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Photo Tours, Travelogues, And Random Topics

Odd Twin Cities — The Suburban Edition

A Photo Tour Of Odd, Unusual, And Weird
Sites In The Twin Cities Suburban Areas


Introduction Here are a collection of odd, unusual, and interesting locations in the Minneapolis and Saint Paul suburban area that I have stumbled over in the past 20 years since I have moved to the Twin Cities. If you know of other similar stories or things in the area that are just plain odd, please let me know.

Note—click on each photo to see the full size image.


Eckankar Temple This is the golden temple of the Eckankar's, a modern version of the religion of ancient Egypt and the Pharaohs. It is built in the shape of a pyramid much like the great pyramids that still stand outside of Cairo. The Eckankar's bill themselves as a religion of light and sound. Opponents refer to them as a new age cult. Either way, I find it difficult to follow how an ancient Egyptian religion came to be headquartered in Chanhassen, Minnesota.

Paisley Park And directly across the street is Paisley Park, a modern day temple built by a Prince, Prince Rogers Nelson, to celebrate his own greatness. In its first ten years of operations, Paisley Park was used to record many pop artists, and also as rehearsal space for a number of major rock tours. It has been closed to the public since 1996 as Prince now records every waking moment of his life for documentary purposes.

UFO Landing Pad This structure was built in the summer of 2005 on the north side of the MSP airport just off of 28th avenue. It features an elevated pad, a circular ring of lights, and a cone-shaped center pylon. The only rational explanation is that the MSP is now on the cutting edge of supporting passenger UFO operations, and this is the UFO landing pad.

In reality, this is a VOR, a device used for air navigation. It sends out highly directional beams of radio waves. A receiver in an aircraft can follow these beams (called radials) just like a automobile driver following the center line of a highway. The airport VOR was located in the southwest area of the airport, but that land was taken up by the new north-south runway. Why the VOR is placed on this kind of structure is a mystery to me. All other VORs that I have seen are at ground level.


Earth Shelter Condos During the energy crisis in the 1970's, a new style of house was developed to take advantage of the natural heating and cooling effects of the earth. Called Earthshelter, three walls of a house would be built into a side hill, and the fourth wall would be exposed. The earth would maintain a constant 60 degree temperature, making it easy to heat or cool the building.

In general, earth shelter houses were considered to be on the fringe of traditional housing, something that you only saw in rural areas. But in 1978, a local Minneapolis architect designed and built a block long row of earth shelter homes. These interesting houses are located on the frontage road to I-94 east of downtown Minneapolis. Tens of thousands of people drive by everyday and never realize that these unique houses are even there. Even better, the earth in front of the houses not only saves energy, it is a great sound insulator to dampen the freeway noise.


Factory Building Every city has a building that kills businesses. In many cases, it is a restaurant. I recall a building in Madison that had restaurant after restaurant open up, all of which failed in a year or so.

This building is the same thing, except on a much larger scale. It is the building that kills corporations. Located in Eden Prairie off of Highway 212, this was the home of Lee Data. Lee Data was a successful maker of clone terminals for IBM mainframes. About the time they built this building and moved in, the mainframe market started downhill, and Lee Data never really caught on to the PC market. They rapidly went out of business.

Next up was Northgate. They were a huge maker of IBM PC clones. In fact, they were the Dell of their day, running head to head with Compaq in the marketplace. As they made it big, they moved into this building as their new world headquarters and manufacturing plant. About that time, the computer clone industry moved to southeast Asia, and both Gateway and Dell ate Northgate's lunch. Northgate soon went out of business.

Then came Best Buy. At the time, they were a regional electronics superstore going head to head with Highland Superstores and Team. Best Buy moved into this building as their new headquarters with hopes of taking their concept national. Instead, a disastrous decision to get into movie rentals and computer problems brought them to the brink of bankruptcy. Best Buy survived only because they were a public company and could sustain huge losses until they got things sorted out.

So, the building that eats corporations has 2 confirmed kills, and 1 near miss. Today, it sits empty after Best Buy moved out in 2003, waiting for its next victim.

