Photo courtesy Irac Nathanson.

By Iric Nathason

When Minneapolis skyways first appeared in the early 1960s, local skeptics questioned the long-term viability of these new pedestrian walkways that spanned downtown streets. But skeptics were won over as skyways began to boost foot traffic and property values. Local boosters were joined by urban enthusiasts at the national level who came to view the skyways as a tool that could blunt the effects of suburbanization and re-urbanize the city’s retail core.   

In recent years, these early enthusiasts have given way to a new generation of critics who take a dim view of the skyways’ impact on urban life in downtown Minneapolis. Their spokesman, Eric Dayton, is a younger member of the famous retailing family that helped build the downtown walkways. Parting company with his illustrious grandfather and granduncles, Dayton asserts that these 20th-century developments “represent 1967 urban design thinking and that thinking is not working for us anymore.” Dayton goes on to say that the walkways “rob our streets of the energy and vitality that come with foot traffic, the lifeblood of healthy retail.” To make his point, he called for the skyways to be dismantled, a move that even his staunchest allies know will probably never happen.   

Love them or hate them, the ubiquitous skyways continue to define a downtown facing new challenges in 2021. Local developer Leslie Park is generally considered the father of the skyway system. Park’s collaborator, Minneapolis architect Edward Baker, can claim joint paternity. Park contributed the financial and political heft that propelled the sky-way movement. Baker provided the architectural vision and blueprints that propelled the skyways into reality.  

“They were born nearly 25 years and 400 miles apart in different pockets of the Midwest. But when Leslie Park and Edward Baker came together in Minneapolis more than 60 years ago, they changed the face of downtown,” noted Star Tribune columnist Curt Brown.  

A native of Chicago, Baker moved to Minneapolis with his family in the early 1930s. The future architect graduated from West High School and spent two quarters studying engineering at the University of Minnesota before enlisting in the US Navy in 1944. After his discharge, the young naval veteran returned to the University to study architecture “because I liked to draw and I liked math. . . . Then I had to start learning . . . Back then, I didn’t even know who Frank Lloyd Wright was,” Baker later recalled.  

Baker’s years at the university in the late 1940s came during the postwar boom that generated a huge demand for architects who could design new buildings springing up all over the country. “Any architect with any ability at all could teach or practice. Many of my instructors were building up their own practice so they only taught us as it fit into their business. The last few years I was in school, I seldom went to class. As a result, I was less influenced by the faculty’s design philosophy, and more or less developed my own,” Baker noted in a 1976 interview. 

While still at the university, Baker was hired by a local architecture firm, Larsen and MacLaren, where he spent the next 10 years receiving intensive on-the-job training. At Larsen and MacLaren, the young architect met Leslie Park, the man who would help shape his career over the next 30 years. Park served as president of Baker Properties, a local real estate firm founded by Morris Baker (no relation to Ed.) Park and his partner had devised a plan for an elevated walkway spanning 5th Street that would connect a Baker Properties building with the now-defunct Powers Department Store. They took the plan to Larsen and MacLaren where they first encountered a young, newly minted architect named Ed Baker.  

The 5th Street walkway never got beyond the idea stage, but it planted the seeds for a more ambitious proposal by Baker Properties for an elevated walkway over a key downtown stretch of Nicollet Avenue. Ed Baker was assigned to design the project in 1956. Later, he recalled that the proposed development was more than a little nerve wracking. “I was only in my mid-twenties, and I didn’t really know anything. I hadn’t that much experience.”  

Despite a severe case of the nerves, Ed came up with a design that impressed Les Park. It called for a four-block elevated plaza, 14 feet above Nicollet Avenue, extending from 5th to 9th Street. Under Baker’s plan, the pedestrian-only plaza would serve as a cover for the Nicollet Avenue roadway that would remain open to cars and buses. His diagrams showed escalators at each of the Nicollet Avenue intersections that would bring pedestrians up to the plaza where they would find shops and restaurants reaching out from second floor levels of the existing buildings lining Nicollet Avenue. When property owners along the street, including the Dayton’s, opted for a different plan that later became the Nicollet Mall, Baker’s plan was shelved. But it helped strengthen his ties to Les Park. 

In 1959, Baker, then 32, decided to strike out and establish his own firm. “The firm was called Edward F. Baker Associates, but it was really only a two-person operation,” recalled Ed’s son, Jon, who later became his father’s partner. “It was just Dad and my mother. She was the bookkeeper and receptionist.” The new firm limped along during its first six months with little in the way of commissions. But then, one day, Les Park showed up at the office, like “a fairy godmother,” as Ed called him, and asked Baker to go to work on a major new project Park wanted to develop at the corner of Marquette Avenue and 7th Street. The project, known as the Northstar Center, was the spark that ignited Baker’s career. 

As he prepared the drawings for Park’s mixed-use project, Baker revived the idea of the raised plaza that he and Park had proposed for Nicollet Avenue several years earlier. Baker designed a raised plaza over the 7th and Marquette intersection as an enhancement for the 14-story Northstar.  “I made a sketch on how to connect all four corners with a plaza, making it light and airy, and with a restaurant at the second level over the street, so people could walk on the second story level,” Baker later explained. 

The four-sided plaza above 7th and Marquette proved to be impractical, but Baker retained the covered walkway concept and replaced the plaza with two enclosed pedestrian bridges, each at mid-block, emanating from the corner Northstar Building. The first span opened in November 1962 and connected the Northstar with the Northwestern National Bank Building across Marquette. In June 1963, the second walkway was completed. It linked the Northstar with the Baker Building across 7th Street. Dubbed the “skyways” by Campbell Mithun Advertising Agency, a Minneapolis institution was born. 

