Twin Cities

Holiday nostalgia: Dayton's project hearkens back to window shopping

A display of stuff animals on a window at a store.
The Dayton's Project in Minneapolis has unveiled its new window displays at the renovated department store building.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

The newly renovated Dayton’s building in downtown Minneapolis reopened to the public Thursday. While the department store is long gone, the project’s developers revived an old Dayton’s tradition, the holiday display windows.

More than a century of downtown shopping came to a halt in 2017 when Dayton’s successor Macy’s moved out of the historic building. Construction crews soon began renovating all 1.2 million square feet of the 12-story complex.

A few months ago, developers of what’s known as the Dayton’s Project called retail design consultant Kent Hensley to revive the store’s legendary window displays.

Hensley worked in Dayton’s advertising and marketing department in the 1980s and early 1990s. He contacted other artists to design nine windows.

“It’s been fun to bring a crew that knows how to do this work and clients that really want to make something happen that’s exciting.”

The centerpiece — a corner window at Eighth Street and Nicollet Mall — features 23 years’ worth of Dayton’s Santa Bears, an annual tradition that started when Hensley worked for the retailer. They’re posed across a mountain sculpted from Styrofoam.

“There is an awful lot of iridescent snow in there. Forty pounds of snow have been fluffed all over in this thing,” Hensley said.

Above it all hangs a 1940s Waterford crystal chandelier that was originally installed in Dayton’s Sky Room restaurant.

Other street-level windows feature paper mâché characters from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The figurines of Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit and others — animated with small motors — first appeared at Dayton’s in 1967. Hobbyists Bob and Roxanne Ewald brought them back to life.

Thursday’s reopening was laden with holiday nostalgia for many people who came downtown to see the building and the windows. Eric Lichtenberg, 38, of St. Michael remembers going inside to walk through larger displays.

“It was a tradition for us for a while growing up to come see the eighth floor, and that’s what I remember about Dayton’s,” Lichtenberg said.

One thing that’s notably absent is big crowds. All but three floors of the building will be office space. Most of it is empty for the time being except for the Ernst & Young accounting firm, which moved in recently.

In an effort to bring back the holiday bustle, planners opened a holiday market with several dozen local vendors. They include the Native Roots Trading Post, which sells beadwork, paintings, and other items made by Indigenous artists.

It’s in the former J.B. Hudson Jewelers space that still has its original early 20th century flooring and cabinetry. Robert Pilot created the popup store as an offshoot of his Native Roots radio program.

“You’ll get true Native artists and designs as opposed to maybe going to a big box store where they appropriate our designs and steal our designs. We’re really trying to promote local and national artists,” Pilot said.

Between the pandemic and last year's civil unrest, the Dayton’s Project has had a tough time attracting tenants. A much-touted food hall remains on hold until more workers return to their offices. But developers hope that the business district will bounce back and the Twin Cities’ historic center of retail will find a new purpose in an evolving downtown.

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