State Fair

Then and now at the State Fair: Architecture of the miniature city

A side-by-side comparison of 2 photos depicting a fair building
A photo collage depicts the Minnesota State Fair’s Education Building. The photo on the left was taken around 1970, and the right photo was taken on Aug. 24 using a Rolleiflex medium format film camera on Kodak Gold 200.
Courtesy of the Minnesota State Fair Archives, Ben Hovland | MPR News

Think of the Minnesota State Fair as a miniature city. Like a city, the fairgrounds have been built up over more than 150 years, says Dingliang Yang, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Minnesota.

As a result, the structures of the State Fair manifest in a wide range of architectural styles and eras.

“You can see buildings from the 1920s, buildings from the 1970s, or even buildings from the 19th century,” Yang says. “So, it's a collection of different styles reflecting different ideas.”

The current Grandstand built in 1910, for example, is a mix of industrial and classical styles.

While the iconic Snelling Gate, built in 1971, is a postmodern Space Age style sometimes called Googie.

Yang is an expert in urban design and mega-projects like fairs and World Expos. He’s on the commission board for the Minnesota-USA bid for the 2029 Green Expo, which is sort of an eco World’s Fair. The winning bid will be announced next year.

For his research, he’s studied the fairgrounds as a potential site. Yang also curated the current exhibition at the University of Minnesota’s Goldstein Museum of Design: “World’s Fair: An American Tradition in Architecture and Urbanism Innovation.”

We toured the fairgrounds with Yang to learn more about the myriad architecture styles of the miniature city. MPR News photojournalist Ben Hovland used film as he shot the current-day images to compare with when the structures were new.

The Grandstand

The original Grandstand was built in 1885. The one we see now with its massive brick facade, built in 1909, is much larger than the original. Yang says it mixes elements of industrialism, functionalism, and classical architecture.

“The brick always reminds you the building has a history,” Yang says. The material offers a sense of “permanence” and “magnificence.”

“It is also a very classical language. You see the arches, you see the proportion, you see the repetitiveness of the elements.”

A side-by-side comparison of 2 photos depicting the grandstand
A photo collage depicts the Grandstand at the Minnesota State Fair. The right image was taken during the 1937 fair, and the photo on the right was taken on Aug 24.
Courtesy of the Minnesota State Fair Archives, Ben Hovland | MPR News

Snelling Gate

The Snelling Gate is iconic with swooping half arches painted in bright green and blue. Also known as the “Gateway to Progress,” the gate was built in 1971 by the architecture practice Toltz, King, Duvall, Anderson and Associates, which now operates as TKDA.

Yang describes the architecture style as postmodern, and more specifically “Googie,” a style popular from the 1940s through the 1970s. It’s inspired by the Space Age and midcentury car culture. One famous example is from the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, the Space Needle, which Yang says looks like a UFO taking off.

With Googie architecture, “We will see a little bit more of these tendencies of buildings starting to detach from the ground and go around to the sky,” Yang says. “Another background we can give for this particular period is the pursuit or the competition of the space age.”

Built in 1971, Snelling is the first permanent entry gate at the fairgrounds and remains the largest, both in size and volume of attendees admitted.

A side-by-side comparison of 2 photos depicting the fair gates
A photo montage depicts two images of the Minnesota State Fair’s main Snelling Gate, one taken in 1971 (left) and the other taken on Aug. 24.
Courtesy of the Minnesota State Fair Archives, Ben Hovland | MPR News

Creative Activities Building

The Creative Activities Building was also designed by architects Toltz, King, Duvall, Anderson and Associates and built in 1971. The building, Yang says, is more of a mixture of industrial and functional architecture styles, styles that prioritize modern materials and let the function of the building dictate the design.

Here, it is a large open space for exhibitions. He notes that the geometry of the red decorative accents are all horizontal or vertical.

“That’s echoing the very simple ways of an industrial building’s needs,” Yang says.

A side-by-side comparison of 2 photos depicting a fair building
A photo collage depicts the Creative Activities Building at the Minnesota State Fair. The image on the left was taken in 1971, and the photo on the right was taken on Aug. 24.
Courtesy of the Minnesota State Fair Archives, Ben Hovland | MPR News

Education Building

Built in 1968, the Education Building has the spirit of modernism, a style that took off with the industrial revolution of the 19th century and continued well through the 20th century. Modernism takes classical architecture elements — like columns and porticos — and reimagines with newer materials like glass, steel and concrete. The Education Building is one of Yang’s favorites on the fairgrounds.

“This building is modern, but at the same time, it's very local,” he said, pointing to the unique decorative imprints on the oversized roof of the portico. “It’s very bold and eye-catching.”

Yang says the seating in the portico, known in architecture as a “gray space,” is a perfect place for people-watching, as there is a clear view into the building and out to the street.

A side-by-side comparison of 2 photos depicting a fair building
A photo collage depicts the Minnesota State Fair’s Education Building. The photo on the left was taken around 1970, and the right photo was taken on Aug. 24.
Courtesy of the Minnesota State Fair Archives, Ben Hovland | MPR News

Administration Building

The Administration Building was built in 1965 by the same architects who designed the Snelling Gate. Yang says the aesthetic is difficult to define, but he leans towards postmodern, a style dominant from the 1960s through the 1990s. Where modernism is more minimalist and sleek, postmodernism is more playful and exaggerated, like the Administration Building’s oversized pseudo-columns that zigzag around the windows.

“To a certain point, you can see a little bit of the memory of classical architecture,” Yang says of the proportions and simplified features. “This has a character that makes this building quite unique”

A side-by-side comparison of 2 photos depicting a fair building
A photo collage depicts the Minnesota State Fair’s Administration Building. The photo on the left was taken in the 1970s, and the photo on the right was taken on Aug. 24.
Courtesy of the Minnesota State Fair Archives, Ben Hovland | MPR News

Agriculture Horticulture Building

The Agriculture Horticulture Building is an example of Art Deco architecture, but it wasn’t always that way, says Yang. In 1885, the first iteration of the building had a large wooden dome in the beaux-arts style, a style frequently used in government buildings like the Minnesota State Capitol. In 1947, the new building opened, with its streamlined central tower and vertically thrusting design lines.

“This is a hodgepodge of functionalism versus Art Deco,” Yang said. After Art Deco was introduced at the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts it became a dominant style for decades.

With Art Deco, “you can use cheap material, but still receive a very magnificent effect,” says Yang, such as swapping the use of more classical marble for concrete, but not spare the craftsmanship. “This design attitude is actually a pretty good way for balancing between the details versus the abstraction of the building.” He points to the details of the building’s many entrances, such the sleek typeface above the doors and the scalloped columns. “They're pretty sophisticated.”

A side-by-side comparison of 2 photos depicting a fair building
A photo collage depicts the Agriculture Horticulture Building at the Minnesota State Fair. The image on the left was taken in 1947, and the photo on the right was taken on Aug. 24.
Courtesy of the Minnesota State Fair Archives, Ben Hovland | MPR News
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