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Wherever you live, you have to know where things are. To really understand the place, though, it helps to know where things were.

Newcomers to town, or longtime residents suddenly possessed by curiosity, can read books or browse websites to learn more about the rise and fall and rise of downtown Minneapolis.

Or they can take a walk in the skyways.

There are history lessons on the walls, hanging in plain sight, waiting to inform and surprise. Who knew the skyway was also a museum?

The most impressive exhibit may be the enormous aerial views of Minneapolis in the skyway level of the Wells Fargo buildings in Downtown East. There are 12 massive images, all teeming with details. The sequence begins in the tower at 550 S. 4th St., with an illustration from 1879, a bird’s-eye view of the burgeoning milling metropolis. The last image, in the tower at 600 S. 4th St., is a photo from 2013.

Ryan, the Minneapolis-based company, developed and built the Wells Fargo Downtown East campus. Josh Ekstrand, national director of design for Ryan, said the company realized the space could be used to give a visual history of the city.

“How the city grew, how the mills became the centerpiece of the city, how the city grew up around them,” he said. “We were hopeful that we were helping toward a revitalization of the east side of the downtown and extending the core, bringing the city back to its roots.”

But getting “high-resolution images to tell the story over time, images that would celebrate the city at a large scale — not a small task,” said Ekstrand.

New History, a local company that aids in historic building re-use, was able to help. Tamara Ludt, New History director, did most of the research for the images, consulting old fire insurance maps and archival photos. She also discovered a surprising source: the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A 1950s-era streetcar rumbled through downtown.
A 1950s-era streetcar rumbled through downtown.

Minnesota Historical Society

“The Farm Service agency started taking aerial photographs of farms of the ’20s,” said Ludt. “But we have a lot of pictures of our metropolitan area they took. Thanks to a photographer and a crop-duster pilot, we have these records.”

Although Ekstrand is very familiar with the murals, he’s still learning about Minneapolis from them.

“I walk past the pictures on a near daily basis, and find something new every time,” he said.

Bustling and alive

That’s not the only skyway museum. The Westin hotel (88 S. 6th St.) has shots of its first incarnation, as well as the midcentury office tower that grew up around it.

An interior skyway in the Baker Center (706 2nd Av. S.) has photos of the building from the Model T days, when it towered over all its neighbors.

A different sort of gallery can be found in the ground-floor food court of the Northstar Center (608 2nd Av. S.). One remarkable shot of the New England Furniture store has an amazing amount of detail. You can see a living room set in the store window as well as pedestrians on the sidewalk. There’s also a newspaper rack with the name of a long-forgotten movie, “99 River Street,” which played downtown in 1953.

City Center (33 S. 6th St.) also displays oversize images, which capture the grit and smoke and life on Hennepin Avenue in the 20th century. One shot captures Dayton’s, the Radisson Hotel and the new wing of Donaldsons rising on Nicollet Mall, dripping with classical ornamentation. There are horse carts, cars, theater marquees, women in voluminous dresses. It looks noisy, chaotic, bustling and tremendously alive.

Step outside of City Center today and you see the blank walls of City Center — the bunker that hollowed out the heart of downtown and traded the world of the mural for an empty expanse.

When you look at the old pictures of downtown, it’s hard not to feel a sense of loss. But at least they show us what we had.

Apology accepted.

James Lileks • 612-673-7858 @Lileks