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?
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
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
"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