The Historic Side of Minneapolis & St. Paul

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Minneapolis (shown) and St. Paul together make a metropolis flanking the Mississippi. (Photo: Chris Gregerson)

Minneapolis (shown) and St. Paul together make a metropolis flanking the Mississippi. (Photo: Chris Gregerson)

Minnesota’s Twin Cities offer residents and visitors a wealth of historic architecture, museums, and cultural events. St. Paul and Minneapolis face each other across the Mississippi; both downtown areas were founded in the mid-19th century. Minneapolis became the financial and commercial hub, while St. Paul, the state capital, evolved into the region’s political center. Rivalry peaked in the 1890s, but today the cities form a complementary hub in a metropolitan area of 3.5 million people.

A good place to start a tour is at the magnificent Capitol building in St. Paul, just north of downtown. Designed by architect Cass Gilbert in 1905, its white marble dome was inspired by the classical structures of the White City at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair, and by St. Peter’s Basilica.

The Forum Restaurant’s restored 1929 Art Deco interior.

The Forum Restaurant’s restored 1929 Art Deco interior.

Nearby you’ll find a good handful of historic buildings, including the Fitzgerald Theater, home to Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion.” See the Renaissance Revival-style Central Library, built in 1917, which has beautifully painted ceilings. The 1902 Landmark Center, a multi-gabled Richardsonian Romanesque building, used to be the post office and courthouse, but now is home to cultural events and several galleries. The Art Deco Ramsey County Courthouse was built in 1932. The St. Paul Hotel (1910) is an elegant place to stay.

St. Paul has been the more preservation-minded of the two cities and boasts many well-maintained neighborhoods of period homes. Begin at the top with the James J. Hill House at 240 Summit Avenue. The red sandstone mansion was built by the railroad magnate in 1891, and with 36,000 square feet, it remains the largest residence in Minnesota. Across the street, the granite domes and arches of the Beaux Arts Cathedral of St. Paul overlook the city; interior walls of travertine marble are highlighted with mosaic murals and stained-glass windows. Now take a drive west on Summit Avenue, a broad boulevard lined with gracious homes in styles from Queen Anne to Prairie School.

The Purcell–Cutts House is a Prairie School icon.

The Purcell–Cutts House is a Prairie School icon.

A quick drive across the Mississippi and you’re in Minneapolis. I suggest beginning with the Mill City Museum downtown. The exhibit gives an interesting perspective on the city—I promise you’ll enjoy it. Spend some time at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; its 1915 neoclassical building was designed by McKim, Mead, and White and has a recent wing by Michael Graves. Centered on the Ulrich Architecture and Design Gallery, the MIA has one of the top collections of Prairie School objects in the U.S. If you can, time your visit so you can tour the Purcell–Cutts House, a 1913 Prairie landmark by Purcell and Elmslie (also owned by the Institute). Located in the heart of Minneapolis at 2328 Lake Place, it’s open for tours the second weekend of each month.

The 1891 James J. Hill House is the largest residence in Minnesota; it’s open to the public.

The 1891 James J. Hill House is the largest residence in Minnesota; it’s open to the public.

The Gehry-designed Weisman Art Museum houses the University of Minnesota’s massive art collection. While there are many good hotels to choose from, I loved my stay at the Foshay Tower, a 1929 Art Deco skyscraper that’s now the sleek W Hotel Minneapolis. Take in a play at the metallic-blue Guthrie Theater. Minnesotans really are as friendly as their reputation suggests. But if you find Minnesota winters too harsh—they can be Siberian—time a visit for late spring through fall.