Note—as of January 2008, Supervalu is moving in this building, apparently to be a new IT building and data center. Lets hope that Supervalu does not meet the same fate as it predecessors.


Railroad Bridge Steam Pipe This is an otherwise normal looking railroad bridge. It crosses Snelling Ave just south of I-94 in St Paul. But at closer look, the closer span is a much lighter built structure than the railroad span behind it. If you look closely to the very left of the photo, and the 2nd photo, you can see that this bridge actually carries a large silver pipe. That bridge is not a railroad bridge after all, it simply carries this big pipe.

If you trace the route of this pipe, you find it running along the railroad tracks going east all the way to the river flats area near the Smith Street High Bridge. Going west, the pipe goes underground in the Cretin Ave area. After doing a bit of research, this pipe turns out to be a very high pressure steam pipe owned by District Energy. It runs from the NSP power plant in St Paul, and it supplies a single customer, the Rock Tenn Corporation paper mill on Wabash Ave just north of I-94 near the Cretin-Vandalia exit. This pipe is the longest single customer steam pipe known to exist.

High pressure steam is widely used in the Twin Cities. District Energy supplies steam to over 140 buildings in St Paul, and the U of M has an extensive steam distribution system. A similar system in Minneapolis also distributes cooling water to several major buildings for air conditioning.

Note—as of late 2007, the District Energy power plants are converting to new fuels, and the steam service will be discontinued. This leaves the paper mill without a permanent source of energy to run the plant. As a result, they are facing a plant shutdown.


Bicycle Path Bicycle Path The Twin Cities grew up as railroad towns. Rail lines crisscross the cities, many of which have since been abandoned. Minneapolis and some western suburbs have put these rail lines to use as commuter bicycle lines. The result are wide flat bike trails that are grade separated from traffic. In some places, the trails are much like bicycle freeways, complete with entrance and exit ramps and multiple lanes. The lower photos shows one such bicycle overpass.

Radar Dome When driving north on Cedar Ave out of Apple Valley, you can sometimes see a giant golf ball or soccer ball located to the west of the highway. This thing turns out to be the approach radar for the FAA, used to direct air traffic between the airport and cross-country air routes that are controlled by FAA air traffic control centers. This radar station was way out in the country when it was first built. Today, it is in the middle of a suburban neighborhood with houses built next door and across the street.

Giant Snowman Often called the World's Largest Snowman, this 54-foot tall snowman is neither made of snow or is it the worlds largest snowman. It is tall, but snowmen built by other cities are now taller. It is built of stucco, and as a result, it can claim to be the world's largest stucco snowman. It was built in 1974 for the area Sno-Daze celebration. The annual event featured a large snowman for many years, but the winter of 1974 had almost no snow. As a result, the local Jaycees built this stucco snowman. It was later moved near highway 36 so it would be seen by passing traffic. Highway 36 is being rebuilt in a trench in front of the snowman, so traffic can no longer see the giant snowman. Maybe they will move it yet again.

Odd Best Buy Store This is the sign for the Best Buy store in Edina, located just behind Southdale Mall at 66th and York. What is unusual is that this is the Best Buy that time forgot. It is still set up in the Concept II style where they had a showroom and back warehouse, except that the warehouse has since been remodeled into more store space. The building is very small for a Best Buy, and the parking lot is so small that it wraps around the building. Other Best Buy locations have been rebuilt twice since then, and they are currently using a layout called Concept V. The answer is that this was the Best Buy store that founder Richard Schulze's wife Sandy managed. Sandy was very much part of Best Buy, and a key partner in building Best Buy into a retail powerhouse. Tragically, Sandra Schulze was diagnosed with cancer and died just as Best Buy really hit high gear. As a memorial, Best Buy maintains this store in the same condition it was when Sandy last ran the store, complete with the old Best Buy Superstore logos and signage.

