A rest-area facility just south of Owatonna, Minnesota, brings a new slant to highway architecture

By Thomas Fisher, Assoc. AIA

Highway rest stops rarely win design awards, but that has begun to change in Minnesota. The Department of Transportation wants its rest areas to “serve as ambassadors of the state,” says MnDOT program manager Rob Williams. “We have a great design community here,” adds MnDOT project manager David Schilling, AIA, “and we want to take advantage of that. These rest areas may be the only places a traveler through Minnesota ever visits, and they need to represent us well.”

To see how well, take a drive along Interstate 35 south of Owatonna and stop at the Straight River Northbound Safety Rest Area. Designed by Snow Kreilich Architects, this year’s AIA National Firm Award recipient, along with Coen+Partners, a recent National Design Award winner for landscape architecture, this rest area shows just how talented Minnesota’s design community is, and it presents travelers with only one problem: They won’t want to leave.

Cars and trucks arrive at the rest area in the same way that the adjacent Straight River runs: circuitously. The highway off-ramp takes a long S-curve around a knoll, giving travelers a chance to slow down and gather their thoughts. “Driving,” wrote French sociologist Jean Baudrillard, “is a spectacular form of amnesia,” and this rest area brings drivers back to their senses, letting them wind their way to a stop.

The building itself isn’t immediately apparent. The one-story, flat-roofed structure keeps a low profile, and its dark-masonry walls let it merge into the shadows of the mature trees that surround it. Only the entrance portal, with its angled, stainless-steel cladding, stands out visually, recalling the shiny materials and rectangular shapes of the truck trailers parked nearby. “It was a very contextual response to the site,” says Snow Kreilich’s Matthew Kreilich, FAIA, “which includes a lot of cars and trucks.”

Like the entry portal, which beckons visitors to walk toward its glass doors, the entry plaza also slows people down. Its columnar lights, concrete benches, and deciduous trees, lined up in rows, encourage weary travelers to sit, while two black-painted, steel-framed picnic pavilions, as well as an intriguing Möbius-shaped play structure, also invite people to stay. “The plaza is more urban than it is in most of our rest areas,” says Williams. This one lets people who have just traveled great distances at high speeds remember what it feels like to be a pedestrian again.

The building’s interior has an equally modern feel. Clad in a dark tile that’s similar in shape and proportion to the exterior masonry, the day-lit lobby has a tile floor that continues the sweep of the plaza inside, with boxy, wood-topped benches. To one side of the lobby stand pairs of men’s and women’s restrooms, and, to the other, concession machines, mechanical and custodial spaces, and a restroom for those needing assistance—all of it detailed with durability in mind. “Every detail, every fixture,” says project architect Mary Springer, AIA, “was reviewed multiple times by the many subject-matter experts in MnDOT.”

Fritted glass in the rear wall brings dappled light into the lobby from the wooded ravine behind the building. Beyond the glass is the rest area’s real tour de force: a terrace that extends across the entire back of the building and that “wasn’t even in the program,” adds Springer. Like the entry portal, the terrace has a faceted, stainless-steel wall that runs to the edges of the building, making the structure disappear and letting nature steal the show. “We wanted the building to be an experience,” says Kreilich, and in this they have succeeded brilliantly. It’s worth the trip.

Location: Near Owatonna, Minnesota
Client: Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT)
Architect: Snow Kreilich Architects
Principals-in-charge: Matthew Kreilich, FAIA; Julie Snow, FAIA
Project architect and project manager: Mary Springer, AIA
Project designer: Kevin Ellingson, AIA
Landscape architect: Coen+Partners
General contractor: The Joseph Company
Size: 6,290 square feet (including main building, two picnic shelters, and storage building)
Completion: August 2017
Photographer: Corey Gaffer

“The most exquisite rest-area building I’ve ever seen. The only problem is that it would be a very long time before I got back into my car to drive. This little building is incredibly sensitive to its context, well sited, and beautiful. What more do you want from architecture?”
—Mimi Hoang, AIA