Larry Nelson took an old mattress factory and helped turn it into one of the premiere shopping and dining destinations in the Twin Cities — one that drew throngs of people to the banks of the Mississippi River.
St. Anthony Main has lost some of its luster over the years, but the pioneering project helped spark residential construction in the once-neglected area and led to the nearby Riverplace mixed-use development.
Nelson, a retail pioneer who went on to work on major projects in Chicago, including North Pier and the Field Museum, died Sept. 24. He was 79.
Born in tiny Warsaw Township, Nelson had a vagabond childhood. The son of a cabinet-maker, Nelson once estimated that his family moved 60 times when he was between the ages of 6 and 19.
Though he became a celebrated cook who once appeared on local television with Julia Child, he told friends that his family was so poor he ate corn flakes for dinner as a child.
He was born with the heart of a merchant. While living in Cannon Falls, he would walk downtown to buy candy and then sell it to kids in his neighborhood at a 20% markup.
After graduating from Hastings High School, he enrolled at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. He put himself through school working as a stock boy at the now-defunct Powers Department Store, where he became friends with an architect and interior designer who brought him on as an apprentice.
He had never worked at a shopping center before being hired by Louis Zelle — a first-time developer and bus company magnate — to find restaurants and upscale stores to fill St. Anthony Main.
"We wanted a merchant to decide what the retail mix would be, not just an ordinary leasing agent," Zelle said a 1984 interview. "Nelson was the perfect choice because he just has this ability to stay a little bit ahead of everyone else."
The two men had met at 118 East, Nelson's groundbreaking store in Minneapolis' Uptown that started selling kitchen gadgets before Williams-Sonoma opened its first outlet outside California. Zelle was one of Nelson's best customers. He wanted Nelson to help him create something that would draw crowds like Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston.
St. Anthony Main opened in 1977 and was an instant smash. Most of the shops were original to the center. In some cases, Nelson came up with the concept and then hired people to run the store.
"It's retailing as theater," Nelson told the Star Tribune in 1984. "We wanted to create a public focus for the city of Minneapolis."
Maaja Kern, the oldest of Nelson's two daughters, said her father was sad to see so many tenants leave the center, which has struggled with occupancy since lenders foreclosed in 1987.
"It was a magical place," said Kern, who remembers spending every birthday at St. Anthony Main when she was young. "He really wished it could have lasted longer ... It was so ahead of its time. I think it would do amazingly well if it was built today because there are so many people living there now."
In his later years, Nelson lived in Stillwater, where he renovated a dilapidated downtown building on Main Street, turning the ground floor into retail space and building a loft for himself on the top floor.
Nelson is survived by his partner, Kay Amoth, and his two daughters, Kern and Elizabeth King. A celebration of Nelson's life will be held at 11 a.m. Oct. 22 at Bradshaw Funeral Home in Stillwater, 2800 Curve Crest Blvd.