In the 1960s, St. Paul city leaders looked west for inspiration. If the Gateway District Urban Renewal Plan was good enough to fix an ailing downtown Minneapolis, then the Capital City was going to go for a similar clean slate.
They called their effort Capital Centre. (The name should have been a red flag. In the real estate universe, "centre" invariably signals a warning: Danger! Pretentious Architectural Overreach Ahead!)
While Gateway leveled 20-plus blocks of downtown Minneapolis, it was mostly limited to the city's notorious skid row. Capital Centre covered roughly half that footprint, but it was arguably far more destructive because it bulldozed through the heart of St. Paul's business district.
Capital Centre's one architectural shining star, now known as Osborn370, is a sleek, 20-story beauty of stainless steel, glass and polished granite. The rest is drab office towers, ungainly parking ramps and comatose plazas, a characterless no-man's land between the superbly urbane districts surrounding Rice Park and Mears Park.
An office tower, proposed in 1969, might have made a significant difference to Capital Centre — and the city.
The skyline-redefining structure was going to fill what was known as Block A, bounded by Cedar, Minnesota and 6th streets and what was then 7th Street. Reports of the time said the skyscraper would be between 30 and 41 stories (by comparison, the city's tallest building, 1987's Wells Fargo Place, stands at 37 stories). The developer was IDS Properties, which was constructing the IDS Center in downtown Minneapolis.
Potential tenants were an A-list roster of Saintly City businesses, including Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance Co., American National Bank and Ellerbe Architects, which was commissioned to design the project.
Ellerbe's preliminary model featured a pair of offset rectangular slabs — like two slender books slightly unaligned on a shelf — connected by shared elevator lobbies. Its heart-of-the-city address could have given the tower the same central role that the IDS Center enjoys in downtown Minneapolis.
The St. Paul Housing and Redevelopment Authority acted fast (in hindsight, too fast), acquiring the block from eight property owners, relocating businesses and demolishing buildings. The city's investment in the project was nearly $3 million, about $20 million in today's dollars.
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Unfortunately, leasing negotiations quickly unraveled and IDS Properties pulled the plug.
Fallout from the fizzled IDS Properties proposal was deep and long-lasting. Block A sat empty for a decade ("A silent testimony to the lack of investor interest in downtown St. Paul," was the Minneapolis Tribune's tart observation in 1978) until Town Square materialized.
With offices, shopping, a hotel, an indoor public garden and a parking ramp, the trendy $54 million mega-project would finally restart the notorious Block A. It also filled the block to the north. At the time, Town Square "was hailed by St. Paul boosters as the catalyst that will ignite the complete renovation of the capital city's central business district," according to the Minneapolis Tribune.
Good intentions, disappointing outcome.
On the bright side, Town Square's 25- and 27-story office towers have attracted tenants. The mall bustled for a while, until downtown retail was pummeled by suburban competition and department store consolidation. The poorly designed third-floor public garden has been mothballed for years.
It didn't help that Town Square set a new standard for ugly. The dismal design represents a low point for the architectural giant Skidmore, Owings & Merrill — although City Center, the firm's ungainly downtown Minneapolis follow-up, runs a close second. Town Square's unwelcoming exterior surely contributed to noted urban sociologist William Whyte's famous assessment that downtown St. Paul is the "blank wall capital of the world."
Had the IDS Properties tower become a reality, downtown St. Paul would have been spared the soul-sucking lump that is Town Square.
Unfortunately, the negative repercussions don't end there.
American National Bank and Minnesota Mutual both eventually built their own headquarters, on nearby blocks. The good news is that the companies — and their payrolls, and property tax payments — remained in downtown St. Paul. The downside? Neither project exactly lit up the architectural firmament.
In 1975, American National Bank moved into its new $24 million headquarters, a 25-story office tower. Now known as US Bank Center, it was yet another Capital Centre equivalent of a stifled yawn.
"A fitting anticlimax to the downtown urban renewal program, which had repeatedly promised so much in the way of architectural design and had regularly delivered so little," is the building's assessment by Jeffrey Hess and Paul Clifford Larson in their excellent "St. Paul's Architecture: A History." Ouch.
Six years later, Minnesota Mutual cut the ribbon on its new 21-story HQ at 400 Robert St., a joyless mix of gray granite and tinted glass.
A bright spot materialized in 2000 when Minnesota Mutual (which became Securian Financial the following year) dedicated its 401 Building, which enlivens the block sandwiched between the company's forbidding 1980s headquarters and Town Square.
An excellent neighbor, this enormous office complex doesn't feel gargantuan, because its considerable bulk is split between two halves of an L-shaped tower, one at 13 stories, the other at nine. Other assets include rich materials (red granite, gray granite and lots of aluminum-trimmed windows) and a pedestrian scale.
Designed by what is now Minneapolis-based Alliiance, it's the last major corporate office building to go up in downtown St. Paul. Unlike the surrounding architectural dross, the 401 Building is a role model for future development.
As for Capital Centre, there are ways to make the district more palatable for the 21st century and for the 55,000 people (that's a pre-pandemic figure) who work downtown.
How about getting rid of Town Square's impermeable precast concrete/reflective glass facade and making its fortress-like street- and skyway-level presence more porous? The redemption process at US Bank Center could start by moving an obnoxious drive-through setup to a less-prominent and more pedestrian-friendly location.
The era's worst hangover, the hulking Alliance Bank Center, is more problematic. Where to begin? Overbearing in scale, crudely detailed and aging poorly, this depressing monster of parking, retail and skyway corridors doesn't seem fixable. It will always turn Cedar Street into a gloomy tunnel, proving once again that massive structures shouldn't bridge city thoroughfares. (Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis, this means you.)
Bring on the wrecking ball, right? But until that happens, which could be decades from now, here's a more economically feasible solution: Go green, literally. Soften the building's Iron Curtain-like exterior by covering it with leafy climbing vines.
Don't stop there. Take a kindler, gentler approach to the district's arid streetscape. Widen its barren sidewalks and fill them with a profusion of trees, shrubs and flowers. Its dull buildings might not be going anywhere, but that doesn't mean that Capital Centre can't at least be a walk in the park.