There's a chunk of limestone sitting on my desk. I fished it out of a dumpster in front of the old Star Tribune building in Minneapolis, where I used to work. As far as I can tell, it's a piece of the giant capital letters that until a couple of weeks ago spelled out the words STAR AND TRIBUNE on the building's facade.
Workers have been chiseling off hunks of the facade for purposes of historic preservation. The newspaper is moving. The old building is doomed, soon to come down to make way for a park leading to the new Vikings stadium. We're getting a new civic monument — but losing another at the same time.
The building was never pretty, but it was a monument of sorts: to the notion that journalism was a civic service, and that a daily newspaper's role was vital to the health of the community it served.
Giant stone medallions fixed to the front of the building heralded sectors of the economy that were important to Minnesota in the 1940s: Mining, farming, tourism, milling, logging. A newspaper wouldn't dare build such a headquarters today. "You mean you're in favor of mining? And you support using animals for food?" People would accuse the publisher of being in the pocket of Big Wheat.
And that's the point: In those days, newspaper publishers weren't shy about letting the world know whose side they were on. The medallions on the building's facade celebrated Minnesota, just as the giant globe in the building's lobby celebrated Minnesota's connection to the world. The celebration wasn't lost on the hundreds of employees who passed through the doors every day.
It sounds corny, but a building like that made a guy square his shoulders a little when he showed up for work in the morning. It reminded him that he was working for something more than a paycheck — a good thing, too, considering what he probably thought of the paycheck.
In Chicago, the Tribune Tower does the Star Tribune building one better — it's taller, it's grander, and the facade contains embedded bits of the ancient world. You can run your hand over a piece of the Parthenon or the Great Wall of China before going inside, and if that isn't enough to persuade you that important work is done here, the lobby will spell it out for you. On the walls and the floor are quotations about the role of the press, the power of speech, the virtue of building something that future generations will enjoy. It's a reminder to journalists that they are part of the world they cover, and that the world needs them to do the job right.
The Star Tribune is just moving a few blocks, to rented space in an office tower downtown. No doubt the new quarters will be modern, spacious and comfortable. But I hope that they're also inspirational, somehow — that they'll reflect the place of a free press in Minnesota's life, and Minnesota's place in the wider world. And I hope the people who pass by what used to be 425 Portland Ave. will remember the building that once stood there, and what it stood for.