Apr 062010


SpyTwinCities - Ford Centre, Minneapolis - Good Luck Twins window sign

"Good Luck Twins," reads a handmade banner in a fourth-floor window.

History, Ongoing: Nearly two decades after the Ford Motor Company decamped to St. Paul, the Honeywell Regulator Company took over the Minneapolis Ford building as an assembly plant (which of course explains why Ford Centre is sometimes referred to as the Honeywell Building).

As a side note, it’s unclear when or why the building acquired the name “Ford Centre” (nor why it was the Brit-like “Ford Centre” and not the more Amer-logical “Ford Center”). Over the years it seems to have been referred to formally as “the Ford Motor Company Building” or informally as “the Ford assembling plant.” (If anyone knows the answer to this minor mystery, please share it!).

In early 1985, Honeywell sold the Ford building to Hillcrest Development, which made the building a center for creative types. Studios popped up on every floor with artists, graphic designers, and photographers (some of whom lived in the building on the down low). Perhaps fittingly, the boheme vibe came with downsides: windows frosted in the winter, studios were often sweltering in the summer, and regulars knew better than to trust the elevator. But residents also talked of their love for the retro building and the strong sense of community they found there.

In 1997, Ford Centre was acquired by Schafer Richardson, the developer of several North Loop loft projects. The firm was set to condo-ize the Ford, but got too busy with other projects, according to published reports. In 2007, Schafer sold the Minneapolis Ford building to United Properties, owned by the Pohlad family, also owners of the Twins ball club. The price tag was reported to be $12.7–$13.5 million.

The Future of the Ford

Ford Centre is used to standing in the crosshairs of change. Parking lots have sprawled around it, the county garbage-burning facility moved in across the street, the I-394 freeway ramp arcs past its third-floor windows, and the Hiawatha and Northstar Light Rail Lines stop almost comically close to the building’s west wall.

As for the immediate future of the Ford Centre . . . uncertainty has clouded the picture. That the old factory managed to survive into a more preservation-conscious age seemed to auger well for its escaping demolition, the fate of many other historically interesting Minneapolis buildings over the past half century.

Encouragingly, the Ford Centre is part of the Minneapolis Warehouse Historic District, which was accepted onto the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. In 2009, the City of Minneapolis designated the same area as a Local Historic District—a designation that confers an extra level of protection.

In October 2009, a report by the city (here’s the pdf for it) specifically cited Target Field as a concern, noting that the new ballpark (along with expanding light rail) “will increase the development pressure in the Minneapolis Warehouse Historic District … [T]his pressure could also result in the loss of resources and the erosion of the integrity of the district, which would undermine … the heritage of Minneapolis.”

As for recent developments … after Pohlad’s United Properties took over Ford Centre, life for tenants became shaky at best. Long-running leases became month to month and some rents reportedly doubled. Artists who’d been in the Ford building for roughly two decades were pushed out or gave up; many offices and studios emptied.

Construction contractors for Target Field such as Mortenson Construction took space in the Ford Centre; many were still there in June 2010. Altogether, roughly 50 tenants were in the building in mid-2010, most of them creative services folks and all of them on month-to-month leases.

Spy Twin Cities - Minneapolis Ford Centre, 1914

An artist sketch of the Ford Centre around the time of its debut, 1914.

The ground floor of the building also has become home to an Anytime Fitness Club, which caters to the growing residential community in North Loop condos. Recently, Ford Centre became home to the offices of the Minneapolis/St. Paul Film Festival (it seems not unreasonable to speculate that the Film Festers may have been given a deal by Bill Pohlad, a member of the famous family and film-biz player who’s produced films including Brokeback Mountain).

Gone from the back of the first floor, but not forgotten by many of us, is a gem of a cafe called Fifth at Fifth. It was started in the early 1990s by Martha Samuelson, who made it a popular breakfast-and-lunch destination with arty types and professionals alike (and later went on to run the now-defunct Star Cafe in Stockholm, WI).

