Learning from the Baths

By Clem Labine
Published in "Traditional Building" magazine

Many of the great public spaces built in the early 20th century were based on design lessons derived from Roman baths and basilicas.  As these uplifting examples of civitas are being restored and adapted, they are also ready to serve as models for designers of the 21st century.  The cover project in this issue is a wonderful case in point.

Milwaukee Road DepotWhen I first read the story of the renovation of the Milwaukee Road Depot in Minneapolis, Minn., (see pp. 21-22), I thought of it as a praiseworthy adaptive re-use project:  A vast, abandoned railroad station in the heart of a major American city has been returned to active use.  No longer a civic eyesore, the old depot is again pulsing with people and commerce – the very essence of urban life.

As I looked at the cover “beauty shot” of the new restaurant set in what had been the Milwaukee Road passenger waiting room, it became clear that this project – and thousands like it across the country – has a significance far beyond the original goals of historic preservation.  Yes, when we restore historic landmarks like this we are preserving important parts of our cultural history.  And yes, it is a good “green” deed to recycle the embodied energy in existing structures rather than consign their bricks and stones to our ever-swelling landfills.  And yes, it is vital to the health of America’s cities to restore important downtown landmarks.

But beyond all of these “good things,” the restoration of major public spaces also provides important models for study for the next generation of architects.  Our historic buildings are an encyclopedia of design experience and wisdom, just as much as they are storehouses of embodied energy.  In our museums we index and catalog examples of the fine arts as learning tools for scholars and art students of the future.  Similarly, our nation’s collection of historic buildings are learning tools for the architectural historians and designers of the 21st century.

Reinventing the Classical Ideal
Of special interest at this time are the neo-classical buildings erected around the U.S. as part of the “City Beautiful” movement in the early 1900s.  At that time, architects – following the lead of the firm of McKim, Mead & White – were in the process of reinventing the classical ideal.  Architects studied the models of classical antiquity and Renaissance Italy for inspiration in the art of creating noble public spaces that elevated the human spirit and celebrated human achievement.  As a result, our major cities, from Boston to San Francisco, were the recipients of magnificent new public buildings that are beloved historic landmarks today, and which have enriched the civic life of the citizens to which they were given.

Exactly 100 years later, a whole new generation of architects is attempting to re-discover the classical ideal of civitas – the art of creating civilized urban spaces.  In many ways, the best teachers we have today are the historical classical buildings that are left to us.  The conceit of modernism – that “the past has nothing to teach” – has left most major centers of architectural education ignorant of the classical heritage.  Like Andrea Palladio who 400 years ago was measuring the baths of Diocletian and Caracalla to discover the design secrets of the ancients, architects today can still study the restored gems of America’s historic buildings to extract the accumulated design wisdom that is contained within their walls.

Historic classical buildings, especially, function as the mystic chords of memory through which the “frozen music” composed by master designers of the past can still be heard – and can inspire architects of the future.  The renovated Milwaukee Road Depot in downtown Minneapolis is a good place to start.

Built in 1898 as a waiting room for the Milwaukee Road terminal in Minneapolis, this classical space shows that the designer was heavily influenced by the architecture of Rome’s major public buildings.  Roman architects had mastered the art of creating public interiors with great emotional impact – a mastery that reached its zenith with The Pantheon.  Though built for a commercial, utilitarian purpose, the space pictured here has a lot to teach about CIVITAS – building civilized public spaces that express the human desire to create order and harmony out of a chaotic world.  The room is serene and in repose, yet has an animated beauty.  Among the design devices used to achieve this effect are:

•    CLASSICAL PROPORTIONS:  This space has pleasing proportions based on classical precedents.  Notwithstanding “The Golden Rectangle,” there is no single magic formula for creating harmonious interior proportions.  Many of the ancient and Renaissance designers developed their own systems, based on trial and error.

•    LIGHTING:  Although the space is fairly heavily ornamented, the room impacts a light, airy appearance by the way illumination is delivered to the interior.  A band of clerestory windows plus major skylights in the center of the ceiling create the impression of a loggia that is partially open to the sky.  The large chandeliers actually appear more like architectural ornament than light sources.

•    SPATIAL DIVISIONS:  To achieve a more human scale within this monumental space, large ornamented beams divide the ceiling into smaller sub-units.  On the walls, a dramatic horizontal cornice separates the band of clerestory windows from the lower wall space.

•    ARCADING:  One of the room’s most prominent features is the procession of arched openings that pierce the lower walls.  These openings lighten the room’s effect, while the parade of arched tops provide a dynamic rhythm.

•    MOLDINGS:  The classical moldings, cartouches, and coffers provide a lively interplay of light and shadow.  The gradation of light to dark further enlivens and enriches the wall and ceiling surfaces.

These features are only what the eye takes in at a distance.  All good classical spaces such as this continue to unfold and reveal ever-smaller features and details as the viewer draws closer.  The most minute details, however, bear a well-considered relationship to all of the larger elements within the structure.