Odd McDonalds Store This is a very odd little McDonalds Restaurant located in the parking lot of the Centennial Lakes Plaza off of France Ave in Edina. The building almost looks like a PhotoMat store or a JavaHut drive through. What it actually does is serve as the drive though for a much larger McDonalds that is located in the mall. The satellite drive though has the order taking machine, a drive through window, beverage machines, and a ice cream machine. The rest of the food is made in the main location in the mall, and is sent out to the satellite using pneumatic message tubes. The fast speed of the pneumatic tubes allows for food orders to be filled very quickly.

Update — It appears that this McDonalds closed in early 2011. It is very unusual to see a McDonalds location close. Part of the plaza is being redeveloped for a new Whole Foods Market.


White Castle Store What does jewelry have to do with White Castle Hamburgers, and why is it located on Lyndale Ave? The story goes back to 1926, when the White Castle Hamburger chain entered the Minneapolis market. Their 8th location was built in 1927 at 616 Washington Ave SE. White Castle had a history of problems with renewing land leases for such small locations that they built their buildings to be portable. They could be disassembled, moved, and put back up in just a few days. That happened to this location in 1936, so the store was moved to 329 Central Ave SE. White Castle decided to build a modern restaurant near that location in 1983. As a result, this building was no longer needed. Local historic groups raised money and moved the building to 3252 Lyndale Ave S, refurbished it, and rented it out to small retail shops. It is currently open as the Castle Jewelers.

Water Tower So, this is what happens when you put too much water in one of those spherical water towers. Or at least that is what looks like has happened to this water tower located on US-10 in Blaine. In reality, this is a huge 1-million gallon water tower, and it was built with a donut shape cross-section. Normally a water tower of this size and shape is built with legs on the outside, and you don't notice the unusual indent in the bottom. In this case, with a single center support, the water tank looks like it has collapsed down onto itself. While the multi-leg version of this design is common, the single support version is very rare.

Nordic Ware Tower Nordic Ware Tower Nordic Ware Tower This is the famous Nordic Ware tower in Saint Louis Park, located next to the Nordic Ware kitchenware factory. Given its location, it must have something to do with manufacturing plastic or maybe is a water tower for the plant?

Actually, the tower predates Nordic Ware by 50 years. It was built in 1899 by Frank Peavey and Charles Haglin as an experiment to see if a reinforced concrete silo could be used to store grain. The tower was built to a height of 60 feet using steel hoops as reinforcement. The tower was filled with grain and was allowed to sit through the winter. When the grain was tested the following spring, it was found to be cleaner and had fewer insect and rodent problems. Some predicted that the tower would explode when it was emptied, but no such thing happened. The tower was further built to be 125 feet tall, but was never used for grain again. The builders went on to found the Peavey Corporation, which is a large grain elevator operator. The experimental tower in Saint Louis Park was a model for the large grain elevators that they would build in the 20th century.

Nordic Ware now owns the property, and uses the tower as an advertisement. The structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. With the opening of the new Lilac Way Park at the southeast corner of the MN-100 and MN-7 interchange, the base of the tower is now visible from a public sidewalk.


Peters Billiards This odd shaped building sprouted along the north side of the I-35W and MN-62 Crosstown Commons in late 2005. It is the home of Peters Billiards, the largest game room superstore in a 5-state area. They were notified in 2003 that their existing building would be taken as part of the highway project planned for late in the decade. The replacement building was built to look like a giant pool table. The silver panels simulate the pockets on a pool table, and the building slants outward at the top much like a bar or arcade style table.

South Saint Paul Stockyards These two buildings are the gate houses and guard shacks for the former Armour meat packing plant in South Saint Paul. The meat packing plants are long gone, and the last of the stockyards closed in 2008. This is all that remains of what was once the largest stockyards on the planet. It is amazing how fast this 120 year history of livestock sales and processing was wiped from the map.

Beehive Fireplace Beehive Fireplace This structure, which looks like a monument to Marge Simpson's hairdo, is a beehive style fireplace. It was once located along highway MN-100 in Saint Louis Park inside an interchange loop from northbound MN-100 to westbound Minnetonka Blvd. The beehive disappeared in late 2008. It turns out that it was relocated to a new park near the southeast corner of the MN-100 and MN-7 interchange near the Nordic Ware tower.