Current Status: Managed by NorthMarq real estate—like United Properties, also part of the Pohlad family of companies—the Ford Centre in 2010 was advertising space rental in the building, but only on month-to-month terms or with leases just until December 2010.

In late 2009, the Minneapolis School District began openly eyeing the building as a possible consolidated headquarters. Scuttlebutt among building insiders, however, suggested that was off the table by mid-2010.

With the proximity to the new Twins stadium (and fantastic views, though not quite all the way to the ballfield), the building seems certain to be in play in some fashion.

Tenants in the Ford shared a variety of rumors flying around the checkered-linoleum hallways of the building—that Ford Centre would be renovated for condos, or that it would become a hotel catering to visiting teams. Alarmingly, some were convinced that the building would be torn down—its historic status notwithstanding—to make room for something more profitable than the constraints of the Ford would allow.

Spy Twin Cities - Target Field and Ford Centre

Target Field, left, butts up against historic Ford Centre, the larger red building.

In April 2010, the seventh floor of Ford Center was gutted in the hope of wooing a potential “big tenant” that reportedly was considering taking over the floor—a large local architectural firm, according to one rumor passed along by an electrical contractor in the building.

For what it’s worth, I’m keeping my amateur historian’s eye on the future of the Ford—a building whose character I love and whose history is part of the weave of Minneapolis heritage. It didn’t always take your breath away to walk into the truncated lobby of the Ford Centre, which more resembles a sad little waiting area at a suburban Ford dealer than a historic 96-year-old Model T factory. The only interesting thing in the lobby is the wonderful three-dimensional sculpture from old Ford auto parts, created by artist Marcia McEachron.

But despite the Ford building’s remuddling with sheetrock and mismatched linoleum, and despite the pedestrian sheetrocked offices lining zigzagging ersatz hallways, you could often feel and even glimpse what the Ford was.

SpyTwinCities - Ford Centre's gutted seventh floor.

On the Ford Centre's seventh floor, I caught a glimpse of the factory that once was ... and took in terrific views of today

Walking past the building’s old rail lines and loading docks, for instance, or riding its huge and groaning freight elevators. Or opening a clanging metal door onto a massive concrete stairway to be met by blinding sun and views of the changing city through 40 steel-sashed panes of wavy glass (with multiple coats of grime possibly dating to Edsel Ford’s last visit in 1924).

And, especially, in certain corners of the Ford where you could get a glimpse of the old factory spaces that once were, all cement floors and pillars, walls of windows, dangling wires and cast-iron pipes … stark, simple, light-filled, redolent of history, and strangely lovely. (It’s not just us … The friendly electrician I ran into on the gutted seventh floor was eager to wax historical. “Can’t you just look out at this floor and imagine workers putting together Model T’s?” he asked.

In any case, this classic Minneapolis building where Model Ts rolled out the door in 1914 is still standing even as everything in its immediate orbit has changed. For now, it’s enough to know that the Ford Centre’s funky, dirty-paned, charmingly unrestored historic self will be part of what baseball fans see, a century later, as they come to watch the Minnesota Twins hit it out of the park at the brand-new Target Field.

Coda: In November 2010, the Pohlad-backed United Properties, the Ford Centre’s owner, announced that it had enlisted Minneapolis architectural giant Hammel, Green, and Abrahamson (HGA) to to remake the historic structure into a “Class A-type office building,” according to a Nov. 18, 2010 report in the Minneapolis StarTribune, which projected the cost of the makeover at a cool $40 million. According to the Building Owners and Managers Association, Class A buildings are “the most prestigious buildings competing for premier office users,” with premium rents and luxe features.

United Properties also announced in 2010 that henceforth the building would be officially known as “Ford Center” rather than the “Ford Centre” name it had carried for nearly a century.

View from the Minneapolis Ford Centre or Minneapolis Ford Center

Natural Light: View from the 7th floor of the historic Ford Centre.

