The Real Value of Historic Buildings is What Happens Inside

What I learned from the Hennepin Theatre Trust

Before the LaSalle Plaza project, which we insisted would not go forward without including the State Theatre, historic preservation wasn’t much of a priority for the City of Minneapolis. In fact, in the early 1960s, 200 buildings in the Gateway District of downtown Minneapolis were leveled and replaced with surface parking lots. At one time, there were roughly forty historic theatres on and around Hennepin Avenue. 

Richard Moe, the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation wrote, “Minneapolis lost yet another piece of its architectural heritage when the Gateway District was demolished in the name of progress. If the area had been revitalized instead of destroyed, it would today almost certainly be the most vibrant part of the city’s downtown.”  Such an avoidable outcome! 

Many of the people I meet want to know what can be done to make downtown better. Before the Gateway District met the wrecking ball, it was jam-packed with businesses that served the people who lived there. It’s true that many of these businesses were seedy bars, liquor stores, cheap lunch counters and pawn shops that catered to “skid row” clientele. But even the seediest bar is more interesting than a surface parking lot! More housing in the downtown core and businesses that serve those residents would inject some much-needed life into downtown.

But I digress…

When we lost the Gateway District, we lost hundreds of beautiful historic buildings and an opportunity to build an even more vibrant downtown community. We lost all but four of those forty theatres that once lit up Hennepin Avenue; if we had lost those four too, we wouldn’t have 500,000 visitors each year who spend money on theatre tickets and pre-show dinners as they do today.

When I was with the Minneapolis Community Development Agency and later Hennepin Theatre Trust, the theatres were in rough shape. The State was a church when the MCDA assumed control of it. Its original beauty – which you can experience now thanks to a thorough restoration – was hidden behind drab colors and years of neglect. Though the Orpheum was in working order it had lost all of its decorative painting, its most beautiful features hidden and rediscovered upon renovation. On my very first day with the Trust, the owner of the Mann Theatre applied for an application to demolish it. The Mann was in the worst shape of all. The seats were in a pile in the middle of the floor. There were holes in the roof. It was close to the point of no return.

When a building is in that kind of disrepair, it’s easy for us to shift to envisioning what else that space can be. Instead, I looked at the Mann Theatre and envisioned what it could be again. I knew it could be a part of something unique to Minneapolis: a historic theatre district. Today, the Mann goes by its original name – Pantages – and is fully restored. The Pantages has hosted a wide range of artists, from Vince Gill to Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Minneapolitans take pride in the fact that we are second only to New York City in theatre seats per capita. 5,774 of those seats are owned and operated by the Trust, which I founded over one decade ago.              

Buildings need advocates. When there’s no one carrying the torch for preservation, it’s easy to abandon buildings that seem to have outlived their usefulness.  We just erase them; let them go away. I couldn’t let our theatres go because I knew that their true value as part of the fabric of our community and as cultural centers dramatically outweighed the cost of restoring them.  Today, these theatres are a part of the glory of our downtown, just as they were nearly 100 years ago.   

Our city needs to be proactive in integrating historic structures into our new developments to ensure that we continue to build upon what is unique and irreplaceable for our current community.   Whether it’s a theatre, an old hotel or a corner grocery store, we need to consider the role that these structures and elements offered in the past before cavalierly determining their future.

If there’s a historic structure or element that you want, speak up for it; it needs you!

Tom Hoch