A look back at Apache Plaza

Rick Nelson,  Star Tribune
May 13, 2004

Apache Plaza, we hardly knew ye.

After 43 years, St. Anthony's once-glittering shopping showplace is a pile of rubble. A $150 million mixed-use development called Silver Lake Village will rise in its place. But can today's big-box retailers ever replace the one-and-only Apache Plaza?

Doubtful.

For a generation raised on the Internet, Game Boys, DVDs and other stay-at-home diversions, it's almost impossible to fathom a world where people dressed in their Sunday best and flocked to Silver Lake Road and 37th Av. NE. to shop, socialize and nurture a profound attachment to a place everyone shorthanded to "Apache." Don't believe it? Just ask one of the 4,000 well-wishers who paid their last respects at a mid-March "Bulldozer Bash" farewell. Imagine a similar crowd mourning the loss of, say, the Shoppes at Arbor Lake.

Jeff Anderson, a northeast Minneapolis native who spent his formative years at Apache, has launched a Web site (http://www.apacheplaza.com)that serves as a loving tribute and sentimental gathering place for fellow Apache aficionados.

Anderson relishes countless Apache memories. "In those pre-Valleyfair days, it was the place to spend time when you were a kid, the coolest place in the world," he said. There was playing in the fire truck inside Kinney's Shoes, staring at the lollipop tree at Buttrey's, scouting out merchandise in the Boy Scout department at Van Arsdell's and hanging out at the soda fountain at G.C. Murphy. There was shopping for records at Musicland, buying cords at County Seat and model cars at Ward's, and having lunch at the Mad Hatter, the groovy Brady Bunch-esque cafeteria. Across the parking lot there was Disco Skate, the Studio 54 of St. Anthony. The very cool Chief movie theater was nearby.

And a clear favorite: a kiddie train, which choo-chooed its way around the central court every Christmas and Easter season (engineered by Santa and the Easter Bunny, respectively), delighting several generations of young shoppers.

"It was safe," Anderson said. "So it was never an issue to drop the kids off for the day at Apache. I've received so many e-mail responses from people who grew up there. One of them said, 'Thank you, Apache, for letting me be a kid.' "

One hot mall

Those who only knew Apache in its derelict twilight years will find it hard to imagine it ever being the talk of the town. But even as a blueprint, Apache Plaza was hot stuff. Initial plans, announced in 1959, called for a $7 million, 40-store development (by comparison, Southdale opened five years earlier as a $20 million, 70-store behemoth). Leasing proved so brisk that Apache ballooned to $11 million (about $69 million in 2004 dollars) and 60 stores.

Groundbreaking was held on April 18, 1960, and architect Willard Thorsen's design was a stunner. The sleek exterior, beautifully detailed in stone and brightly glazed brick, followed crisp modernist lines. But it was the futuristic central court, the epitome of America's unbridled postwar optimism, that became Apache's calling card. It was a virtually unencumbered space, larger than a football field and ringed by a band of clerestory windows of colored glass cast in cheery Mondrian-inspired patterns.

The court's real eye-catcher was its ceiling, a dramatic screen of 10 interlocking poured-concrete shells that appeared to float 30 feet above the gleaming white terrazzo floor. Smaller versions of the shells -- their technical name is hyperbolic paraboloid -- were perched above the court's four entrances, acting as an architectural preview of coming attractions. Jane Jetson would have been all over it.

Splashing pools, carefully landscaped gardens and contemporary storefronts added to the court's sophisticated aura. It was a magical space, and its sweeping volume, vaulted roof and jeweled glass subtly suggested a kind of modern-day Gothic cathedral. Although built on a smaller budget, Thorsen's exciting, cutting-edge Apache made Southdale look like a frumpy housewife.

Downtown's headliners -- Dayton's, Donaldsons, Powers -- said no to Apache. But a flurry of other familiar local names signed on: Maurice L. Rothschild, Young Quinlan Co., Harold, Jollys, Jack and Jill, Lancer, Gamble-Skogmo and Brown Photo, to name a few. Clayton Sonmore, owner of Becky's Cafeteria in Minneapolis, opened a pair of wildly overdecorated restaurants, the Arches and the Captain's Cove, two proto-eatertaineries that predated the Rainforest Cafe and its brethren by several decades.

A number of national heavy hitters landed at Apache, too, including J.C. Penney, Montgomery Ward, G.C. Murphy, F.W. Woolworth and National Tea Co. Bowl-o-Mat, a 36-lane, state-of-the-art bowling alley, and a 150-seat community room occupied the lower level.

Glory days end

The 1960s were Apache's glory years, but by the end of the decade, trouble was brewing. Larger, glitzier Rosedale, just 3 miles away, opened in 1969. Two years later, Young Quinlan left Apache, favoring its Rosedale and Northtown locations. (Van Arsdell's, another junior department store, rented the Y-Q space.) A loud warning bell rang in 1979, when Ward's defected to Rosedale.

Calamity came knocking on April 26, 1984, when a tornado ripped through Apache and the surrounding neighborhood. (That there were two looting arrests almost immediately after the tornado said something about Apache's declining fortunes.) Three days later, a late-season snowstorm caused devastating amounts of water damage. Every one of Apache's 68 stores suffered -- some were closed for months -- but merchants were determined to rebound.

And it did, for a while. A $6 million renovation put Apache back on its feet, although the clumsy "modernization" brutalized Thorsen's crowning achievement, transforming distinctive Apache into a generic 1980s shopping mall. The economic situation worsened, particularly as a shift in shopping patterns siphoned customers into the arms of the bigger, sexier Dales and Burnsville, Maplewood and Eden Prairie centers.

A tenant exodus (including Woolworth's, Penney's and the bowling alley) started in the early 1990s, and the words Apache Plaza and blight began to appear in the same sentence. Only a steady diet of flea markets and antique shows -- and a faithful senior-citizen clientele at Herberger's, which replaced Van Ardsell's in 1987 -- kept tumbleweeds from rolling across the increasingly pot-holed parking lot.

By 1995 the mall, now in a death spiral, was in the hands of a bank, the victim of a loan default. The once-bustling central court became little more than a collection of darkened storefronts, a toothless smile of a shopping center. Apache, forlorn and forgotten, its land far more valuable than its near-vacant building, had achieved teardown status, the state's largest shopping center to face the wrecking ball. The few remaining stores closed for good in January. Demolition began in April, starting in the mall's southwest corner, the same spot where the tornado had wreaked so much havoc.

Demolition was probably inevitable. Steven Buetow, an architect with SALA Architects of Minneapolis and former chair of the St. Paul Heritage Preservation Commission, says that no American species is more endangered than a 20-year old building, unless it's a 40-year-old building.

"The preservation community doesn't view them as assets," he said. "They're not historic, so they haven't bubbled up on the screen as being precious, or quaint, or cute. It's usually time for a new roof and heating plant. And the building's original social and cultural context no longer necessarily fits. In a shopping center's case, that usually means that the retail went somewhere else."

Maybe the greatest irony? Robert Roscoe, an architect with Design for Preservation in Minneapolis, said it's a safe bet that the residences, shops, park and Wal-Mart (yeah, Wal-Mart!) replacing Apache Plaza will be designed to look as if they belong to an earlier age ("that faux old-time look," Roscoe said) rather than reflect contemporary sensibilities, the way Thorsen's Space Age design embodied the essence of the early '60s.

"When suburbs think historic preservation, they save the old farmhouse, the old church," said Roscoe. "But shopping centers like Apache Plaza are part of the heritage that defines what a suburb really was. We're losing that."