With the Ford’s days as a scruffy but cool refuge for artists and photogs clearly over, one obvious question was who the tenants would be for the new prime and pricey Ford. Suspense lasted only a few days: Confirming the April 2010 rumor passed along by our trusty Ford Centre electrician pal that a large architecture firm had been scoping out space, news came just before Thanksgiving that HGA itself would move into the rehabbed structure upon its completion in summer 2011.

The firm, which at the moment inhabits the historic Litin Paper Building at 701 N. Washington Avenue, will lease the first four floors of the renovated Ford—83,000 square feet, or roughly a third of the 230,000 of leasable square feet. Once ensconced in the Ford Centre, HGA will look out directly onto one of its more prominent recent projects: Target Field, for which it was the co-architect.

No other tenants were immediately announced in local news reports; in a Nov. 24 2010 Finance & Commerce piece; a United Properties vice president would say only that “there is strong leasing activity in this project.”

A year later, another major tenant was announced: An April 2011 Finance & Commerce piece reported that the Olson branding/advertising agency had sprung for 125,000 square feet in the Minneapolis Ford Centre (sorry, I’m sticking with the original name). The agency would take four-and-a-half floors of the Ford, consolidating 320 employees from three other city buildings. With the Olson deal, the building was reportedly 90% leased.

What all this means for the historic integrity of the building is unknown. It was hard to be reassured when United Properties exec Bill Katter was quoted as trumpeting that the rehabbed Ford would be “basically a brand new building.” HGA has reaped acclaim for its respectful renovations of historic buildings, such as its beautiful 2002 rehab of the 1916 Art Moderne/Beaux Arts Pantages Theatre—coincidentally designed by Kees and Colburn, architects of the Ford Centre.

United Properties got a greenlight for its plans from both the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission and the National Park Service, which oversees building as a “certified historic structure” within the Minneapolis Warehouse Historic District.

HGA’s announced plans for the building (in a real estate newsletter) included encouraging details: “exposed columns that feature the original building architecture,” recreation of the historic building entrance on 5th Street, and window updating that preserved the original window design. Yet the “brand new building” boast, coupled with the report in the earlier Strib piece that the Minneapolis Planning Commission had signed off on “a small addition to the building,” couldn’t help but set off alarms for preservationists keenly aware of the city’s poor record of preserving historic structures.

As of early 2011, few details had emerged about exactly what the building would look like when the construction crews are done. Minutes from meetings of the Minneapolis Historic Planning Commission on October 26, 2010, and November 30, 2010, showed approval of building rehab plans that seem appropriate to the building’s historic designation, setting guidelines for window restoration, repointing of brick walls, and removal of a modern elevator shaft. They also confirmed approval of the construction of a brand-new building vestibule, to front the 5th Avenue sidewalk; the Finance & Commerce article suggests—although without amplification—that the addition will “re-create the building’s historic entrance.

The city subsequently approved the construction of a pair of rooftop protrusions for a penthouse elevator and chiller equipment, both up to 14 feet high. “Even though the chillers sit in front of the iconic Ford Centre water tower on the north elevation,” a February 2011 Historic Preservation Commission report noted, “the chillers are setback to the middle of the building which will reduce their visibility.”

In March 2011, the National Park Service denied an appeal of the approval it had given for United Properties’ redevelopment plans. As summarized in the decision letter, the appeal focused on plans to raise the floors to insert wiring and ductwork, altering floor-to-ceiling height, the space between windowsills and floor, and the “sense of openness inherent in a warehouse.”

In summer 2011, the developer received a $253,000 state grant, awarded through the City of Minneapolis, to clean up petroleum contamination (along with other pollutants) on the 1.2-acre site.

Lingering questions …A stealth tour of the building’s seventh floor recently found us awestruck by nearly everything: by the massive concrete bones of the building, its immense expanses of floor and ceiling, the vestigial conveyor tracks of the old factory floor, the dazzling sunstruck views of downtown through the Ford Centre’s many-paned steel windows.