The institution proved to be a great success. “Pedestrians found the new structures irresistible as the they swarmed over them, comfortable and protected from the August heat and the bustling traffic,” observed Sam Kaufman, publisher of Skyway News. Initially some local business owners had expressed reservations about the second story walkways, fearing they could hurt retailers at street level. “But no one in downtown Minneapolis needed convincing after the first skyway opened,” added Baker. “It drew traffic. It had immense potential. It was finally tangible.”  

Over the next 10 years, the system continued to grow as additional downtown blocks were added. By 1972, with seven skyways already in place, Baker and Park’s concept was beginning to receive national attention. When the eighth skyway opened in November, the Minneapolis Tribune reported that Minneapolis was gaining a reputation as “a second story city.” The paper noted that “the skyways are more than a bridge to second story corridors, for many corridors have small stores, snack shops and bank teller windows geared directly to the heavy foot traffic. Second floor rents have zoomed to nearly double in some instances, often equaling ground floor rents.” Later, the Minneapolis Star would note that the walkway system, “born of winter, may prove the be the main contribution of Minneapolis to urban architecture.” 

The skyways continued to expand into the early 1970s, but they were not yet one continuous system. One group of walkways was clustered around the retail district between Nicollet and Hennepin. The other was centered on Marquette’s commercial and financial corridor. It would take dramatic new development in the mid-1970s to connect the networks. 

The groundwork for that development was laid in 1969, when a development group known as IDS Properties unveiled plans for an ambitions multi-building project on the Nicollet Mall between 7th and 8th Street. The IDS group was the successor to Baker Properties, which had been acquired by Investors Diversified Services earlier in the 1960s. By then, Les Park had retired but Ed Baker had retained his ties to the firm that had help launch his architectural career decades earlier. 

As plans for what would later become the IDS Center took shape, Baker continued to play a key role in the project’s development. But now there were new players with financial interests, the Dayton brothers, who wanted a big-name architect to oversee the development. Baker recommended Phillip Johnson, then one of the country’s leading modernists. New York–based Johnson agreed to take on the project in partnership with Baker. Johnson and his associate, John Burgee, received top billing, but the architect of record for the IDS was known formally as “Johnson Burgee Edward F. Baker Associates.”   

Johnson’s first concept for the IDS showed an office tower where the Crystal Court is now and a mezzanine plaza with walkways feeding into it from the first and second levels. “Everyone thought the plan was brilliant, but it didn’t work,” Ed Baker later recalled. “The slope of the ramps would have meant that the plaza was the size of a postage stamp. I had to go to New York to tell Johnson that his plan would not work, and we were running out of time. Fortunately, the architects in the back office had come up with other concepts, one of which was finally built.” 

 “The IDS building became an instant landmark for Minneapolis, firmly tying the city to its downtown business district. It was no accident that, as a key element, four skyways were included, connecting four heavily populated buildings,” noted Sam Kaufman in the Skyway News

Unlike the earlier skyways that were merely appendages to existing structures, Baker designed the IDS skyways to operate as seamless connections to buildings surrounding the 57-story tower. “Dad realized that the skyways did more than just connect two buildings across the street from each other. He understood the way in which they influenced retail operations in the receiving buildings, how they affected store layout and security on the second story level,” noted Jon Baker. “But Phillip Johnson never really understood the skyways. He was confused by them. He once complained about being in the IDS and then crossing the skyway and finding himself in ladies’ underwear. He felt that the skyways were disjointed, but he was looking at them solely from an architectural standpoint. He didn’t recognize their impact on downtown development.” 

Community members and building owners sometimes didn’t understand the skyways either. In later years, Baker would chafe, not always quietly, when the architectural accolades cited only Johnson Burgee. “When anyone praises the building, they always refer to Phillip Johnson’s work, but whenever there is a leak, they always blame Edward F. Baker,” Jon Baker noted. 

In a 2002 interview with Skyway News, which Ed had purchased in 1990, he highlighted the skyways’ economic impact. “Before we started building them, second-floor space wasn’t too desirable,” he noted. “So much of it was pawnshops, watch and eyeglass repair, and sewing and seamstress shops. As a network, rather than as a collection of individual buildings, the skyways helped revitalize the downtown core.” 

When Ed Baker died in 2006 at the age of 80, Mike Meyers eulogized the Minneapolis architect in the Star Tribune, calling him “someone who thought big . . . someone whose hand reshaped the Minneapolis skyline.”  

Downtown’s first skyway was demolished in 1982 and replaced with a more modern span across Marquette Avenue. But the city’s second skyway, built by Edward Baker in 1963, is in use today. Baker’s projects have withstood the criticisms of more modern times. The system he created more than 60 years ago continues to provide a network of support for a downtown struggling to over-come its 21st-century challenges. 

Iric Nathanson, is a long-time contributor to Hennepin History. He is an instructor for the University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and writes a history feature for the online daily MinnPost. Iric’s most recent book, Minneapolis’s Lake Street, was published in 2020. 

SOURCES 

  • Author’s interview with Jon Baker, April 27, 2021. 
  • Sam Kaufman, “The Skyway Cities,” Skyway News, 1985. 
  • “Ed Baker and the battle for downtown,” Corporate Report, January 1976. 
  • “A farewell to skyways,” Star Tribune, April 23, 2017. 
  • “Baker’s vision helped shape the city’s look,” Star Tribune, April 14, 2004. 
  • “From different backgrounds, pair launched first skyways,” Star Tribune, March 14, 2021. 
  • “Edward Baker, city’s skyway designer,” Star Tribune, June 18, 2006.