James Lileks
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Do people still think of downtown Minneapolis as a holiday-decoration destination?

Possibly not. Without a Holidazzle — and I mean the old-style, with the incandescent parade — it's hard to convince someone they should drag the kids downtown to look at some seasonal stuff that spends 11 months of the year in a storeroom.

But possibly yes. There are interesting things. There could be more, but there always could be more, if you're a kid; no child goggling at the lights ever says, "They've overdone it by 25%." No, the more festive festooning, the better.

When you look back at the decorations that smothered Nicollet in the postwar era, you have to sigh: They went all out. The store windows were full of toys and trains, dresses and drums, all the seasonal cliches. To walk from one end of the shopping district to the other was to bathe in light and cheer.

Of course they wanted you to buy something. But you didn't have to. You could just look, and hum a Christmas tune and have a bright night downtown.

It is not like that today, for various reasons. The downtown shopping district withered with the advent of the malls, and despite regular attempts to rebuild downtown as a retail destination, it never regained its monopoly draw. The skyway commercial ecosystem worked well for the people who worked downtown, but COVID lockdowns and the work-from-home movement brought a new and unexpected contraction that makes you more likely, some days, to dodge tumbleweeds than fellow citizens.

It's getting better, in some ways. The Dayton's Project collection of boutique shops has marvelous wares, and it's worth popping for ramp parking to find something different. But few people are going downtown solely for Christmas shopping.

Should they go downtown for holiday decorations, though? The atriums to which the skyways connect are some of the grandest public spaces in town, and you'd think they surely must put up something that's worth a look. Let us stroll through the skyways and rate the Christmas trees.

The tree that does the best to fit the building's exterior color scheme.

This is not as crowded a category as you might think, but the win goes to the Two22 Tower (formerly Campbell Mithun Tower; 222 S. 9th St.). It's a square, blue building with a set of stairs stuck on top. The tree in the lobby is blue. It is a nice little tree. There is another one on the skyway level. It is absolutely, positively better than nothing.

The rote tree with a great supporting cast of LED lights.

The lobby of the SPS Tower (333 S. 7th St.) has several trees that do not attempt to overwhelm you with height or girth, accompanied by garlands along the railing. What makes the space different are the light fixtures, suspended circles at various heights that glow with seasonal hues. At press time they were purple, perhaps indicating the concepts of "The Vikes" and "fresh bruises," two concepts in close proximity these days, but will no doubt switch to the red-white-green array.

It's an interesting space. A sober 1980s post-modern lobby in classic monochrome stone. The atrium has a big living wall of jungle foliage, and perhaps one year they'll thread twirling lights around all the fronds. But this is not that year.

Most unsuccessfully artistic.

The Oracle building (900 2nd Av. S.) eschews the usual triangular wedge of ersatz fir for three spare conical sculptures that hang from the roof, with ornaments dangling from the bottom. Think "fire-damaged wire trees that defy gravity." Interesting! Or, as we say around here, that's different! If you have an art history degree, you say "a clever inversion of an expected cliché!" It's worth seeing, if only to ponder what they were thinking.

Most unexpectedly scraggly.

It's a value judgment, of course, a matter of taste, but you wonder why the IDS Crystal Court (717 Nicollet Mall) didn't reach for the roof with a tree that summed up the perfected modernism of its location. The trees in the court look a bit ragged, with differently sized examples and some leafless-limbed stuff in pots. It's all up on a stage, where the noontime music is performed.

The tree looks almost ... Seussian, and that is not necessarily a compliment.

The three giants.

Like dogs, there are no bad Christmas trees. Even if it's a small thing dragged out of the closet and propped up in the corner of the lobby, it's a welcome addition. But what really impresses kids are enormous trees you can't see anywhere else. Downtown has three.

The City Center (33 S. 6th St.) tree is truly monumental and has something kids will love: a tunnel! Yes, you can walk through the bottom of the tree, and nestle in a twinkling bower with magical views of ... well, the escalators, but imagination can do a lot of work here.

It's huge. It does not command the space, though, and seems oddly alone and disconnected from the rest of the atrium. It needs more seasonal accoutrements — packages, fake snow, Dickensian gaslights, boxes, anything.

Same applies to the massive Wells Fargo Center lobby (90 S. 7th St.) tree. It has the corporate colors of red and gold. It stands alone in the underpopulated lobby, and looks as if it scared everyone off.

Better siting helps the Capella Tower (225 S. 6th St.) tree. It has everything the enormous awe-inspiring tree should have: commanding height and tasteful decorations. But it has a perfect location: a circular atrium whose hues and dimensions provide a simple, balanced tableau. It's like standing in a snow globe.

I'm sure I missed a few. Feel free to spend an afternoon wandering the entire skyway system and find more seasonal celebrations. It's not the way it used to be, but here's a fact: Pre-skyway, all those people wandering downtown to look at the lights? They were freezing.