PROJECT:  Milwaukee Road Depot Redevelopment, Minneapolis, Minn.
DECORATIVE RESTORATION:  Conrad Schmitt Studios, Inc., New Berlin, Wisc.
ARCHITECT:  Shea, Minneapolis, Minn.
PROJECT MANAGER:  Mike Craft, AIA, Minneapolis, Minn.
PROJECT ARCHITECTS:  Steve Oakley, Loren Morschen, Minneapolis, Minn.
INTERIOR ARCHITECT:  Rose Mack, Minneapolis, Minn.
HOTEL ARCHITECT:  Elness Swenson Graham Architects, Inc., Minneapolis, Minn.
OWNER/DEVELOPER:  CSM Corporation, St. Paul, Minn.
GENERAL CONTRACTOR:  Bor-Son Construction, Bloomington, Minn.
INTERIOR DESIGNERS:  Cowette Seward Associates, Greenfield, Minn., and Ste. Marie Design Corporation, Fargo, N.D.
ICE-RINK DESIGNER:  Brad Lemberg, Independent Consulting Engineers, Inc.,
Little Canada, Minn.

by Henrika Taylor

Designed by Charles Frost and built in 1898, the Milwaukee Road Depot in Minneapolis features one of the few surviving long-span, truss-roofed sheds in America.  The building was abandoned in 1978 and since that time numerous attempts have been made to find an adaptive reuse program for the 90,000-sq.ft. space comprised of the historic head house and shed space of the depot.  The successful proposal was a collaboration between Shea, a Minneapolis-based marketing and design firm; CSM Corp., the client and developer; Elness Swenson Graham Architects (ESG); and the city.

The program called for renovating the depot and preserving it as fully as possible as a local landmark.  Another requirement was to create rentable space for public and private functions.  Lastly, the project scope included bringing new hotel facilities to the downtown Minneapolis site.  All these requirements were to help revitalize and serve the under-utilized riverfront area.

Conrad Schmitt Studios of New Berlin, Wis., played a huge role in the restoration of the interiors, which re-created the ornate appearance of the original Turn-of-the-Century depot.  The Studios had taken an interest in the project five years earlier, and had tracked it through more than one owner before being hired for the project by CSM.  Stenciling, gilding, and glazing in a palette based on historical precedents, were used on the walls and ceilings of the terminal and intricate plasterwork was also restored and painted.

The Milwaukee Depot project was coordinated and overseen by Shea.  The firm was retained by the Minneapolis Community Development Agency in 1995 to restore the pink granite façade and tower of the depot building.

When the exterior “cleanup” was completed in 1997, Shea approached CSM with the idea of turning the train shed into an ice rink.  Further proposals to incorporate two new Marriott Hotels into the complex led to commissioning ESG.  Shea was charged with master-planning the site and the conceptual design of the hotels, as well as restoration of the depot’s head house and train shed.

Completed in summer 2001, the Milwaukee Road Depot multi-use facility has successfully contributed to the ongoing redevelopment of the Mississippi riverfront and the vitality of downtown Minneapolis.  An urban-design project that has earned an AIA Minnesota 2001 Honor Award, the collaboration of architects, contractors, interior designers, conservationists, and consultants of every stripe has produced what the AIA jurors called “a dynamic urban amenity.”

•    This closer view shows the courtyard formed by the new Marriott Hotel and Residence Inn.  Great care was taken to ensure that the designs of the new additions did not overwhelm the historic depot.  The heights of the new buildings are lower than the depot and the architectural details and materials complement the existing building.  (Photograph by Steve Bergerson)

•    In the adaptation of the depot into a hotel, the original appearance of the exterior was retained.  The distinctive clock tower, with its enormous Milwaukee Road sign, was preserved and is once again in working order.  (Photograph by Dana Wheelock)

•    This aerial view of the Milwaukee Road Depot Development after completion shows the original that served the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad Company, otherwise known as the Milwaukee Road, for 72 years.  The historic depot is now restored and serves as a banquet facility on the street level and houses 21 custom hotel suites on its upper levels.  A new five-story, 204-room Marriott Courtyard Hotel is joined to the depot and has meeting rooms, lounges, and dining facilities on its street level.  Also seen in the image is another new structure, a four-story Residence Inn Hotel.  The former train shed now houses an indoor public ice rink.  (Photograph by Steve Bergerson)

•    The train shed, now enclosed with a curtain wall by Empirehouse, Inc., of Minneapolis, houses a public ice rink.  This design preserves the 625-ft.-long truss-roofed structure.  (Photograph by Dana Wheelock)

•    Conrad Schmitt Studios employed numerous decorative techniques to restore the interior of the passenger terminal.  The recessed areas of the brackets were marbleized to match the marble of the wall cartouches, the acanthus leaves and other decorative highlights were gilded, and a period stenciled border was applied to each coffer in the 30-ft. ceiling.  (Photograph by Dana Wheelock)

•    In this “before” photograph of the passenger terminal, one can see the coffered ceiling, brackets, and clerestory of the passenger terminal which had been whitewashed in the 1930s.  After the depot was abandoned in 1978, 20 years of grime accumulated on the paint.  Moisture and temperature fluctuations further contributed to the deterioration of the painted surfaces and plaster ornamentation.  The walls and doorways were made of glazed terra cotta and the cartouches and floor are white marble.  (Photograph by Dana Wheelock)

•    Painted accents, once lost, have been returned to highlight the ornate architectural details of the passenger terminal.  A soft palette ties the glazed terra cotta, wood, plaster, and marble surfaces together to create an inviting space.  (Photograph by Dana Wheelock).

•    Abandoned for more than 20 years, the Milwaukee Road Depot building had fallen into disrepair.  The roof of the train shed had rotted through, and the building languished as restoration ideas came and went.  Still, the brick cladding remained in good condition, and the distinctive design of the building, combined with the romance of its railroad history, kept people thinking about what could be done.  (Photograph by Maria Saari)

Learning from the Baths (PDF 6.41 Mb)

Tell us about your next Project