The little frontier town of Redwood Falls in the 1870s featured some of the same architecture popular in large cities like Chicago and Washington D.C. at the time, a fact emphasized in architect / designer Martin Treu's new book "Signs, Streets, and Storefronts".
The new book Signs, Streets, and Storefronts looks at more than 200 years of what American main streets have looked like, from pioneer villages to Times Square, from painted wooden signs to neon casinos.
When you get to page 37 of the book, where Treu writes about frontier American architecture, you might be jolted to see the following sentences:
"Tiny Redwood Falls, Minnesota, which did not have a store until 1865 or the railroad until 1878, was built up almost entirely during this indulgent, eclectic period.
"Redwood Falls was not an unusually prosperous town, but one would not know that from looking at the complex, lacy Gothic filigree on the crest of its Philbrick Building (1886)....")
Treu continues on for several more paragraphs, comparing Redwood's early architecture to that of Chicago and Minneapolis being built at the time.
Turn the page, and you'll find several photos of the building now known as Connie's Hallmark as it's appeared over the past 127 years.
How did Redwood Falls get featured in a book about American architecture?
The Gazette contacted Martin Treu this month to find out.
It turns out Treu's grandfather, Max Russell Treu was born in Redwood Falls in 1925. Treu's grandmother, Amy Barnes Treu, spent most of her life here.
Gazette: "How did you learn about Redwood Falls?"
Treu: "I was born in Toledo, Ohio. This is where my father settled after moving from Redwood Falls to help his father run a beer distributorship that he established after leaving my grandmother."
Gazette: "What is your experience visiting Redwood Falls?"
Treu: "I first visited Redwood Falls in 1973, when my grandmother died. Even at age 16 I found the place handsome and charming.
"I must have been falling in love with the small town Main Street in principle at this early stage in my life. I enjoyed being able to walk to all the businesses.
"I remember a coffee shop in RF that made homemade donuts to order. My parents loved this sort of thing, and so we visited the place every morning during our stay. I also remember that the people of the town were extraordinarily kind.
"My next visit was sometime in the early 1990s. Of course many of the businesses had changed. The center of town was not as economically vital as it was twenty years earlier.
"I returned around 2003 and 2005. I can't recall exactly the change up or down in terms of business strength and appearance. But there were clear signs of the effort to keep the center architecturally intact and maintain its integrity."
Gazette: "What is your overall impression of Redwood's architecture/streets, compared to other communities? What is it about Redwood that led to you want to include it in the book?
Treu: "I would not include Redwood simply because it was my father's birth place. The town has an important story to tell.
"One of the things that draws me to has to do with the period in which Minnesota was settled. This was rather late relative to the rest of the Midwest, during the 1870s and 1880s (as opposed to the 1840s or 1850s).
"This means that the earliest prominent buildings in the town were more ornate and imaginative than those, say, in Ohio. Redwood is also prosperous due to its position as a county seat.
"Once I started to dig into the details, I was impressed by how substantial the businesses were by 1910, say. I virtually walked back into time spending weeks reading Redwood's newspapers. What a place it was by 1920, when my grandfather and grandmother happened to meet.
Gazette: "If you were hired to reimagine Redwood Falls' streets (downtown area and others) and had an unlimited budget, what would you change/improve, and why?"
Treu: "This is a challenging question, because I don't know all the issues facing the town. I can see that business is struggling, as it is in many small town centers—even the county seats, which are usually stronger economically.
"I also wish that I had been to Redwood more recently than I have, and that it was fresher in my mind.
"There are, however, a few things that might pop up quickly on my wish list for the town, things based on my knowledge of the history of Redwood Falls and its obvious architectural beauty....
"I always see the town cinema(s) as the heart and glowing hearth of any Main Street; so, I might begin by wishing that both the Redwood and the Falls would operate as the town's entertainment center. The great thing about the movies is that they attract a regular ebb and flow of customers, helping stir up spontaneous visits to other businesses.
"I would also wish that the post office remains operating in the center of town for the same reason.
"Another thing that I would suggest is that apartment housing be built within the town center and at its immediate edges, requiring no automobile to go to a tavern or restaurant or movie.
"It would be beautiful to see two story, mixed-use buildings surround the courthouse square, with business below and residence above. This is classic arrangement for a county seat.
"And finally, I would place a food market right at the edge of the walkable town center. I believe that a drug store still operates in the center of RF. It looked a little quiet when I was last there, but in principle this is another business that spreads energy to the rest of town.
"You probably know all of this and wish for the same things.
"I have a particular affection for the Philbrick block and would hope to see its historic crest restored. I'd put my own money on restoring the facades of the Redwood and the Falls theatres.
"Second Street is very pleasant and attractive. Mill Street needs as many trees as possible. It left the impression with me of being a highway. It's overscaled for the traffic that flows on it, so I would narrow the lanes and do everything possible to strengthen those medians.
"Maybe I can come back to town and give it far more thought.
Gazette: "You worked with town historian Gary Revier a bit on the project?
Treu: "Gary was my civic escort through town, introducing me to key people whom I interviewed and making archives available to me.
"He was probably the most helpful person in the United States with vintage photography. His resources are amazing."
Gazette: "Now that you've finished the book, what are you up to these days?"
Treu: "I just graduated last week with a degree in urban design....
"The degree is ... about the quality of places that we create as citizens and governments. It's about making smart master plans, working with people in their neighborhoods as we make modifications, doing careful research into existing conditions and history, knowing architecture well, and always being responsive to human scale.
Gazette: "What sort of future projects do you have in mind?"
Treu: "I would seriously like to become very more involved with small towns rather than big cities. I'd like to help places like Redwood Falls make the improvements they need for the next ten years and the next hundred years.
"Avoiding the strangulation caused by sprawl is the first order. Town centers should not be treated as quaint historic islands but as the center of everything connected to everything. Historic patterns of growth, like the traditional grid, can continue to be the basis of growth."