One of Minnesota’s oldest visual-arts organizations is building a new home for American art in a landmark building in downtown St. Paul

By Joel Hoekstra

The opening of the new home for the Minnesota Museum of American Art in December 2018 was the culmination of a long journey for the organization. A decade earlier, the museum had closed the doors to its leased space in the former West Publishing Company building in downtown St. Paul. Founded as the St. Paul School of Fine Arts in 1894, the organization went on to build a nationally regarded education and exhibition program, occupying spaces in the Jemne Building and Landmark Center over the years. But by 2008, the MMAA’s financial position was precarious. When the West Publishing building was slated for demolition, the organization’s board dismissed its staff, put the collection in storage, and hired a new director, Kristin Makholm.

Makholm, previously with the Minneapolis College of Art & Design, was tenacious: She produced a catalog of the MMAA’s collection, mounted exhibitions in temporary spaces, and began a campaign to stabilize the organization’s finances. When a developer connected with the museum purchased the historic Pioneer-Endicott Building in 2011, planning to convert it into several hundred rental apartments, Makholm saw an opportunity and proposed mixing the museum into the complex. “We’re St. Paul’s only art museum, so it made sense for us to stay in St. Paul,” she says. With a location secured, the MMAA hired Minneapolis firm VJAA to design and configure its new gallery and office spaces within the storied structure.

VJAA approached the project with care and deliberation. Though long underutilized, the Pioneer Building (1889) was the city’s first skyscraper and for many years housed the city’s newspaper, while the Endicott Building (1890) was designed by Minnesota’s most celebrated architect, Cass Gilbert. The conjoined buildings had been altered and battered over the years, but the design team was determined to honor their history, even as they installed galleries dedicated to contemporary American art in all its varied forms.

Noting the location between downtown St. Paul and Lowertown, the design team cast the MMAA’s campaign as something bigger than just a museum project. “We saw a chance to be the bridge between the two neighborhoods,” says VJAA’s Jennifer Yoos, FAIA—a link between downtown’s commercial towers and Lowertown’s galleries and restaurants. Yoos and partner Vincent James, FAIA, began talking with Makholm about the venue as an “arts block.” Perhaps it could be a magnet that would attract other businesses—and even help support them. Local restaurants and coffee shops could stand in for a museum café. Gathering spaces in the MMAA could be rented by nearby businesses for meetings and events. “There was a vibrant set of community resources already there,” says James. “We saw a chance to knit them together with the museum.”

Like a sculpture from a block of stone, the new vision for the MMAA emerged in physical form late last year with the unveiling of the first phase of the new facility in the first two floors of the complex. The two-story lobby is illuminated by daylight from a once-covered atrium, and exposed brick, tile floors, and steel beams throughout the spaces showcase the structure’s history, even as new white-walled galleries showcase the works of 21st-century Minnesota artists.

“We were inspired by the existing complex and its layering of interwoven urban spaces, particularly the tactile materials in the original buildings and the remnants of historic alleyways and loading areas that are now interiors,” says Yoos. “The complex contains fragments of some fascinating architectural ideas about multilevel urban circulation—ideas that can be found in many vibrant urban spaces in European cities. The new vertical sculpture court and glass bridge, for example, act as a central organizing space while visually connecting the streetscape and lobby to the skyway.”

A second phase of construction, scheduled to begin in early fall, will transform an L-shaped arcade and adjoining offices into galleries for the MMAA’s permanent collection (see sidebar below). When fully complete, the 35,000-square-foot museum will include exhibition space, administrative offices (the museum now has a staff again), education spaces, an art study room, and a loading dock.

With the organization’s recent rebranding as “the M” and its new emphasis on new visions in American art, the VJAA design fits the museum’s orientation to a T, says Makholm. “An adaptive reuse of a building by Cass Gilbert seemed like the perfect opportunity for us,” she says. “After all, we’re a museum that focuses not only on American art but also on talent from Minnesota.”

The second phase of the Minnesota Museum of American Art’s renovation of the first two levels of the Pioneer-Endicott Building will begin construction this fall. It will add some 20,000 square feet of gallery space for the museum’s permanent collection, more than doubling the size of the M’s current exhibition space. The centerpiece of the new galleries will be the repurposing of the Endicott Building’s L-shaped, glass-ceilinged commercial arcade.

Location: St. Paul, Minnesota
Client: Minnesota Museum of American Art
Architect: VJAA
Principals: Jennifer Yoos, FAIA; Vincent James, FAIA; Nathan Knutson, AIA (managing principal)
Project team: Paul Yaggie, AIA; Nicolas Allinder
Construction manager: Greiner Construction
Size: 16,000 square feet
Cost: $6.25 million
Completion: November 2018
Photographer: Pete Sieger