See more of the story

What is the most intriguing new building in the Twin Cities?

Not the Eleven, the predictably elegant, gleaming white condo building towering over the Minneapolis riverfront. Not the glassy Four Seasons rising on Hennepin Avenue, though it promises to be a dynamic downtown presence. Certainly not any of the scores of predictably designed mid-rise apartment buildings proliferating in downtown and Uptown.

It's Water Works Park and Pavilion in Mill Ruins Park.

Don't feel bad if you don't know where Water Works Park is. It is Minneapolis' newest park space, built on its most historic spot.

It literally rises out of ruins of riverfront mills that fueled the city's rise in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — where Fuji Ya restaurant once stood, across from the Stone Arch Bridge. The park provides much-needed amenities — places to sit, meet, public restrooms (!) — as well as being home to Minnesota's first full-service Native American restaurant, Owamni.

The presence of Owamni (Dakota for "place of swirling waters") is particularly fitting. St. Anthony Falls and surrounding territory was a sacred place for the Dakota long before white settlers founded a city there.

Knit together by the Stone Arch Bridge, which opened to pedestrian and bike traffic in 1994, the Minneapolis riverfront draws 2.6 million visitors a year. It is a compelling place for moving through, but places to linger were found only on S. 2nd Street near the Mill City Museum and Guthrie Theater — and they didn't offer a river's edge experience. The pavilion and the park spaces on either side of it fill this longtime need.

The restaurant occupies the pavilion's second floor and spills out onto an outdoor terrace overlooking the falls. The first floor, on the West River Parkway level where cyclists and runners and walkers spill off the Stone Arch Bridge, provides public restrooms and a large conference room available for booking. All of which were built within the stone and brick walls of two historic mills. People can even buy a drink and sit at outdoor tables on the parkway level or around three firepits. And carefully sloped walkways lined with native plants and benches for informal seating bring people from S. 1st Street comfortably down the 30-foot slope.

It's like Minneapolis now has a front porch with a Mississippi River view.

Elegant simplicity

The design of the park space — the South Terrace, City Steps on the north — achieves what is so rare these days: simplicity without being simplistic.

The concrete walkways zigzag between profuse plantings of native plants — edible, medicinal and spiritual — that are identified with signs in English and Dakota. The benches— some concrete, some wood-topped — provide flexibility for seating for any and all and for future programmed storytelling or musical programs (unamplified by request of nearby neighbors).

Equally revolutionary for the neighborhood, there's a playground for small children —executed in natural wood rather than the usual eye-popping blue, red and yellow plastic.

The pavilion reveals its layered history. An early design placed the building at the north end of the site, near the 3rd Avenue Bridge, to avoid building within the walls of the two old mills that Fuji-ya was built within. But later excavations determined that the walls could be stabilized enough to be built within — and what a happy discovery that was.

The brick and thick stone walls give a hoary and almost mysterious texture to both the exterior and interior of the pavilion. A curving stairway rimmed in steel carries visitors to the second floor on rich wood stair treads salvaged from Fuji Ya. Thin yellow brick (similar to that used on other nearby buildings like the Crown Roller Mill) fills in the gaps between salvageable walls.

Damon Farber Landscape Architects led the design team with HGA designing the pavilion, MacDonald and Mack as historic consultants and the 106 Group as archaeologists. The Healing Place Collaborative brought in Dakota artists and language experts to design covers for the fire pits and interpret the rainwater collection and use of Native plants. Artist selection for a larger work is underway.

HGA played with the elements of the pavilion, to clearly express that it is a contemporary addition: The central arch is asymmetrical and the glass doors are offset to one side; the brick on the second floor angles here and there. The moves are subtle enough that they don't detract from the historic stone walls that give the building its compelling aesthetic.

Inside, the 18-foot-high ceiling, stonework and rusted steel remnants create a breathtaking architectural experience.

"We didn't want to make it a museum," said Tom Evers, who heads the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, which helped fund the project. But it's hard not to want to know the stories these walls tell.

Up the tactile stairway, the second floor is refreshingly simple and, with only an 8-foot-high ceiling, feels more cozy. When I stood by one of the windows in the restaurant, I experienced a strong sense of deja vu: I had eaten exactly here before, in one of Fuji Ya's tatami-mat alcoves.


That Water Works developed at all — and particularly in this fashion — is a minor urban miracle.

In 1987, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board acquired Fuji Ya's parking lot to build the West River Parkway. Groundbreaking restaurateur Reiko Weston, a Japanese war bride who brought Japanese cooking to the Twin Cities, found that her restaurant couldn't survive without the parking. In 1990, the Park Board ended up taking the entire property, which extended north to the 3rd Avenue Bridge.

But, tragically, the Park Board had no plans to use the property and no money to preserve or develop it. The unique building, which offered so many their first experience of the Minneapolis riverfront, moldered away.

Twenty years later, developers eyed the property in the burgeoning riverfront and proposed low-rise luxury townhouses and then an 11-story luxury condo tower. After years of wrangling and a lawsuit, the Park Board stopped the condo development. But the property sat derelict, a scruffy barrier between downtown and the riverfront.

Come 2011, the newly energized Minneapolis Parks Foundation and the Park Board's Central Riverfront Master Planning process reassessed the area. The revelation: This incredible site should be park land, not "excess land" to be rid of. A fundraising campaign raised $16 million to add to Park Board and other funds to develop a park and park building on the site, as well as complete a long-sought river overlook at 26th Avenue N. to help connect the city's North Side to the Mississippi.

It took a couple of design detours and major excavations to reveal the existing mills, determine the right place for the building and envision such a welcoming park space. After 30 years of urban planning blunders, Water Works is a triumph.

Former Star Tribune architecture critic and reporter Linda Mack writes about architecture and urban history.