This structure dates back to 1939. It was build as a grille in Lilac Park, which was one of seven roadside parks built along Lilac Way. Lilac Way was the first expressway built in the Twin Cities, running along the path of the present day MN-100. The WPA built the parks, and the local garden clubs lined 12-1/2 miles of roadway with lilacs. All but two parks were lost to highway expansion. Lilac Way was all but gone following the road work to improve the exits at MN-7 and Minnetonka Blvd. The City of Saint Louis Park rescued the remaining structures from the old Lilac Park in October, 2008, and built a new Lilac Park where the renovated structures were opened to the public in 2009.

I have since learned that a second beehive fireplace survives in Grasser Park in Robbinsdale. Again, much of the park was taken for or disrupted by the MN-100 rebuild in the mid-2000s. The fireplace is in the lower photo. The city of Robbinsdale is working to restore the park and the other stone work that was removed, including a number of vintage stone picnic tables.


Red Chair At The Mall Of America Home Plate At The Mall Of America Why is there a red chair hanging from the wall of the amusement park at the Mall of America? The second photo gives a clue to the story. The amusement park sits on land that once was the baseball field where the Minnesota Twins played through the 1981 season. The location of the home plate is marked with a plaque in the floor in front of the Orance Streak roller coaster (formerly known as the Rip Saw Roller Coaster).

On June 3, 1967, Twins star Harmon Killebrew hit the longest home run ever launched from home plate at Metropolitan Stadium. It landed in the second deck of left field, where it struck and damaged a chair. To commemorate the event, the Twins painted the chair red, and never sold that chair again. The red chair on the wall above the log flume ride marks the spot where the red chair was once located in the stands some 520 feet from home plate.

On a sad note, these photos were taken on May 17, 2011, the day that Harmon Killebrew lost his battle with cancer.


McDonalds McStop Lakeville This is a somewhat unusual McDonalds sign in that it doesn't say McDonalds on it. It is also unusual that it is on a large sign structure with several other signs. What makes this location in Lakeville, Minnesota, different is that the site at highway 70 and I-35 was the very first McStop, McDonalds foray into the truck stop business. The concept was a McDonalds themed truck stop that could be rolled out across the Interstate highways of America such that the golden arches would own this industry.

The reality turned out a little different. The Lakeville location was too far out of the Twin Cities for outbound trucks to use--they would fill up at their terminals before hitting the highway. And inbound trucks would simply drive the few extra miles to make it to their destination. The developer of this McStop and a few others in the Midwest went bankrupt. The Lakeville location is now a series independent businesses, such as a Holiday station, Motel 6, and two small strip malls.

That wasn't the end of McStop, however. McDonalds reformulated the concept, and a number of US locations have been successful, including Saint Cloud. The concept was also rolled out internationally where it has been much more successful.


MN-DOT Emissions Test Station It isn't odd to find an auto glass store located in the Twin Cities area, especially not in an area full of auto parts and service shops as you find along highway 5 in Chanhassen. What is odd here is the history behind this building. It started life as a MN-DOT emissions test station. In the late 1980s, the Twin Cities was not meeting federal air quality standards. As a result, emissions testing was mandated before you could renew your license plates. Stations like this were set up all over the metro area.

Over time, the emissions testing program was recognized to be an expensive failure. Very few vehicles failed the test. That was due to program rules where only new vehicles needed to be tested. They always passed since they were built to meet emissions standards. Older vehicles that produced the majority of the pollution were exempt from testing. As a result, the program was scrapped in 1999. Most of the buildings were demolished as the valuable properties were redeveloped, but a few of these test center buildings still exist some 12 years after the fiasco was put to bed.

Made With Macintosh
Authored by John A. Weeks III, Copyright © 1996—2016, all rights reserved.
For further information, contact: john@johnweeks.com