Blond Ambition

Steve Marsh talks to developer Peter Remes about his art-driven vision for Minneapolis.

Peter Remes
Photo by Stephanie Colgan

In every story ever written about Peter Remes, the developer’s side-swept silver-blond hairdo is compared to Andy Warhol’s wig. But even though Remes has an affinity for conceptual art, he name-checks another floppy-haired ’70s icon when he talks about his vision for Minneapolis: basketball star Pistol Pete Maravich. “Pete was a magician and he changed the game of basketball. But [change] is never a quick thing,” Remes says. “Ideas take years to root and expand.”

Remes hopes his ideas—about finding the personalities in old buildings and transforming them into better versions of themselves—will become as popular as the behind-the-back pass. In the meantime, you can see his ideas in the glowing icon of Fargo’s Chief Marge Gunderson over the courtyard of his Icehouse and Vertical Endeavors complex on Eat Street and at his event center Aria, in the old Jeune Lune building, where guests are greeted by a gigantic photograph of ’80s-era Prince.

How did a pharmacist’s son from Highland Park wind up with Basquiat paintings and David Byrne playing his building?
I think it’s my curiosity. I’m interested in new ideas and arts and culture and music.

Was there pressure on you to continue the family business?
There was some subtle pressure. I grew up working in the drugstore.

How did you get into real estate?
I wanted to be a basketball star. Saturdays, Dad was on the golf course, but Friday he was at my games. He was a big athlete, a pretty domineering guy. After college, I figured I’ll start a business and it will impress him.

What was your plan?
I started my first billboard company when I was 23.

How did you come up with that idea?
I was looking around the Twin Cities, and I knew there was one billboard company in the marketplace, Naegele Outdoor Advertising. I dated Jennifer Naegele in college.

The Rollerblade Naegeles?
Yeah. Bob Jr. made crazy buy-an-island money, and he bought the Wild. But his dad owned the biggest privately held sign company in the country; he was the biggest badass. I started building these signs in St. Paul, and I thought I would have my own little thing there, but I quickly woke up to the fact that Naegele was not OK with me doing that.

How did they make that clear?
They would offer my clients sign space for $5 and other non-competitive practices. I remember Naegele’s marketing manager invited me to lunch. I’m 24 and I show up in their offices in a suit and tie. And Bob’s No. 2 guy, this Dick Condon, who everybody was terrified of, stood over me and says, “You look like a ghost.” And he spends the next 15 minutes just insulting me.

You sued.
I got this attorney in St. Paul. This huge 300-pound Welsh anti-trust attorney by the name of John Cochrane. We filed litigation against Naegele, and I got my informal law degree.

What happened next?
I came out of the lawsuit really successfully, and I could concentrate on my business. I spent the next six, seven years expanding throughout the Midwest.

You put signs all over town to get your dad’s attention.
I wouldn’t go that far. But . . . .

How did you get involved in the art world?
I remember being in New York and going to this nightclub, Area. Warhol, Basquiat used to party there. These two brothers owned it, and they had all this performative art stuff. Living theater. I thought, “Wow, it would be amazing to do something like that in Minneapolis.” So I started this idea called Club Special with the Wicka brothers. We would rent buildings for the evening, and we had performance art in there. I had this secretary, Margo, and I had a typewriter and chair and a little table, and I said, “I want you to type away frantically. Don’t look up, don’t talk to anybody, just keep typing.”

You made your secretary do automatic writing at a party?
She was totally into it. And everybody was like, “What is going on?” And this friend of mine, we had six bags of leaves in trash bags, and I said, “You’re going to rake leaves. And when they’re filled empty ’em out and fill ’em again.” We were just having fun.

When did you become a real estate developer?
The outdoor advertising business is actually under the real estate umbrella. From 2004, I started watching the market cycle down, and I thought, “It’s probably not a bad time to look to acquire some commercial property.” The first one I acquired was the Vertical Endeavors block, and it was a disaster. There was a condemned building in there with a collapsed roof.

Before you bought it, Thom Pham was getting hit over the head with bricks.
Yeah, Thom and the owner Huey Fong fought like wild dogs. Suing each other. It was awful.

It seems that you buy buildings like you buy art.
I like the patina, I like the atmosphere. When you walk into a building, you’re either like amazed or it doesn’t even register. I don’t want to do projects in uninspiring places.

I think about the 35W bridge.
We built an ironing board. That was a lost opportunity.

You’re different from most developers.
I’m involved on a deep level—from what light fixtures are in the hallway to what the stair treads are going to be to what the elevator is going to look like.

Why don’t others do that?
They don’t have an eye, and they don’t care. It’s driven by economics.