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Minneapolis' IDS Tower


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#1 Jaden

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Posted 29 April 2004 - 01:01 PM

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IDS: The Rise & Fall of Our Skyscraper

Imagine: It’s springtime, there’s a sense of optimism in the air. Best Buy is about to open its new corporate headquarters in Richfield. Everyone’s talking about it. Some say it will usher the Twin Cities into a new era; others argue about whether or not that’s a good thing. Wanting to include the community in the historic event, Best Buy paints one of the thousands of steel construction beams white and leaves it on the sidewalk for several days. Ordinary citizens are invited to sign their names to it before it’s used for the “topping off” ceremony at the apex of the new building. The turnout is huge; when the mayor comes by, accompanied by reporters from every local news outlet, he can barely find space for his own autograph.

OK, so this isn’t what happened last year, when Best Buy unveiled its shiny, nondescript corporate headquarters, a vaguely cruise-ship-shaped building plying the suburban seas just off I-35 and I-494. But that’s precisely what occurred thirty years ago when the IDS Center was built in downtown Minneapolis.

That was a true community event. From the placement of the first beam to the final opening gala, the local papers monitored every detail-how many tons of steel were being used, how many panes of glass, how many light bulbs. They covered the seventeen helicopter trips required to haul the mechanical window-washing equipment to the top of the tower. And they related humorous anecdotes, such as the family of bats that had made a nest within the structure while it was under construction, only to come out of hibernation and fly into the Crystal Court, swooping above the heads of terrified Woolworth’s patrons. It was like celebrity gossip, with the building itself as the celebrity.

Today, of course, it’s hard to pick out the IDS as the tallest amid Minneapolis’ brace of skyscrapers. But back in the 1960s, the tallest building was Foshay Tower, and its exceptional stature was obvious to the eye. Foshay was the Minneapolis skyline, and had been since 1929.

“I still remember coming in on the train at the Milwaukee Road depot,” says Charlie Nelson, an architect with the Minnesota Historical Society. “And coming round the bend and this older man next to me growing very excited and pointing out the window and saying, ‘Look, it’s the Foshay Tower! That means we’re home!’”

The IDS was built to tower over Foshay. It was built to bring focus to downtown, to connect the skyway system at a central point, to push Minneapolis into the modern age. As its website proclaims, the IDS was “a building so impressive, they built a city around it.”

“It was a bold statement,” says Chuck Liddy, who was part of the Minneapolis Historic Preservation Commission from 1979 to 1984. “There’s been kind of a gentleman’s agreement not to build anything taller, because it was such an icon when it was built.” The Wells Fargo Center is a foot shorter than the IDS; 225 South Sixth (formerly US Bank Place or First Bank Place), a foot shorter still. The IDS remains the tallest building in the city, even if you can’t tell by looking.

If things had gone as initially planned, the headquarters of Investors Diversified Services, Inc. would be a simple twelve-story building sited on one corner of the block. It was not intended to top Foshay or to bring Minneapolis into a new era. However, Baker Properties, Inc. had determined there was a great need for more office space in downtown Minneapolis and, in close partnership with IDS, it set out to provide some. This was 1963. The new plan was to take up half of the block and include a twenty-five-story office tower, skyway links, an apartment complex, and parking ramp. Soon afterward the proposed tower grew to thirty-six stories, and again to fifty stories in 1967. Then a 1968 study prompted another round of considerations to expand still further.

The Fantus Company, commissioned by the Greater Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce to assess the potential of Minneapolis and Hennepin County as a location for corporate headquarters, had found the area “excellent” but the availability of space only “fair.” So Investors Diversified Services, Inc., realizing that its development could have an effect on downtown Minneapolis as a whole, devised yet another plan: a four-building complex covering the entire block and linked by skyways. Its anchor would be a central glass-roofed indoor plaza; its highlight, a fifty-seven-story, 775-foot tower-the tallest between Chicago and San Francisco, and one that would outstretch the Foshay Tower by an awe-inspiring 225 feet.

The design commission went to Philip Johnson, an architect of international stature who had collaborated with Mies van der Rohe on Manhattan’s iconic Seagram’s Building, and his partner John Burgee. Their innovative zig-zagging windows allowed for up to thirty-two corner offices on every floor; the building as a whole, once completed, was proclaimed “one of the finest skyscrapers built in any American city” by no less an authority than the New York Times. Fortune magazine said it made Minneapolis “a leader in architectural innovation.” The words of IDS CEO Stuart Silloway, who in 1969 had described the project as “a demonstration of towering confidence in the future of Minneapolis,” rang true.

Meanwhile, a similar phenomenon was occurring in New York with the World Trade Center, whose two main towers were erected between 1966 and 1972. Like the IDS, it began as a rather modest proposal and grew to gargantuan proportions. Its planners hoped the World Trade Center would revitalize lower Manhattan, create a new office district to rival Midtown, and bring renewed pride and confidence to the entire city. Critics in the Big Apple complained that the WTC was too big, that it didn’t fit in, that it would rob New York of its character and disrupt the legendary skyline, spiked by the Chrysler and Empire State buildings.

