Nicollet Mall Part 3: Donald Dayton's Nicollet Mall
Nicollet Mall has long been the heart of downtown Minneapolis’ central retail and business district. Its transformation to a pedestrian transit way in the 1960s was shaped in part by Post-World War Two suburbanization and decentralization—trends occurring in cities across North America. Nicollet Mall was developed through a public-private partnership of businesses and municipal groups with the landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. While its aesthetic has changed, Nicollet Mall is arguably one of the few successful remaining pedestrian malls in the country. This blog post series serves to reveal Nicollet Mall’s history and define its 1960s design as an intersection of a particular set of circumstances at the metropolitan, state, and national scale. Framed in the context of Post-World War Two retail and urban planning, these posts will speak of the way downtown business, government, and community collaborated to thwart retail competition in the suburbs and bolster civic spirit. More so, the 1960s collaboration between the public and private entities initiated an on-going tradition to maintain Nicollet Mall’s visibility downtown despite dramatic shifts in economy, demographics, and popular culture. In 2015, construction will begin on a redesign for Nicollet Mall. With major changes imminent, this blog post series hopes to capture a process of decision-making and design that can help people learn from Nicollet Mall’s past to perpetuate vital urban public places for future generations.
Don't miss the earlier posts in our series about the Nicollet Mall, The Public-Private Partnership (1), and A Collaborative Design Response (2).
Donald Dayton’s Nicollet Mall
The Dayton family began retailing on Nicollet Avenue as early as 1902, and quickly became the forerunning department store downtown. By the 1960s, the Daytons held the reputation as a philanthropic business family with ties to the arts, entertainment, and community in Minneapolis. While there were other retailers on the various Nicollet Mall subcommittees, Donald Dayton, a third-generation descendent of the founder of Dayton’s department store, was undoubtedly the most pivotal businessperson behind-the-scenes throughout the design process. (Macy’s now occupies the former Dayton’s flagship store on the Mall.) Frederick Aschman of the planning and engineering firm Barton-Aschman Associates outlined Dayton’s role in the Nicollet Mall revitalization plans in a particularly enlightening way:
Perhaps the strictest caveat in the conceptual stage was imposed at the insistence of Donald Dayton, head of the Dayton Company, a prime behind-the-scenes mover of the project. This caveat was twofold: first, the mall would be of top quality construction or not come into existence at all; and second, it would have to be designed to the highest possible aesthetic degree, be urbane and not patterned after suburban shopping centers, be simple and uncluttered, and be provided with the fullest safeguards against garishness and commercialism. 
Donald Dayton was cognizant of the two disparate shopping scenes—the urban street and the enclosed shopping mall. As such, he warned the Downtown Council of Minneapolis that Nicollet Mall would not be patterned after suburban shopping malls. With his power and money wielded for his defense, he ensured that nationally renowned architect Lawrence Halprin would design Nicollet Mall.
While Dayton received public criticism for his strong opinions, the success of Nicollet Mall should also be credited to his resolute stance of the quality and character of the project. However, Dayton received criticism from the public; jibes at Dayton’s involvement included “Donald’s ditch”  and “Donald Dayton’s private sandbox.”  One cannot be sure from where this negativism sourced, because Dayton also had a well-received reputation. He had received philanthropic awards for giving back to the community, hiring African American models, and was featured on the cover of Time magazine for his community-centered efforts. Perhaps criticism may have stemmed from smaller businesses that felt taxed out of the area after the assessments were finalized to finance the Nicollet Mall project. Another possibility is the criticism of catering to a particular clientele downtown. As was the case for urban shopping districts across the country, “retailers viewed the shifting clientele downtown as a threat to the image of the shopping environment. Stereotypes abounded of poorer and nonwhite customers as being an eminent menace that would bring cheapness and ‘basement-and-budget type of operation’ to commerce.”  While the retailers touted their social sensitivity for wanting to create a welcoming and attractive public space, it was assuredly for a population that would shop at their stores and contribute to a high-quality aesthetic and beauty of the streetscape. 
