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It seemed like a perfect trade: A bland 1969 building at Washington and Hennepin avenues would be demolished for a 27-story apartment building.

As you might suspect, some people wanted to save the boring, modernist building — even though it isn't a paragon of its style, has no relationship to the historic buildings around it, gives no clue to its function. It also adds nothing to the street, since it has no first floor. And it's kind of ugly.

It's a moot argument, since the building at 21 Washington Av. N. will not be preserved. But even if the building was thought by all to be old and ugly, does that mean it would have to go? Is there ever a good reason to save an ugly building?

Yes. Several, in fact.

In an ideal city, every era would leave its mark, and you'd be able to read the history of a place by walking its streets.

We do not live in ideal cities. We live in practical ones, so old buildings are regularly torn down for new structures that serve new needs.

Minneapolis' Nicollet Mall, between Washington Avenue and 4th Street, has exactly zero structures remaining from the days when it was the prime retail district. Nearly every building was leveled, then built up, then flattened en masse during the postwar urban renewal era, and replaced with lackluster structures: a parking ramp, the bland and boxy Sheraton-Ritz Hotel, or nothing at all.

It's impossible to walk those blocks and get a clue of what the area was once like.

If one old building — even a nondescript one — had been saved and integrated into the streetscape, it would give you a physical reminder of how the city looked.

It's the same with the building at 21 Washington Av. N.: Its loss will mean no one will know that the area, on the edge of the Gateway District, was demolished in the 1960s and replaced largely with modernist structures.

This is impractical. Cities change, whole neighborhoods are lost over and over. But think what it would be like to have an embassy of a previous era on every downtown block.

After they're gone, buildings that have been demolished sometimes develop a mystique. People become nostalgic for what was. When we look at pictures from the past, they seem to depict an era where everything was more refined and sensible than our own messy times, or at least more adventurous.

Leaving ugly buildings standing here and there is a good way to disabuse the future of those notions.

Evolving styles

The Metropolitan (originally known as the Northwestern Guaranty Loan Building) is rightly regarded as the greatest architectural loss Minneapolis inflicted on itself.

The Metropolitan Building once occupied the intersection of 3rd Street and 2nd Avenue S. in Minneapolis.
The Metropolitan Building once occupied the intersection of 3rd Street and 2nd Avenue S. in Minneapolis.

Star Tribune file, Star Tribune

With its castle-like exterior and modern interior, the 1890 building at the corner of 3rd Street and 2nd Avenue S. would be a grand addition to downtown today — fully rehabbed, its interior atrium and glass block floors a marvel for all.

But while the building was magnificent, it really was a bit ugly.

Its heavy, ponderous, Richardsonian Romanesque style works well for compact buildings, like Pillsbury Hall on the University of Minnesota campus. Scaled up to 12 stories, it has an elephantine bulk, a backward-looking spirit.

There was a reason the style was supplanted by the clean lines of the Classical Revival. (Think Minneapolis Institute of Art.) The familiar columns and white stone looked fresh and intellectual.

But Richardsonian Romanesque was all the rage for a while, until it wasn't. And the fact that the Metropolitan looked so old in an era of steel and glass was one of the reasons it was torn down in 1961.

The Globe stood at 20 S. 4th St. from 1889 to 1958.
The Globe stood at 20 S. 4th St. from 1889 to 1958.

Star Tribune file, Star Tribune

Consider the Globe, a riotous miscreant that stood at 20 S. 4th St. from 1889 to 1958. It hails from the early skyscraper era when architects piled one thing on top of the other, festooned the roof with gables and a witch's hat tower, and called it a day.

It may have been impressive at the time, but it was never beautiful. Today, however, it would be beloved for its idiosyncrasies. It would be a boutique hotel, one that would make the bland boxes of hotels today look like the soulless revenue generators they are.

What we call ugly today may strike future generations in a different way. We ought not to take down our ugly buildings as if we're doing the future a favor.

Most of the buildings with minor pedigrees will fall. Of course, it's not possible to save every building. I mean, does it make sense to grant historical designation to a Taco Bell that used to be a Zantigo?

Of course not. On the other hand, a case could be made …