In addition to the square, affordable rambler, midcentury modern birthed other housing types, from the long, one-level ranch house, to compact metal Lustron homes, to the flat-roofed, glass-walled, open-plan, architect-designed residence. Millett includes 12 such “high-style” homes throughout Minnesota—by Frank Lloyd Wright and Twin Cities’ architects Elizabeth Close, Ralph Rapson, and Gerald Buetow, among others. But his investigation goes even deeper.
As Millett also points out, midcentury modern, which dominated architecture and design from about 1945 to the late-1960s, “penetrated like oil into the social, political, and cultural machinery of the times.” So while delving into these projects and more in a nearly 400-page book rich with photography and illustration, Millett also places Minnesota’s love of midcentury modernism in a broader context.
He traces Minnesota’s development and practice of midcentury modernism to three sources or “strains.” One was the work of such European architects like Adolf Loos, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Rudolph Schindler, Richard Neutra, the Saarinens, Alvar Aalto, and Le Corbusier (“who was very fond of American concrete grain elevators, a building type invented in Minnesota in 1989”). Millett describes how these architects’ work and influences, combined with elements of art deco and art moderne, produced such Minnesota architects as Rapson—a proponent and practitioner of the International Style.
California’s ranch houses (even though their emphasis on outdoor living didn’t translate well in Minnesota’s tough winter climate) and the corresponding commercial version (affectionately named Googie) were the second source of influence. A third strain apparent in Minnesota’s midcentury modernism was the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, particularly his Usonian houses. Millett goes on to add that materials developed during World War II—laminated wood trusses that were used instead of steel, as well as prefabricated structures and prestressed concrete—also influenced the design and construction in midcentury modernism in Minnesota and elsewhere.
Despite these influences, Millett stresses that, “midcentury architecture in Minnesota was mostly a homegrown product.” Today, many of buildings designed by local and regional architects are sorely in need of preservation. The former architecture critic for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Millett is an architectural historian whose previous books include Lost Twin Cities and Once There Were Castles: Lost Mansions and Estates of the Twin Cities. Both books, as their titles suggest, discuss the architectural treasures Minnesota has lost to the wrecking ball.
Millett’s new book concludes with a call to action. Though the “architectural legacy of the midcentury era in Minnesota is decidedly mixed,” he writes, citing instances of “drably utilitarian” public buildings, “excesses of urban renewal” in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and ill-planned suburbs, “the time has come to look at ways to protect significant works of the period.” Many of these works are now eligible for National Register of Historic Places designation.
What need to be saved, Millett continues, are not just individual “high-style homes” and the churches that have become “masterpieces of American architecture,” but entire neighborhoods of midcentury residences. The problem, he continues, is that “architectural modernism, especially in its high-style manifestations, has always had an elitist aura, and the general public has never really warmed to it.”
Minnesotans, with their no-nonsense approach, nonetheless cultivated a singular midcentury sensibility worth saving.