Preservation + Modernism:
The Fight to Save Peavey Plaza

Photo by Keri Pickett. Composite image, with respect, by Meagan Baco, HISTPRES.

Within the preservation and planning worlds there is a growing debate about preserving modern architecture. People on both sides of this debate, myself included, feel strongly about their views. I’ll go ahead and come out of the closet with my pro-modern stance, but like anything there are caveats and exceptions to my opinions. While overall I am for preserving these important modern buildings and landscapes, they still have to work. After all, not all historic structures and landscapes can or should serve as museums. They need to function for the places and uses they were designed for or be adapted to new uses.

Fortuitously, I stumbled across an article in my online wanderings that speaks to this issue. The New York Times recently published an article titled “Minneapolis Tussles Over a Faded Plaza” by Kathryn Shattuck. The focus of the article is Peavey Plaza, which was opened in 1975 by M. Paul Friedberg. According to The Cultural Landscape Foundation, this plaza was designed in 1973 by M. Paul Friedberg + Partners as a ‘park plaza’ on two acres of land.

Peavey Plaza, Minneapolis, MN
All photos courtesy of The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

Its perilous state is also discussed in a recent Huffington Post Arts Blog post by Charles A. Birnbaum, the President of the Cultural Landscape Foundation. He argues that this plaza, located in downtown Minneapolis next to Orchestra Hall and near Target’s corporate headquarters, is in fact a Modernist gem worth saving.

I looked over some images online and it appears to be a pretty cool place to hang out. It includes a terraced space, waterfalls, reflecting pool and gardens among other features. In The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, William H. Whyte points out that defined spaces such as these draw people to them.  He also points out the importance of reusing historic buildings and spaces in successful downtowns; this plaza is certainly an example of these features. It was even recognized by the American Society of Landscape Architects for its significance. I am not familiar with Minneapolis, but it seems that it would be a great gathering space for everyday use and special events.

Unfortunately, as is often the case, parts of the plaza no longer function as intended. Among other problems, this includes two nonworking fountains. Also, the reflecting pool is often empty, according to the NYT article. Despite these problems, which can be resolved, many in the city still love and use this plaza.

The city’s solution is to tear it out and rebuild. And so begins the age old us (the preservationists) vs. them (planners, the city, developers, etc.). I don’t see these groups as inherent enemies, but they often act this way.

The city, which owns most of the plaza, claims there are accessibility, budget and sustainability issues that prevent keeping it. Many people, including Birnbaum and Friedberg, are willing to work with the city but are being shut out of the process. Adding to the problems, this plaza is not a landmark nor is it technically historic by the 50 year standard. However, it is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic places due to its significance.

The city, which owns the majority of the plaza, however, does not want to officially list it despite this eligibility.  The initiative has already been taken to have a a complete HALS survey done to determine that the plaza is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, according to Nord Wennerstrom of the Cultural Landscape Foundation.  If Peavey Plaza had been listed before it was threatened, protection would be much easier, which is likely why the city is resistant.  Although this type of protection may not provide much actual protection outside of Section 106 Review, it indicates a site’s importance.

As for the city’s budgetary, accessibility and sustainability claims, all of which are common particularly when it comes to saving modernist buildings and landscapes, they are weak.  According to Birnbaum, the city has put out a complete restoration cost of $8.7 million, but no one is pushing for total restoration except the city. Additionally, it is unclear where this number came from or what it encompasses. While the NYT article states that a new plaza will cost $8-$10 million, it never states an amount needed for restoration. I’m going to guess it would be less.

The accessibility issue is the city’s strongest objection to restoration, but not by much. The original landscape architect is alive and willing to work with the city (given that they won’t destroy his plaza). They city needs to prove there is no reasonable alternative to development in order to proceed, but this plan shows that there clearly is a viable alternative. He has even come up with a plan to address the city’s concerns, which can be seen in the NYT slide show.

The city’s claim that the current plaza isn’t using water sustainably is almost laughable, not because it isn’t true but because of their plan to tear it up and rebuild. Birnbaum succinctly critiques these type of arguments by stating:

“That’s about as sane as saying the light bulbs in your house aren’t energy efficient, so we’re tearing down your house to solve the problem.”

