Iconic ‘Crystal Court’ in Minnesota’s Tallest Building Faces Renovation Years in the Works

CoStar News

October 8, 2020

By Clare Kennedy

Unique space to Get 21st Century Update as It Nears 50th Anniversary

The most well-known part of downtown Minneapolis’ tallest trophy office tower is set for its first update in more than two decades as the owner seeks to bring its aesthetics and functionality into the 21st century.

The 57-story IDS Center has been Minnesota’s reigning champion in terms of height since it opened at 80 S. Eighth St. in 1973, but its most celebrated feature is on the ground floor: The Crystal Court.

Owner Accesso Partners plans to put $5 million into renovating and reimagining the enclosed plaza, a 23,000-square-foot, eight-story atrium crowned with a pyramidal canopy of clear cubes.

Plans call for replacing some of its most recognizable features with more modern iterations, such as trading a 105-foot interior waterfall for a reflecting pool, and creating social gathering spaces with café tables in place of white benches that were added during the last renovation in 1998.

The Crystal Court has exerted star power that went beyond the confines of its Midwestern home from its very beginning. One of its first public engagements was a grand opening celebration and symphony ball attended by famed Pop artist Andy Warhol, and it made cameos in the opening sequence of “The Mary Tyler Moor Show” and Prince’s 1984 movie “Purple Rain,” among others.

Since it was built, the IDS’ competition has freshened up and could be a motivator for the update. A lot of IDS’ peers in downtown Minneapolis have gone through renovations over the last five years. In fact, all the buildings immediately tied to it by the skyway have been spruced up: the RSM Plaza, Baker Center, and Gaviidae Common, and most recently the former Macy’s store to its west.

This summer, owner 601W Cos. finished converting the historic 12-story, 1.2 million-square-foot structure into a mixed-use complex that adds 725,000 square feet of office space to the downtown market, all of which is lavishly appointed but empty at the moment.

Altering the Crystal Court is not a task one takes on lightly, and Accesso’s team has been working on the Crystal Court redesign for two-and-a-half years, said Deb Kolar, general manager at Accesso and the IDS Center.

The renovation has been designed by the local office of Chicago-based architecture firm, Perkins+Will, and New History, a consulting company that specializes in adaptive reuse.

Given the Crystal Court’s prominence, any change might be a risky one. Nevertheless, Kolar is confident in Accesso’s plans.

“It’s time,” said Kolar, who has worked at the IDS for 27 years. “I truly believe that once people see it they will fall in love with it, just as I have.”

Unique Hub

The stakes are high for a number of other reasons, not least of which is its pedigree in the architectural world.

The 1.42 million-square-foot IDS Center was designed by two renowned New York architects, Philip Johnson and John Burgee, who have been called masters of the post-modern era, and Minneapolis’ Edward F. Baker Associates. In a 1973 article for Architectural Forum, Johnson described the IDS commission as “an architect’s dream” and the Crystal Court as a particular point of pride.

“IDS you might say it’s epitomized by the Crystal Court, for IDS is a study in multiple dimensions, not just a clever composite of shapes and surfaces,” Johnson wrote.

The undulating, transparent roofline combined with the Crystal Court’s eight entrance points and pentagonal shape produces a kaleidoscopic effect, he said. The sense of vast space and brisk movement is all the more stunning for its location at the center of a dense city block, bordered by the office tower, a two-story retail center and the 19-story Marquette Hotel.

Johnson was not alone in his enthusiasm.

In a statement praising Accesso’s renovation plans, Steve Cramer, President and CEO of the MPLS Downtown Council described the Crystal Court as one of “the most beloved sites in downtown Minneapolis.”

It drew the highest praise from New York City sociologist and urban studies pioneer William H. Whyte, who described it as “the best indoor space in the country” in his influential 1980 book, “The Social Life Of Small Urban Spaces.”

“A good internal space should not be blocked off by bland walls. It should be visible from the street, and the street and its surroundings should be highly visible from it,” Whyte wrote. “And between the two—physically and psychologically—the connections should be easy and inviting.”

“The Crystal Court of the IDS Building is a splendid example,” Whyte continued. “It is transparent. You are in the center of Minneapolis, no mistake. You see it.”

Turning the Page

The most visible change in the planned update to the Crystal Court is the proposed removal of a 105-foot waterfall that drops from the roof to the plaza floor, a feature that was added during the last renovation in 1998. It will be replaced with an infinity edge reflecting pool.

“I still wanted that sound of water falling,” Kolar said. “It’s very relaxing.”

Another conspicuous alteration is the planned removal of the Crystal Court’s cadre of olive trees, which grow out of planters there. These would be taken out and replaced with a grove of ficus trees rising directly from planter bed in the granite floor. The new planting beds are meant to allow the trees more room to grow, and they are expected to about 24 feet high.

However, the most substantive but less noticeable changes will be brought about by new seating and furnishings which are intended to make the plaza a more social and less solitary experience.

That may seem at odds with COVID-19 era social distancing, and many have predicted that the community-oriented design popular in recent years will be considered passe because of the coronavirus. The Accesso team is betting that down the road visitors will want to gather again, and it shows in its plans.

White benches from the 1998 renovation, which seat only two, are to be replaced with more flexible, varied and expansive seating areas that allow for collaboration. Plans call for cafe tables for those lunching with friends, large ledges, and podiums for those who wish to stand and tap out a report on their laptop.

Kolar said work on the project will begin in December and is expected to run into the summer of 2021.