Today, Peavey Plaza stands as a new benchmark for rehabilitating historic sites, as recognized by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF). We were able to preserve the character of downtown Minneapolis’ “living room” while addressing issues of inclusivity and accessibility. But only a few years ago, the project’s time had nearly run out. The iconic brutalist cascading fountains of Peavey Plaza had run dry for years, and it was slated for demolition. Its underlying infrastructure had fallen into disrepair, and the site did not meet current accessibility standards. This visionary landscape was saved from demolition by a last-minute lawsuit brought by TCLF.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the bold vision of two landscape architects paired seamlessly with the City of Minneapolis’ goal to create a thriving, iconic downtown. The groundbreaking work of Lawrence Halprin established Nicollet Mall—a 12-block bustling pedestrian corridor completed in 1967. Nicollet Mall set the stage for the abutting site that would become Peavey Plaza. Landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg, a contemporary of Halprin, conceived Peavey Plaza as the “living room” of downtown Minneapolis. Completed in 1975, the iconic sunken plaza balanced the tranquility of a central reflecting pool with a cascading concrete fountain and active programming that filled the plaza throughout the year.
The visionary impact of modernists such as Friedberg is easy to miss. Simply put: Peavey Plaza, by virtue of being sunken, creates an oasis that obscures the distraction of street-level activity. The fountains’ running water creates an acoustical screen that further blocks out the hum of the city. All that remains is an abstraction of the city: the view of buildings stretching into the sky. That such a respite from city life can be created with such simple gestures, materials, and plantings is the true genius of Peavey Plaza.
Restoring the plaza to its original splendor while resolving issues of universal access and infrastructure challenges was a tall order. The most crucial aspect of a historic preservation project is to preserve the “character defining features” of the project. Determining these features is more art than science: a mix of analyzing the original design, any subsequent work or repairs, and considering public perception over the project’s life.
The canisters that sit atop the cascading fountains had aged to a hazy bronze but we discovered that the material was actually stainless steel, which we were able to carefully restore. We were also able to restore the original hardwood furniture—which had been painted over many times. Likewise, we were able to restore existing light fixtures and to fabricate exact replicas to replace removed fixtures.
The existing materials and lines also provided guidance for all new design interventions that improve sustainability and enhance access—creating a dynamic balance of tranquility and activation that reawakens Friedberg’s original design intent and vision.
We raised the basin of the sunken plaza from 10” to ¼” to enhance accessibility, strengthen the plaza’s flexibility, and create a more welcoming and vibrant public realm. Some members of the historic preservation community believed that this would disturb the character-defining feel of the original reflecting pool. Through technical studies, coordination, prototyping, and consensus-building, we determined that the serene quality of the water feature could be maintained and even enhanced while also addressing the client and design teams goals for accessibility, and water conservation.
Raising the basin reduced the total volume required to run the scrim and fountains from 62,000 gallons to 14,000 gallons. Previously, the basin took days to fill, and all water drained to the sewer. Now, the basin can fill in 15 minutes and drain in an hour—enabling the basin to transition from a daytime reflecting pool to a flexible programmed plaza in the evening.
New entrance ramps are placed in areas that had failing non-historic CMU walls. This new entrance from Nicollet Mall is comprised of 4% sloped walkways connecting existing terraces, therefore increasing accessibility to the intimate areas across multiple levels. The sloping walkways do compete with the horizontal lines found throughout the plaza, so a series of board-formed concrete walls were designed to hide the angled walkways behind the new horizontal walls.
It was an honor to see and feel the genius of Paul Friedberg and to navigate the political, historic, and public process in order to revitalize and protect this historic project for future generations of users. Our goal from the outset was to create an inclusive project while striving for our work to be “invisible”. By carefully emulating the spirit of Friedberg though the nuances of details and materials and horizontal planes, it is difficult to tell where the new design begins and original ends. That, to us, is a successful historic preservation.
Project location: 1101 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, MN 55403
Design year: 2017
Year Built: 2019