How much of the building’s historic character will be preserved, and how well? Is anyone from the city tasked with supervising the renovation of this important part of Minneapolis history? Will the new “Class A office building” to be fashioned from the Ford retain more than respectful vestiges of the building’s provenance—and its funky, homely, often lovely, industrial grade charm—as a 1914 Model T assembly plant?

Reading one of the city’s reports signing off on rooftop protrusions gave us pause. It seems implausible that preservation of the Ford’s historic character would best be accomplished through “substantial rehabilitation,” but that seemed to be precisely the view of city planners. Here’s the quote:

“The Ford Centre is an important and highly visible part to the Minneapolis Warehouse District. The building captures all three areas of the district’s significance. The building embodies high-quality commercial architecture (lightly classicized, concrete-frame industrial), built by master architects (Kees and Colburn), and captures the social significance of the district (major employment center). . . . [The city] agrees with [the developer’s statement] that, ‘The [Ford Centre] building is a visually important anchor to a corner of the historic district. In completing a substantial rehabilitation of the Ford Centre as proposed, the project will ensure that the building continues that role in future decades.'”—City of Minneapolis report, February 2011

December 2011: End of the funky Ford? Check out the slideshow HGA has put up of the Ford Center renovation.

by K.M. Tyler for Spy Twin Cities.
©2014 SpyTwinCities.com.
Thanks for reading … if you borrow or quote from SpyTC, please include a shout-out and link to Spy Twin Cities.

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  8 Responses to “Target Field’s Funky Old Neighbor: Historic Ford Center”

  1. I had space in the Ford quite a few years ago for my design business. I liked it a lot although the word funky was one I remember using for the heating system and the drafty old windows. The building did have a lot of character and some of the tenants were pretty interesting characters too. I hope that whatever the Pohlads do to the building they will respect its past and keep some parts of it for craftsmen and artists.

  2. Just stumbled over your website while researching that ‘cool red brick building’ next to Target Field… It caught my eye and I was eager to find out more about it.
    Lucky me that you did all the work for me 🙂
    Great article, thank you so much – loved it. Will bookmark your site and certainly will be a regular guest. Awesome work you guys do!

  3. So glad you found our fact-crammed homage to the funky Ford. Isn’t it cool to see this 1914 brick rectangle juxtaposed alongside the shiny 21st-century stadium as you swoop around Target Field on Fifth Street? Thanks for the compliments about our website. Spy Twin Cities truly is a labor of love. Kind words from kindred spirits are deeply appreciated!

  4. Thanks for the article! I was up on top of the Ford Centre water tower just last week! Great building but the previous remodeling done over the years left much to be desired and almost whatever they do should be an easy improvement. Also, sadly for me, there’s not really a basement, let alone a sub basement, and if the old power tunnels connect, I didn’t find ’em. Still, it was cool to find myself on top of the OLD Ford Assembly Plant, after so many years of exploring the Saint Paul plant – especially since I didn’t even realize it had been an actual assembly plant, and not just some kind of storage building as I’d assumed for some reason … anyway, good write up! PS – did you notice the (relatively) ornate tops of the support pillar columns on the third floor?

  5. The remodeling of the Ford Centre brings back memories of my first engineering job with Ellerbe Architects in 1958. We moved from the First Bank building in St Paul to the Western Electric Building (Nalpak). I was involved in designing the HVAC systems. I am a retired staff member of HGA and work on contact for Karges-Faulconbridge, Inc in St Paul. My involvement in the mechanical systems of the Ford Centre is to witness test the stairwell pressurization smoke control systems. I love working on Historical Buildings.

  6. We just moved into the Ford Centre. I’m on 4th floor, looking out at the light rail station and Target Field. Whenever a freight train goes by, we feel a little rumble in the building, and often take a peek at the main line that runs under the western promenade of Target Field, to see how many engines are on it.

  7. Thanks for the great article! My company is moving in to the building, so I really appreciated finding this insight into its history.

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