Minneapple critics posed the same arguments: the IDS Center was like a giant looming over downtown, threatening to squash it. Its architecture appeared alien, completely out of context with its surroundings. In a local cartoon, a Minneapolitan showed a tourist the new skyline, saying: “There’s Foshay Tower, and there’s the box it came in.”

There was also some resentment of the fact that designers Johnson and Burgee were New Yorkers. “Up until that time, all the great buildings here had been designed by Minnesotans,” explains the historical society’s Nelson.

But others were eager to welcome the postwar skyscraper to Minneapolis, eager to see a city that outsiders could associate with something other than cows. And for them, the IDS was a gem. “Modern architecture tends to get dumped on as being blah, not very humane-hard to love, if you will,” says Nelson. “But the IDS is vibrant. It changes with the light; it changes with the movement of clouds.”

1972 saw one grand opening after another at the IDS Center. On June 17, the Crystal Court had its debut with a fifty-dollar-a-ticket formal symphony ball. After a Minnesota Orchestra performance, a dance band from Palm Beach, Florida, took over. Andy Warhol was in attendance. Four months later, regular folks were welcomed to the Crystal Court, and in November, the short-lived movie theater on the lower level opened with The Darwin Adventure. Finally, the fiftieth-floor Skylook Observation Gallery went into business, open until midnight every day of the year.

The glamour and novelty dissipated with the recession of 1973 and 1974. Investors Diversified Services, Inc. was broke. The culminating grand opening for the entire complex was canceled. In 1975, IDS sought to decrease its tax burden by reducing the official valuation of its building from $92 million to $76.6 million. The lesser valuation was granted. The building had cost $125 million.

While the IDS was not a stunning financial success, its cultural success was immediate. The building won awards from the American Institute of Architects; it was talked about in more cosmopolitan cities like New York; it was immortalized as the location of the TV station on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The IDS Center, for all its financial troubles, quickly became an icon.

The Crystal Court was the crown jewel of the building-and, it could be said, even downtown as a whole. Practical in the Minnesota climate, beautiful in its construction, and ideal in its location, the indoor plaza was a perfect place to escape the hectic pace of downtown. Trees in planters provided a park-like feel, and seating cubes were strewn across the court. There was even an informal sidewalk café. The court also pulled the budding skyway system together and gave downtown a central focus, like the central square in a medieval European town. Locals loved it. Architects from all over called it the best people place in the country. Philip Johnson, the architect, talked about its importance on WCCO: “Every city has to have a place where it’s natural to be together,” he said. “I hope there will be lots of little Grecian fountains, and little kiosks with flowers for buttonholes... And guitars.”

The love affair was short-lived. The Crystal Court’s sparkle gradually dimmed, and in 1979 Bernard Jacob, then editor of Architecture Minnesota, wrote an editorial criticizing changes that had taken place since the court’s debut. The indoor greenery had become sparse, and the seating had been dispatched to the margins to make way for an upscale restaurant on a raised, carpeted platform, which had replaced the self-service café. With the main space now open only to those with the time and money for full-service dining, the Crystal Court was no longer a truly public space.


But the real trouble began with the first of a series of ownership transfers. In the early eighties, Investment Diversified Services sold its namesake building to Oxford Development, a company that was not only controlled by Canadians who would likely value their bottom line over the social and culture welfare of downtown Minneapolis-but also the very same company that had constructed City Center, widely considered downtown’s ugliest building. The public was wary from the outset.

Oxford did little to dispel their fears. In 1983, the company decided the observation gallery space was too valuable and gave its managers two choices: pay double the rent, or vacate the premises. The managers opted to bail. The gallery had been drawing around a thousand guests per Saturday, but on December 31, nearly seven thousand people showed up for one last visit.

Next, Oxford announced its plans to renovate the Crystal Court. The space was bringing people in, but not the kind who were inclined to spend wads of cash at the nearby shops. Oxford planned to move one of the escalators to the south side of the court and to cut a hole in the floor to bring light to the lower level, which to this day has yet to prove itself a viable commercial space (it currently functions as an employee cafeteria). Finally, the company was going to allow the Center’s retailers to modify the facade of their shops.

The Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Committee would have none of it. They quickly voted to designate the Crystal Court a historically significant structure, which would mean that any changes would require city approval. The Oxford managers were stridently opposed. The preservation committee was attempting to impose government control over private property, they complained; if the designation was made, the building’s value would plummet.

“People seem to think the city owns the IDS, like it owns a park,” City Council member Barbara Carlson told R.T. Rybak (then a cub reporter with the Minneapolis Star and Tribune) in defending Oxford. “As much as I would like that, it isn’t the case.” In 1984, the Minneapolis City Council held the final decision on whether to designate the Crystal Court as a significant structure. Both Oxford and the Heritage Preservation Committee lobbied hard, and Rybak reported that a shouting match broke out in the council chambers after a March public hearing. In the end, however, the parties managed a compromise. Oxford scaled back on its planned renovations, and the City Council agreed to withhold its “historically significant” designation.

