Modern home interior
Photos by Denes Saari and Maria Forrai Saari, Courtesy of University of Minnesota Press
Modernism in Minnesota is in the air this fall. Two local museums—each in their own way—are putting a lens on life and lifestyles during the ’50s and ’60s via the Walker’s Hippie Modernism and the Minnesota History Center’s Suburbia exhibits. At the same time, two locally written and published coffee table books—also distinct in their own ways—are examining midcentury modern architecture with a Twin Cities focus.
This summer, Jane King Hession and Tim Quigley released their book about modernist architect John H. Howe and his influence, first as Frank Lloyd Wright’s chief draftsman, on homes and buildings in Minnesota and beyond. The second book, released this month, is a richly researched, photographed, and illustrated book that examines the beginning of suburbia with a heavy focus on the Twin Cities metro. Written by Larry Millett, Minnesota Modern: Architecture and Life at Midcentury reveals the transformations that manifested in this area’s homes and public buildings, beginning in the late 1930s.
“The book was in the making for a long time,” Millett says. “I’ve been interested in the ’50s—it’s the era in which I grew up—and the transformations that occurred since World War II.”
The book opens with an aerial photograph of the state’s first cloverleaf interchange at the intersection of what is now highways 394 and 100. The year was 1937, a time when most of the metro population resided in either Minneapolis or St. Paul. Once the war ended, “Midcentury Modernism penetrated like oil into the social, political, and cultural machinery of the times,” Millett writes. Builders couldn’t build homes fast enough. Many of the early homes of the day were small—just 1,000 square feet or less. “It all happened so quickly but there was so little planning,” Millett says. “The sprawl just exploded. Everybody wanted houses. So the idea was to build as many as you can, as quickly as you can.”
The book is organized by the decades that spanned from the late ’30s to the ’70s, featuring exteriors and interiors of 12 midcentury homes, with notable portions of the book devoted to public buildings, churches, and lifestyle and landscape changes happening during those times. “This was really the only time in American history in which modernism was embraced; it really hasn’t happened since,” says Millett, a former longtime architecture critic for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and author of multiple architecture books, including Minnesota’s Own, which was published last year. Millett says the homes, churches, and public buildings that he included in the book reflect a representative sampling of midcentury architecture in the state, with homes ranging in size from 1,200 to 4,000 square feet. “I tried to pick a nice range of houses, in terms of the year and where they fit in with midcentury style. I was looking to give people a sense of what was out there and to represent some of the major local architects,” Millett says.
Some of those architect-driven homes include residences designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (in Austin, Minnesota), Ralph Rapson, and European masters like Marcel Breuer.
Although there are no formal preservation districts anywhere in the state dedicated to midcentury modern architecture, there are many pockets of homes that are still well preserved. Millett says the largest collection of midcentury modern homes in the Twin Cities is University Grove in Falcon Heights. Built by the University of Minnesota for its staff members, it was a planned community on land the university owned and still owns today. In addition to this neighborhood, Millett points to Tyrol Hills in Golden Valley and Lake Forest in St. Louis Park as other examples of places around the metro with heavy concentrations of midcentury homes.
Millett says he’s impressed by the significant midcentury churches in the area, too. Eliel Saarinen’s Christ Lutheran Church, built in 1949 in Minneapolis, a favorite of Millett’s, was built because the traditional Gothic church popular at the time would have cost much more. “The thing that came as a surprise to me was the quality of the church. Churches of the period were wonderful. It was a reflection about the new ideas and thinking people had,” he says.