Metropolitan Building Anniversary


You’ve likely heard tales of the Metropolitan Building in Minneapolis, one of the Midwest’s architectural gems. We’re now approaching the 50th anniversary of when demolition began on that landmark building. On December 18, 1961, wrecking crews came in and began tearing down the grand, twelve-story building made of sandstone and granite, and its unparalleled light court with an incredible marble staircase, ornamental iron railings and open cage elevators. Architectural historian Larry Millett called the demolition “the most inexcusable act of civic vandalism in the history of Minneapolis.”

Metropolitan Building

It seems that every movement has at least one watershed moment, where everything changes, where everything that comes after is seen in a different light. The Civil Rights movement was forever changed by the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-56 and the integration of Little Rock High School in 1957. The environmental movement was kicked into gear by the publication of Silent Spring in 1962. Not to seem too dramatic, but the destruction of the Metropolitan Building was our watershed moment for historic preservation in Minnesota. It was the last straw that laid out in crushing reality what we stood to lose. The urban renewal movement in Minneapolis, while well intentioned, had destroyed 40% of the historic business district surrounding the Metropolitan Building. Despite the efforts made to stave off demolition (including a public awareness campaign and a lawsuit) and the Metropolitan’s 95% occupancy rate, the Minneapolis Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) was determined to see the structure come down.

Interior of the Metropolitan Building, Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

Interior of the Met Building, Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

The video below, filmed in 1961 by a group of U of M grad students,  gives you a little bit better picture of the Metropolitan Building:

The building engineer may have said it best when he said “I’m not gonna watch ‘em rip it down…I don’t think I could. But I’ll tell you one thing—the future generations are gonna read about this building and they’ll see some of the buildings they’re putting up here and they’ll damn us, they will, for tearing down the Met” (Minneapolis Tribune, December 17, 1961).

Demolition in Progress, Photo Courtesy of Hennepin County Library

Demolition in Progress, Photo Courtesy of Hennepin County Library

Reading those words rang a little bit too true. The recent effort to save Peavey Plaza was met with reasons eerily similar to the justification for demolishing the Met: “it’s a blight,” “it isn’t up to code,” and “it’s outdated.” Will we remember Peavey Plaza in the same way? While in hindsight there were issues with the Metropolitan Building that would need addressing (cage elevators, open atrium, 28” high railing), you would be hard-pressed to find many people who believe that complete demolition was the way to go. When we look at Peavey Plaza, it’s easy to see some of the problems, but a different approach would have made it possible to preserve the unique elements of Peavey while creating a park for the 21st century.

Hopefully, the fiftieth anniversary of the Met’s demolition will be a reminder that we need to be diligent in standing up for the historic places we care about, thinking past their current conditions, and viewing them instead for what they can become when they are rightfully cared for and preserved.

Will O’Keefe

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