Less than a decade later, the Chicago-based Heitman Advisory Corporation, the new owners of the IDS Center, bought out the remainder of Woolworth’s sixty-year-lease. The beloved five-and-dime, which had been on the block since before the IDS Center was built, was replaced by the Gap, Gap Kids, and the Gap-owned Banana Republic. Windows on Minnesota, the restaurant on the fiftieth floor, was closed to the public. But by far the most upsetting change was the bleak state of the Crystal Court, which Heitman’s management swept clean, removing all the seating and creating a granite wasteland. People still passed through, but there was no reason to stay. Editorial writers once again began making snide comments about the court. Heitman promised changes, but for years, apart from the occasional art exhibit, the court stood empty.

“The management would always say ‘well, we’re working on it but we want to do it right,’ and people didn’t believe them,” says Linda Mack, who covers architecture for the Star Tribune.

Yet to everyone’s surprise, Heitman stayed true to its promise. At long last, in 1998, seating returned to the Crystal Court. Black olive trees were shipped in from Florida. The designers examined Philip Johnson’s original plans and discovered a fountain that had never been built in 1972 because of the recession. Upon further investigation, they discovered the needed structural supports for the fountain were already in place beneath the floor. There were even water pipes in the ceiling, and extra light fixtures trained on the spot where the fountain was to stand.
The original 1972 concept was for a fountain in brass, one that was quickly deemed too small (at fifty-some feet)—and too phallic. But the 105-foot rainfall that was eventually installed met more or less unanimous approval. Minneapolis had reclaimed its public city center.

Its panoramic view of the city, however, may be lost for good. Technically, one can see thirty-five miles from the top floor of the IDS Center-a distance that is significantly decreased by cloud cover and pollution, but is still a lot better than what most of us will see today. The observation gallery has never been reopned since its 1984 closure.

For awhile, there was still a restaurant people could go to, and the rumor was they wouldn’t kick you out if you just wanted to enjoy the view and not buy anything. Now that restaurant, still called Windows on Minnesota, is a private rental space run by the Marquette Hotel, and visitors can’t get there without an access key. Renting the ballroom for a wedding or bar mitzvah will run you $6,000. According to Nigel Pustam, a manager for the Marquette, opening the restaurant to the public would be “a bad business plan.” There are dozens of restaurants on Nicollet Mall, he explains; it’s the view that gives Windows on Minnesota the “uniqueness” which enables them to make thousands of dollars off the space. Guests at the $300-a-night hotel can ask for an escorted tour, but the average tourist off the street is not allowed. No exceptions.

“I get a lot of people from other countries and out of town who want to go to the top of the building,” says Carrie Stowers, the “customer service ambassador” for the IDS Center. “It’s really sad to see the looks on their faces,” she adds with a tone of tragic perkiness.

Gone, too, is the stream of gossip and anecdotes coming from people like Stowers. RREEF, the building’s current management, has a website with a few simple facts, which is where they direct nosy reporters. Anything beyond that is a “security concern.” Jim Durda, IDS general manager, wouldn’t even say how large the cleaning staff was. “There’s an adequate team to clean the building,” he assured us. And what equipment do they use? “The methods are proven, and they work, and they’re efficient.” Pressed for more details, he politely apologized. “Because of the heightened security, there’s a lot of questions that we just don’t answer.”

But it’s not just the heightened security. This is the modern age. The corporate age. The impersonal, privatized, “what’s-it-to-you?” age. The IDS was constructed in a small city where the pride of a community swelled as each floor was added, but that was a different time. Any maybe that is the point: That’s what the IDS Center used to represent. It was Minneapolis’ symbolic entry into the world. It was the Minneapple’s rite of passage from a small town to a cosmopolitan city. If the building that set off that change has become impersonal, inaccessible, and all too corporate, maybe that’s only appropriate.


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#2 monsoon

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Posted 29 April 2004 - 07:36 PM



#3 Allan

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Posted 29 April 2004 - 09:02 PM

The story behind the building is quite interesting. I do have to agree with Marc though - the tower is a bit on the bland side.

#4 G W North

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Posted 01 May 2004 - 01:40 AM

I was in Minneapolis about 3 years ago, and there's nothing special about this building's "Crystal Court". It's dark with a few ordinary trees and a handful of seats. It has MAYBE a couple dozen shops/restaurants. It's not the kind of place you'd spend more than 10 minutes really.

#5 mpls

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Posted 01 May 2004 - 02:29 PM

i think its bright an airey, perfect for the winter day. it is special.

#6 Jaden

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Posted 01 May 2004 - 05:27 PM

I was in Minneapolis about 3 years ago, and there's nothing special about this building's "Crystal Court". It's dark with a few ordinary trees and a handful of seats. It has MAYBE a couple dozen shops/restaurants. It's not the kind of place you'd spend more than 10 minutes really.

It's changed a lot in three years too.

#7 monsoon

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Posted 02 May 2004 - 06:08 AM



#8 wolfdawg54

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Posted 02 June 2004 - 03:35 PM

You are right Allan! I does look like the NCNB tower.

#9 Dale

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Posted 03 June 2004 - 02:33 PM

There was a time when I thought of Charlotte as a baby Minneapolis, with its skyway system and the skyline punctuated by a single, tall, blue-glass tower.