The southeastern Minnesota city contains numerous design gems, including works by Franklin Ellerbe, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Eero Saarinen

By Joel Hoekstra

Rochester, the third-largest city in Minnesota, has always been a pragmatic place. Its primary industries—medicine and computing—attract people who value science, data, results, method, and performance. Form should follow function. Fashion leads to folly.

But over the decades, Rochester has amassed a collection of architectural gems—buildings that bear the signature of starchitects and notable locals alike. Efforts to energize its downtown with gardens and bike paths have recently begun to bear fruit, and a significant expansion of the Mayo Civic Center, by regional architecture and engineering firm TSP, is set to open in 2017. Next door, looming over the south fork of the Zumbro River, stands the award-winning Rochester Art Center (2004), designed by HGA Architects and Engineers. A few blocks away, the charming Chateau Theatre (1927), designed by St. Paul architect Franklin Ellerbe, is now owned by the city, which hopes to turn the former vaudeville house into a cultural hub with help from Miller Dunwiddie Architecture. Rochester, once a stagecoach stop on the ride from Dubuque to St. Paul and now a destination for people seeking medical treatment, boasts more than its fair share of design character.

To get a sense of the economic engine that has fueled Rochester’s growth, start at the Mayo Clinic, a multi-building campus located downtown. Dr. William Worral Mayo and his two sons, William and Charles, teamed with a group of Franciscan nuns to establish the clinic in the late 1880s, but it was the Romanesque-style Plummer Building (1928), with its bell tower, terrazzo floors, bronze doors, and winged-serpent details, that gave the clinic an impressive visual presence.

Today, most visitors check in across the street at the Gonda Building (2001), designed by Cesar Pelli Associates and Ellerbe Becket. The 21-story building, with a marble-sheathed lobby that overlooks a sunken garden, was fused to another Ellerbe creation, the Mayo Building (1954). Originally 10 stories tall, the Mayo Building was expanded to 18 stories in 1969. Though nearly a half-century old, the tower’s variegated gray-marble exterior, trimmed with brise-soleil and rose-tinted windows, retains a simple, contemporary feel that contrasts nicely with the nearby Rochester Public Library (1937)—now the Mayo Medical School Mitchell Student Center—designed by Rochester-area architect Harold Crawford.

Medical issues often force us to confront our mortality, so it’s no surprise that a number of religious buildings surround the Mayo Clinic. Design-wise, the most notable of these include the keystone-shaped St. John the Evangelist (1957)—described by architectural historian Larry Millett as an “ungainly but fascinating church, which adheres to no architectural style other than its own”—and B’nai Israel Synagogue (2008), an elegantly intimate worship space with a tabernacle that floats above the floor, designed by HGA architect Joan Soranno, FAIA.

Wealth generated by the Mayo also built the city’s residential neighborhoods. Climb “Pill Hill,” located southwest of downtown, and you’ll find the Foundation House, the Romanesque manse that Ellerbe designed for William J. Mayo, as well as several homes conceived by hometown hero Crawford. None of the dwellings are open to the public, but the Plummer House (1924), an English Tudor built by a prominent Mayo physician, is occasionally open for tours in summer, and its gardens can be explored year round. “Passing by the Foundation House and the Plummer House on walks with my dog continues to inspire me, even after nine years of living in the neighborhood,” says 9.Square architect Adam Ferrari, AIA.

Rochester’s outer districts contain a trove of design treasures as well. Fans of environmental design and sustainability technology will enjoy Cascade Meadow Wetlands & Environmental Science Center (2010). Designed by LHB, the science center overlooks 115 acres of restored wetlands and oak savanna. Frank Lloyd Wright also took heed of Rochester’s natural setting when he planted a pair of Usonian homes, sleek and built with inexpensive materials, on Skyline Ridge. And farther south, in an area known as Mayo Woodlands, on the edge of the Zumbro, Minnesota architects David Salmela, FAIA, and Tim Alt, AIA, teamed with landscape architect Shane Coen to erect contemporary glass boxes for living (2004). The initial homes have won several awards, yet they failed to spark a boom in modern residential building in the development.

Alas, few of Rochester’s most interesting buildings are open for tours, including one of the most famous: Eero Saarinen’s IBM Manufacturing and Training Facility (1958, with several expansions). The Finnish-American architect wrapped his creation in a royal-blue glass membrane—the thinnest in the world at the time. Built on a campus of rolling green prairie, the complex blended beauty and technology in a simple manner that heralded the space age and brought fame to Rochester. “‘Big Blue’ was a big piece of an earlier boom in Rochester’s growth,” says architect Teresa McCormack, AIA, of the Urban Studio in Rochester. “The departure from a regional style emphasized IBM’s intent to be a leader in the international marketplace.”

What does the future hold for Rochester architecture? Ambitious plans for the Destination Medical Center (see sidebar below and feature in our January/February 2016 issue) signal a new wave of construction downtown. As the DMC effort gains momentum over the next decade, let’s hope Rochester continues to demand the best from architects, building on the heritage it already has.



The biggest architecture news out of Rochester centers on the city’s Destination Medical Center master plan, created by New York firm Perkins Eastman. The plan outlines the revitalization of six downtown subdistricts, each with its own character and focused on a major open space, with a transit system linking them all. “The best and the brightest want to live in authentic urban places where they can . . . walk to work, take transit, be on a bike path,” says Perkins Eastman principal Peter Cavaluzzi, FAIA.

The design gems highlighted here are by no means the only important buildings in Rochester. If we omitted one of your favorites, let us know on Twitter or Instagram. Just tag your addition to the list with @archmnmag and #rochesterdesigngem.