Mid-century modern architecture in Minnesota

June Halvorson Alworth House in Duluth, Minn.
June Halverson Alworth House, Duluth, Minn. The house seems to leap off its hillside toward the lake.
Courtesy of Denes Saari and Maria Forrai Saari.

Mid-century modernism is making a comeback, and Larry Millett's new book "Minnesota Modern," captures the history of this architecture around the state.

In the 1940s, '50s and '60s, Minnesota experienced an unprecedented boom — in both buildings and babies. Post-World War II, thousands of commercial buildings and private houses were built — some of which we love, some of which we hate and some of which we now miss because they have been razed.

Millett joined MPR News' Tom Weber to talk about the roots of the mid-century modern movement and where you can see it in Minnesota.

'Minnesota Modern' by Larry Millett
'Minnesota Modern' by Larry Millett
Courtesy of University of Minnesota Press

Many of the area's mid-century modern houses were built as part of the suburbanization of the Twin Cities. The era saw a dramatic shift away from city-living. In 1945, approximately 75 percent of those who lived in the Twin Cities-area lived within the city limits of Minneapolis or St. Paul. But "all that changed with enormous speed in the two decades after the war," Millet said.

Entire suburban communities sprang up on what had been farmland; neighborhoods were built en masse. And many of the houses looked the same.

"The mid-century era is the only time really in American history when architectural modernism has been close to a universally-accepted style," Millet said. There was more variation when it came to higher-end homes, but many starter homes or new subdivisions could look formulaic.

"That early mid-century era, that was the age of the 1,000-square foot house," Millet said. "A lot of families grew up in houses of 1,000-square feet and got by."

Houses aren't the only examples left of mid-century modern design around Minnesota. Many public buildings and commercial properties remain, though some, like the original Guthrie Theater, have been demolished.

Aerial view of Metropolitan Stadium, 1956
Aerial view of Metropolitan Stadium, Bloomington, Minn., 1956. When it opened, the stadium was like a giant steel mirage rising from the middle of parking lots and farm fields.
Courtesy of University of Minnesota

The original Metropolitan Stadium has also been torn down, but one of the pictures in Millet's book features the stadium in all its brand-new glory — in the middle of corn fields.

"You could literally sit up in the upper deck and there's just waving fields of corn all around you," Millet recalled from his college days, when he ushered at the stadium. "It's pretty amazing when you look at how undeveloped that area was. They put that stadium really out in the middle of nowhere, and then, of course, events changed and the cities grew toward it."

For those that don't know, those corn fields are now the Mall of America.

When asked what it was that people still find appealing about the 70-year-old designs, Millet cited the abundance of glass, the openness and "the sense of doing things in a new way. I think we still love that."

More examples of mid-century modernism in Minnesota are included in the gallery below. To hear the full interview with Larry Millet, use the audio player above.

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