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Beautiful doors on Twin Cities buildings make a statement

The doors of St. Olaf Church. Though they’re often overlooked, doors reveal a lot about a building and its era. 

(Renee Jones Schneider/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)
The doors of St. Olaf Church. Though they’re often overlooked, doors reveal a lot about a building and its era. (Renee Jones Schneider/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)
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MINNEAPOLIS — “A door,” said Ogden Nash, “is what a dog is always on the wrong side of.”

Not so for humans. As masters of our world, we tend to give doors little thought. At best, they’re an insignificant impediment. At worst, they give us a moment of conspicuous stupidity. Oh, right, I’m supposed to push, not pull.

If we stop to think about doors, it’s probably for their ease of use. We might not note the most remarkable and unnecessary thing about the doors of public buildings: their beauty.

Doors offer a first impression, so when a building boasts unique, attractive doors, it makes a statement.

Consider the Old Republic Title building (400 2nd Av. S., Mpls.). The building itself gets no love. Though it was built in 1929, it’s not the most interesting of late Jazz Age design. The Foshay Tower and the Rand Tower, both finished in 1929, are visually intriguing, but Old Republic is just a block of brick with the sober character of a dependable employee who never misses a day of work. Its saving grace is the Deco carvings on the upper stories.

It was once known as the Hodgson Building, then, for a few years, it was the General Mills Building. At some point, it was rehabbed for postwar use, and that’s when the building’s blandness turned out to be a good thing.

The entrance was rebuilt in the midcentury style, complete with new doors. The opposite of the original heavy portals, the new doors feature panes of glass with handles that seem to float in the middle of the door. The typeface on the handles (PULL, they say) is in a font that’s straight from a 1947 Esquire ad. And it works.

Custom doors are rare on office buildings, simply because they’re expensive.

Competition helps

A big building boom might yield unique doors, since marketers would be under pressure to make their building stand out. Perhaps that’s why the Rand Tower (527 Marquette Av. S.) spared no expense on its exterior. Its Marquette Avenue entrance features doors with Art Deco figures in silvery bas-relief that echo the carvings on the second floor.

The doors of the Lumber Exchange (10 S. 5th St.) appear nondescript, in part because they’re revolving doors.

No one seems to care much for revolving doors. They seem sullen, like a big, heavy object you have to push out of the way before you’re spit out into a lobby like a watermelon seed. Going through them, you sometimes wonder if a passenger in one of the other compartments will be smacked on the keister if you sail into the door with excess vigor.

If you visit the Lumber Exchange, you will whoosh through revolving doors that seem apt for the old Romanesque building. They’re old. Polished, oiled, gleaming, but obviously old. Surprisingly, they’re not the original doors.

Borrowed and closed

A late 20th-century renovation including the installation of revolving doors — doors that once connected New York City’s Grand Central Station to the adjacent Commodore Hotel.

Every day, Minnesotans push through those doors unaware that untold New Yorkers once occupied this transitory space, that joined the din of a great train station with the genial clamor of a hotel lobby. Now one door links Hennepin Avenue’s random low-level clatter to the silent crypt that is the Lumber Exchange’s lobby.

To use the door is to take a time-travel trip. For just a moment you’re between the out and the in, which is the essence of all journeys. Your hand pushes something grasped by uncounted numbers of your fellow humans, and for a moment you’re connected to all of them, joined by a common purpose: to get from here to there.

Unless the door is closed forever.

When it was built in 1915, the Minneapolis Institute of Art had a grand set of doors facing Washburn-Fair Oaks Park, but a 1974 addition reoriented the entrance to the east side of the building on 3rd Avenue S. Now you enter through lightweight, transparent doors — a modern analogue to the old doors, which seemed to seal culture in a crypt. (At least in the winter. The 24th Street entrance is open during the warmer months.)

Sure, the new doors are much easier than the old for getting in and out of the neoclassical glories of the museum. But it would be nice to push open those heavy, imposing doors again, wouldn’t it? To leave the vault of the past, stand blinking in the light, and hear the door clang shut behind you.

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Someday, perhaps, all doors will slide open with automatic deference. Perhaps they’ll invent solid curtains of transparent material that keeps out the elements, but let us enter without any effort. That would make for an easier world, but one that’s just a tad less beautiful.

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