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Preserving Minneapolis' Retail Legacy

Preserving Minneapolis' Retail Legacy

Surprisingly little is being done to safeguard the former Dayton's department store.

Macy’s has officially closed its doors in downtown Minneapolis, departing with little clarity about what will become of the period interiors of the historic business. Built in 1902, the former Dayton’s department store is more than an iconic site, “it’s a significant part of the city’s history,” says Linda Mack, former architecture writer for the Star Tribune and a member of the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission.

Preserving the history goes beyond the building’s architecture, including the Art Deco fourth floor women’s bathroom, paneled Oak Grill and the Streamline Moderne Skyroom. It’s about preserving elements that represent an era in commerce when department stores were the retail hub of a community. “Department stores were beloved by communities,” says Frank Edgerton Martin, a Twin Cities-based landscape historian and architectural writer. “It’s why people feel a great sense of loss.”

Yet it appears little is being done to preserve these spaces. In February, the Minnesota Historical Society accepted a small collection of Dayton’s artifacts donated by Macy’s, including restaurant menus, newsletters, shopping bags, auditorium show posters and other ephemera. But the society has taken no steps to preserve the building’s historic elements and will not become involved unless the building’s new owner, 601W Properties of New York, applies for the state’s historic tax credit, according to Ginny Way, National Register architectural historian at the Minnesota Historical Society.

Mack has been working with City Councilmember Lisa Goodman to contact 601W, but thus far to no avail. According to Mack, the building is eligible for the National Register, but it’s up to the redeveloper to initiate the process. Such status does not protect the building, but owners rarely apply for it unless they want to undertake historic preservation for the tax credits.

The building’s sale closed as TCB went to press. At the close, 601W revealed a consortium of redevelopment partners, including San Francisco-based architecture firm Gensler. Its representative indicated an intent to use historic tax credits to facilitate the redevelopment.

If this plan is inadequate to city officials, Mack says the city has the option to designate the building through its Heritage Preservation Commission, which would then require approval for changes to elements identified in the designation.

“But,” Mack continues, “I know the city is hoping to maintain a highly cooperative relationship with the developer, and may prefer the more informal approach of encouraging the developer to do the right thing.”

Given the city’s reputation for allowing demolition of historic structure after historic structure over many decades, such hopefulness will strike some as cold comfort, indeed.