Demolition is clearly the least sustainable path, creating large amounts of waste and probably requiring the shipping of materials from around the country if not the world. Redoing the plaza’s current systems, while difficult, is clearly the more sustainable solution. On top of the sustainability argument is the glaring fact that if the city had kept up the plaza with routine maintenance from the beginning there would be far fewer problems to deal with in the present.  In their demolition permit they even state that “(a)n intentional effort has been made in recent years to hold the line on maintenance costs, including the decision not to repair some fountains and other infrastructure and to reduce the staff time at the plaza.”  Essentially the city has intentionally neglected the plaza and is now upset that it parts of it are broken as a result.

Recently, On June 28, 2012, The Cultural Landscape Foundation and Preservation Alliance of Minnesota filed a suit against Minneapolis in an effort to save Peavey Plaza. They are arguing that the plaza should have protection under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act (MERA). This act protects natural resources, including historic resources. The Cultural Landscape Foundation and Preservation Alliance of Minnesota argue that Minneapolis is violating MERA with its plan to demolish the plaza. The outcome of this case could have important consequences for protecting historic resources in the future.

This issue is about more than one plaza, though, it is about the constant rhetoric of us vs. them that occurs on both sides. The forced dichotomy of these debates helps no one, least of all the places these preservationists and planners are trying to help. See Birnbaum’s latest article for more about this issue. Both sides must be flexible and open to compromise.

In this case, those trying to preserve the plaza, including Birnbaum and Friedberg, the original designer of Peavey Plaza, have attempted to work with the city in many ways.  Both of them, however, have found themselves excluded from much of the design and decision making process for unclear reasons.

Nothing can stay the way it is, but that doesn’t mean we should throw away everything that defines a place and gives it character. The city appears to disregard the value this space offers to Minneapolis and its citizens. Peavey Plaza is just one example of how unhelpful these debates are. It becomes more about someone, in this case the city, winning than about doing what is truly best for the city and its citizens.

Sara Farr has a Master of Historic Preservation and is currently studying for a Masters of Environmental Planning and Design at the University of Georgia. To read more of her writing visit her blog, Preservation Ponderings.

About the author: Meagan Baco

Meg is a preservation activist who works on-the-ground and online promoting grassroots projects nationwide and empowering active young professionals with resources lead their own initiatives and develop meaningful careers. Originally from Buffalo, she now advocates for federal preservation policies with Preservation Action. Meg goes analog as a painter, biker, and puzzler.

4 comments

  1. Meagan Baco says:

    Recent announcement by Preservation Alliance of Minnesota: Peavey Plaza has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places! More information: http://www.mnpreservation.org/2012/11/19/whats-next-for-peavey-plaza/.

  2. Meagan Baco says:

    Info about modern plaza, Skyline Park in Denver that has been demolished: http://dirt.asla.org/2012/11/08/lawrence-halprins-skyline-park-is-now-history/. The landscape designer, Lawrence Halprin, also created the FDR memorial in Washington; one of my favorite spatial experiences in Washington.

  3. Meagan Baco says:

    The Preservation Alliance of Minnesota is in the middle of a law suit to prevent the City of Minneapolis from demolishing Peavey Plaza and needs your support to keep up with the legal fees. Contributions of any denomination are welcome and encouraged! Click here to donate online.

  4. Meagan Baco says:

    There is a recent National Trust – Forum article about modernist parks that also addressees Peavey Plaza while presenting a similar case study in Texas. It is actually named Fort Worth Heritage Park.

    “Both examples illustrate the need to build greater appreciation and understanding of these public spaces through documentation and advocacy. Our modernist urban parks should not be allowed to suffer through the worst of times—not only should we respect the work of the architects who created them, but we should also remember that parks and outdoor spaces of all types are essential to urban life.”

    Read more: http://www.preservationnation.org/forum/library/public-articles/a-tale-of-two-modernist-parks.html.

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