.
Besides Father Hennepin himself, one person whose history and vision was very key to the developments along Hennepin Avenue was Thomas Barlow (T.B.) Walker, along with his wife, the very impressive Harriet G. Walker. Walker being a fairly common English name, you might not know that the Walker Library in Uptown, the old Walker Library, the Walker Art Center, the Walker Gallery at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church, Walker Community United Methodist Church, and Walker, Minn., are all named after the same person. They are all T.B. Walker namesakes and results of his philanthropy or influence. Harriet was a major force behind Northwestern Hospital (president from 1862 until her death in 1917), which merged with Abbot Hospital in 1970 and is now part of Allina Health Care. She was also a major philanthropist to the Methodist Church and a leader in the temperance movement. Walker Methodist Health Care is named after her.
As we move in a southwesterly direction from Hennepin Bridge, highlighting some Historical Register properties and others, we will touch upon the Walkers several times. But, the first building we come to is the Lumber Exchange, which has no association that I know of with T.B. Walker, despite his being a lumber baron. Called “ugly” by critic James Lileks, it is a very typical example of the Richardsonian Romanesque style. It was built in 1885, the first “skyscraper” in Minneapolis, and is the oldest building of 12-plus floors outside of New York. If it reminds you somehow of City Hall, another Romanesque structure, it should, because it was designed by the same architectural partnership, Long and Kees.
A few blocks on, we come to the Hennepin Avenue Theatre District. 803 Hennepin Ave. was the site of the Walkers’ first mansion, built in 1874. This site is now occupied by 805 Hennepin Ave., the historic State Theatre. In some ways, the Walkers’ home was the forerunner of the Walker Art Center. The mansion included seven other buildings, extensions and galleries, including T.B.’s private art collection, which was open to the public six days a week. In 1915, Walker purchased the Lowry Mansion, demolished in 1932, near the current site of the Walker Art Center. The family moved there in 1917, the same year Harriet died while they were on a trip to New York. In 1920, the 803 Hennepin mansion was demolished to make way for a theater complex.
The State Theatre, built in the Italian Renaissance style and one of the most technically advanced of its day, opened in 1921. The distinctive neon signage was installed in 1940. Until 1975, when the last film, “Tommy,” was shown, the State was both a cinema and a performance stage. From 1978 to 1989, it was the home of the Jesus People Church. The Minneapolis Community Development Agency bought the theater in 1989, reopening it in 1991. Nowadays the State is owned by the Hennepin Theatre Trust.
The Hennepin Theatre Trust, established in 2000, also owns the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Ave., which also opened in 1921 as the Hennepin Theatre. The third in its triumvirate is the Pantages Theatre, 710 Hennepin Ave., which doesn’t look like much from the outside, but has a stunning and lovingly restored interior. It is actually the oldest of the three, built in 1916 by impresario Alexander Pantages, who owned an astonishing 500 theaters. However, it has been renovated so many times that nothing of the original 12-story Beaux Arts-style building remains.
Rounding out the Hennepin Avenue Theatre District is Cowles Center for the Performing Arts, There are two historic properties embedded in this organization: the Sam Shubert Theatre at 516 Hennepin Ave., and the Minneapolis Masonic Temple, at 528 Hennepin Ave. The Wikipedia page for the Cowles Center tells us that the Shubert Theatrical Company, run by brothers Levi, Samuel and Jacob, was the largest theater organization in America by 1920.
“When Samuel Shubert died in a train wreck in 1905, his brothers memorialized him by naming a few of their new theaters after him. Two of these new theaters opened on the same day in 1910: St. Paul’s Shubert Theatre, which became the Fitzgerald Theatre in 1994, and The Samuel S. Shubert Theater in Minneapolis … ”
Despite its long and dramatic history, the Shubert, now officially the Goodale Theater, has survived with its white Classical Revival Facade pretty much intact. The Masonic Temple, now called the Hennepin Center for the Arts, is another Long and Kees design in Robertsonian Romanesque.
The next gorgeous building we encounter on our tour is at 1600 Hennepin Ave.—the Basilica of St. Mary. In an interesting parallel to the story of the two Shubert theaters, the Basilica was built in conjunction with the Cathedral of Saint Paul to the east, and by the same architect, Emmanuel Louis Masqueray. The cornerstone for the Basilica (originally called the Church of the Immaculate Conception) was laid in 1908, and it was completed in 1913. Slightly south and across the road is another beautiful church, though it’s not on the National Register—Hennepin Avenue United Methodist (although its address is on Oak Grove, not Hennepin). We are going to make a stop here because it was T.B. and Harriet Walker’s church, and it still contains a lot of his collection of religious art, in a gallery named after him.
Just north of Lake Street is a building that is on the National Register and bears Walker’s name—the “old” Walker Library building, at 2901 Hennepin. Across the street is the “new-new” Walker Library, which just opened in 2014, replacing an underground structure built in 1989 and razed in 2013. The original Walker Library was built in 1911, when Walker was the first president of the Minneapolis Library System (remaining so for life) and the famous Gratia Countryman was the head librarian. The architect was local man Jerome Paul Jackson, who chose a Classical Revival style with Beaux Arts influences. In its long and checkered career, the building has housed several eateries and bars, a yoga studio, and a used clothing store  since closing as a library in 1980. In 2015 it was bought by developer Ned Abdul and there are plans to open a restaurant there soon.
There is only one more stop on our tour, which oddly enough was also the last stop for T.B. and Harriet. Lakewood Cemetery, the western terminus of Hennepin Avenue, is also the eternal resting place of the powerful and influential Walker couple.  The Lakewood Cemetery Chapel, at 3600 Hennepin, was built in 1908 in the Byzantine Revival style. (In fact, it’s modeled on the glorious Hagia Sophia in Turkey.) And the cemetery itself is considered one of the most beautiful in the world. So it’s a fitting place to end this tour of Hennepin Avenue.

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