Between Two Worlds
The relationship between suburban and urban retail was of paramount importance to the suburbanization that occurred in the post-war years. Both shopping environments catered to a particular segment of consumers and Donald Dayton, president of Dayton’s Corporation, managed to bridge the market in the Twin Cities.
Donald Dayton’s keen interest in both suburban and urban expansion was the case with many other department store owners in cities across America. Their “involvement in the enormous effort by American cities to revitalize themselves after World War Two…demonstrates that the link between consumption and civic engagement has an important local history as well.”  Lizabeth Cohen’s study of downtown retail revival makes the case that department stores have “been the lifeblood of downtown development—a destination for mass transit, an anchor for other commerce, a provider of jobs, an icon for the city.”  The Downtown Council of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis City Planning Commission recognized the department store’s role in the livelihood of the city, which became their primary reason for focusing redevelopment efforts on the dense retail street, Nicollet Avenue.
In 1956, Dayton understood the social and economic consequences of his newly completed suburban Southdale Shopping Center. He was adamant that the development of the shopping center in the suburbs would not pull commerce from the downtown retailers; rather, Southdale was a “symbol of Minneapolis’s economic expansion and not its decentralization.”  However, critics of the dazzling mall, including Frank Lloyd Wright, questioned architect Victor Gruen’s urban inspiration for the project. Wright complained, “You have tried to bring downtown out here. You should have left downtown downtown.”  Nevertheless, as a result of careful planning, the emporium’s developer created an immediately successful suburban shopping center that did not cause Dayton’s downtown location to decline.
Because Dayton was cognizant of the two diverging cultures of the post-World War Two era—suburban and urban—he was able to address the retail interests of both realms. He appeased the urbanites with his strong civic and corporate support of Nicollet Mall and with company presence on the Downtown Council and the Nicollet Mall Task Force. In this way, Dayton was able to maintain business at the flagship store on Nicollet Mall while Dayton’s Corporation continued to develop the rest of the “dales”—Brookdale, Rosedale, and Ridgedale in other Twin Cities suburbs.
Whether or not Southdale had actually caused decline on Nicollet Avenue is contested. When plans started to revitalize the area, civic leaders and involved businesses recognized that there were characteristics of Southdale that Nicollet Avenue lacked. Nevertheless, the Downtown Council, Barton-Aschman Associates, and Lawrence Halprin realized that the new Nicollet Mall would have to rival the services and atmosphere of the suburban Southdale mall if it was to be “one of the ‘musts’” of a trip to the Twin Cities.  The devices to create the urbane atmosphere at Southdale—plantings, art pieces, furniture, and pavings—would become the same palette of tools used by Lawrence Halprin in his design for Nicollet Mall.
How the progressive landscape architect, Lawrence Halprin, designed the Nicollet Mall streetscape to Dayton’s taste.
- Lawrence Halprin Collection, University of Pennsylvania Architectural Archives (subsequently LHC) [014.I.B.2978]. Frederick T. Aschman, “Nicollet Mall: Civic Cooperation to Preserve Downtown’s Vitality,” Planners Notebook 1(6) (September 1971), 9.
- Minneapolis Collection, Hennepin County Library (subsequently MC) [Streets-Nicollet Avenue (Pictures, Publications 1967-74)]. Jim Klobuchar, Minneapolis Star (November 22, 1967).
- MC. Neal St. Anthony, “Adding $39 Million Sequel to a Mall Success Story,” Minneapolis Star Tribune (December 10, 1984).
- Alison Isenberg, Downtown America: A History of the Place and the People Who Made It (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 188.
- Bear in mind that the Civil Rights Movement had not yet significantly improved racial tensions, and even hippies and teenagers were watched warily.
- Lizabeth Cohen, “Buying into Downtown Revival: The Centrality of Retail to Postwar Urban Renewal in American Cities,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 611 (2007), 83.
- Ibid, 85.
- Jeffery M Hardwick, Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 152.
- Ibid, 151.
- Lawrence Irvin, Pedestrian Facilities for Central Minneapolis (1959).
Note: These posts are extracted from a more comprehensive history of the 1960s design for Nicollet Mall, from an undergraduate thesis from the University of Minnesota, School of Architecture.