The North Loop’s Colorful History
By Mike Binkley, North Loop Neighborhood Association
The North Loop has been through some dramatic ups and downs over the past century, from a booming distribution center to a neglected warehouse district to the dynamic urban neighborhood and entertainment district we see today. We are launching a new series of videos and web posts to give you a look back at how far we’ve come. This is Episode One.
From the late 1800s to the 1930s, the North Loop was the center of a wholesaling and manufacturing boom that turned Minneapolis into one of the key distribution centers in the U.S. With its modern rail system expanding, the city was in a prime location to do big business with settlers, making their way across the prairies.
Historian Rolf Anderson said, “As immigrants were settling in northwestern Minnesota, as the Dakota territories were opening for settlement, there was a huge demand for agricultural implements, all the plows that broke the prairie soil.”
The Lindsay Brothers from Wisconsin built a warehouse along 1st Street in 1895, shipping out buggies, harnesses, wagons and “nothing but good farm implements” according to their ads.
“There were many national firms that actually opened branches here in the Twin Cities, to serve this area that was being settled,” said Anderson. “International Harvester for example. There was the Moline, Milburn and Stoddard Company, John Deere Company from Moline, Illinois. In fact, there were so many implement dealers that constructed buildings in the warehouse district, there was an area here that was known as Implement Row. There was a point just after the turn of the 20th century where Minneapolis and this district became the largest distribution point in the world for agricultural implements, so the statistics are really quite remarkable.”
In fact, by 1915, what was happening here in the North Loop was already generating more revenue than the city’s famous flour and grain mills. Wholesaling and warehousing became a billion dollar industry here in 1919. And it went beyond farm implements. Manufacturers moved in to the rail yards too, producing and shipping everything from Model T Fords to Lavoris mouthwash. From Sunshine Biscuits to Gurley’s Candies to mixed nuts imported from overseas. Creamette, with its quicker-cooking pasta, began in the North Loop.
Five buildings still standing on First Street used to be hotels, including the Foster House, Market Hotel, Hennepin Hotel, Chicago House and American House.
“There were often livery stables and so forth because in the early years, of course, everyone was dependent upon horse-drawn traffic,” said Anderson. “In the early days, the streetcars were pulled by horses. The Colonial Warehouse building was owned by the Minneapolis Street Railway Company which, in fact, was the streetcar system, and so cars could be pulled into these large bays. You see large arched openings along the street and streetcars could be pulled into these bays to be serviced and so forth.”
Throughout the North Loop, you can see intrigiuing design elements in these old warehouses, created by some of the leading architects of their day. The man who designed the Lindsay Brothers warehouse, Harry W. Jones, would later create what’s now Butler Square, in downtown Minneapolis. The old Maytag facility was from architect Christopher Boehme, one of the men who designed what’s now the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis. And an old warehouse at the corner of 1st and 1st got a major re-design by the same architect who did our State Capitol, and the U.S. Supreme Court building, Cass Gilbert.
“Here in this building we see how a major national architect handles a simple warehouse building. And he did it in a very inventive and interesting way,” said Anderson. “Owners wanted to create an image for the company as well, and create a visual presence and you can see aspects of that throughout the district where certain details were incorporated to, say, display the name of a company or say with the John Deere Company, there was two terra cotta deer heads on either side of the entrance to help advertise this company. Or the Sherwin Williams Company had a globe above their entrance with paint spilling over their globe, their ‘Cover the Earth’ logo just to again advertise who they were.”
But eventually, these companies would turn to newer forms of transportation that were more flexible and economical than freight trains. That meant they no longer had to be clustered so tightly in tall buildings along the railroad tracks. Along with the Great Depression, that meant a steady decline for the North Loop. Many companies left for bigger spaces in outlying areas, and the downtown business district expanded away from here.
But because this area attracted so little interest for decades, these old buildings weren’t being torn down to make way for new high-rises, like in other parts of the city.
“This district has slept quietly through these decades following the Great Depression and this area came into the modern era much as we see it today,” said Anderson.
Now, it’s part of the charm of today’s North Loop, the historic features that remain, in classic buildings modernized for the 21st century.
“Sometimes you can see the most amazing architectural details simply by looking up toward the top of the building,” said Anderson. “There are still buildings where you can see painted signage that reflect perhaps several owners over the course of the building. Some of the stone work that you still detect here in the district near the bridges or the rail yard, I mean these are massive stones, like Herculean in scale and that, I think, is really helpful for us to understand this district.”