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Minneapolis' Cold Comforts

When winter weather gets frightful, the city's residents head for the 'in' places.

January 13, 2002|JERRY HAINES

MINNEAPOLIS -- It was like Las Vegas without gambling; New Orleans without gumbo; San Francisco without cable cars. December in Minneapolis without snow?

Thanks to some weather weirdness, our December trip to Minnesota lacked the vital ingredient. Ultimately that didn't last, and by late last month the Great Cosmic Auditor had balanced the meteorological books. The nighttime temperatures were falling below zero, and snow flurries were in the air. But we were gone by then.

Minnesota is that coffeepot-shaped state at the top of the Mississippi River. For people like me, born and raised in the Land of 10,000 Lakes and 100,000 ice-fishing houses, crummy weather defines who we are. Today's Minneapolis has an international image of Scandinavian-American efficiency and sometimes even hipness. But when I left there in 1971 and would tell people where I came from, I'd get a stare, followed by, "Gets cold up there, I bet."

Ya, sure. We are Minnesotans: the Cold, the Proud.

We congratulate ourselves, believing that frigid, snowy weather builds character. Snow is part of our identity, like the Mississippi River that slices through Minneapolis, jokes about the state legislature, Gov. Jesse Ventura and tuna-noodle casserole in the Lutheran church basement.

What if you don't do cold? Well, confidentially, lots of Minneapolitans don't either. But if they can't pack up the RV and stay in Tucson until the spring thaw, they find lots of fun things to do in Minneapolis' great indoors.

When my wife, Janice, and I looked out the window of our descending airplane and saw grassy lawns and unfrozen lakes on a December afternoon, we panicked. How would we cope without adversity?

We managed. We revisited all those Minneapolis delights that are comfortably under roof. The cross-country skiing, ice fishing and all of Minnesota's other outdoor winter sports would have to wait for another visit.

A favorite indoor refuge is the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, just a snowball's throw from downtown. Its brochure claims, in language readily understood by us farm kids, that it has eight acres of galleries. In those indoor fields the seeds of art appreciation germinate and are nurtured. It's where I saw my first Van Gogh (his "Olive Trees") and Cezanne (his "Chestnut Trees").

One of the most beautiful images we could see within a frame, however, was the view through the institute's north windows toward downtown Minneapolis. Particularly after winter's 4:30 p.m. sunset, Minneapolis is a rich picture. The office towers are lighted, and the steamy plumes from their heating plants snake across the sky.

The IDS Center, designed by Philip Johnson, John Burgee and Ed Baker, is the tallest building in the group, but the I.M. Pei US Bank Place is the most striking, although from some angles it resembles a giant electric pepper mill. Cesar Pelli's Norwest Center shows sturdy grace.

We also made our annual pilgrimage to the Walker Art Center. There has been a Walker for 100 years, although its present structure dates only to 1971. On the western edge of downtown, the Walker is probably best known for Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen's giant, whimsical spoon and maraschino cherry ("Spoonbridge and Cherry") in its adjacent sculpture garden.

Inside, its contemporary contents constantly challenge one's assumptions of what art is or was, and cross boundaries between visual and performing arts. It is the kind of place where works of art might incorporate a refrigeration unit (by Pier Paolo Calzolari) that keeps a coat of frost on the work's metal surface or a head of lettuce (by Giovanni Anselmo) that decomposes, both part of an exhibit called "Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962-1972." The only thing I can say with certainty about the Walker is that by the time you go there, it will be different.

If it all seems a bit heady, I have just the place for you. Across the Mississippi by St. Anthony Falls, the 25-foot natural hydraulic engine that gave birth to Minneapolis as a logging and milling town in the mid-19th century, is the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices. Its curators have assembled dozens of gizmos, many of them seized by the Food and Drug Administration, that promised to enlarge whatever was too small, reduce whatever was too big or otherwise cure whatever ailed you, from heart disease to snakebite. From the bloodletting devices of the 1790s to the "immortality rings" of last year, every device there but one is a failure.

The exception is a shoe store X-ray machine that performed all too well in irradiating kids' feet. A highlight in every "modern" shoe store of the 1950s, it was intended to show whether a child's foot fit appropriately into the shoes Mom and Dad had selected. Unfortunately, it did so with a fluoroscope, and, while it was fun to see the tot's toes wiggling inside back-to-school oxfords, the kid was also getting a harmful dose of X-rays.

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