Peavey Plaza: A Modernist Oasis in Minneapolis

On one half of a single downtown Minneapolis block, a public space unlike any other in the city stands as one of the world’s best examples of cutting-edge landscape architecture. Today, the preservation community is united in its desire to maintain one of the city’s most unique landmarks. When Peavey Plaza was constructed in the mid-1970s, Minneapolis had undergone a major transformation of its cityscape during the past two decades. Pummeled by both business and resident flight to the suburbs, and civic leaders were desperate to stem the economic impact. By the late 1950s, plans had already begun for the pedestrian thoroughfare now known as Nicollet Mall, and by the 1960s the mall’s success prompted its expansion south toward the Loring Park neighborhood.

One critical component of the mall’s expansion was the need for a public gathering space, and the southern end of the mall proved to be particularly attractive. Additionally, the Minnesota Orchestra – long seeking a new home – had agreed by 1972 to demolish the Lyceum Theater at 11th Street and Nicollet Avenue for construction of a new concert hall. The Orchestra asked the city to undergo a feasibility study to determine which public elements could be concluded in the planned development.

Despite the city’s support for a public park facing Nicollet Mall, plans were complicated by the need for cooperation between the Minneapolis Park Board, the City of Minneapolis and the Minnesota Orchestra. The financing package approved by the city for construction of the new concert hall included just $500,000 for developing the park, and there was little consensus among stakeholders when it came to the park’s design.

By 1974, as Orchestra Hall opened, the city finally began constructing what would become Peavey Plaza, thanks to a $600,000 donation from the Peavey Company, a local grain merchant with a long history in Minneapolis. With the influx of cash for the project, the city hired an innovative landscape architect named M. Paul Friedberg, who had recently garnered national attention for his design of Jacob Riis Plaza in Lower Manhattan.

Friedberg’s vision for Peavey Plaza drew heavily from his Riis Plaza designs, focusing on angular composition, stepped terraces and cascading water features, enveloped by a canopy of trees and built-in seating areas for public events and celebrations. Its below-grade design is the most unique feature of Peavey Plaza, allowing for an expansive reflecting pool that could be transformed into a skating rink.

Within a few years of its construction, Peavey Plaza had become downtown’s most prominent public space, hosting the Minnesota Orchestra’s annual Sommerfest program for three weeks every July, as well as blues festivals, jazz concerts and a variety of other events. But by the 21st century, the popular plaza was showing its age and city officials began plans to rehabilitate the space.

Today the city is working with designers and preservationists to rehabilitate Peavey Plaza in accordance with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation. The goal is to provide an active and accessible space for all Minneapolitans while maintaining the historic character and sense of time and place of the plaza. For those who love and appreciate Peavey Plaza for its distinct charm, this urban oasis stands as a reminder of the community’s efforts to fight suburban exodus and maintain the vitality that continues to characterize downtown Minneapolis today. Thanks to tireless preservation efforts, future generations will now be able to experience the magic of Peavey Plaza’s cascading fountains and subterranean hideaways, just as downtown denizens of the 1970s did.