After living for seven years in Washington, D.C., architectural historian Jane Hession and her husband Bill Oxley chose the Morningside neighborhood of Edina in which to build their modern dream home; they liked the proximity to the lakes, the easy access to the University of Minnesota and the ability to walk to downtown Edina. “A true downtown is somewhat rare these days,” she says. “Downtown Edina is so special because people actually live there and there are great amenities and activities.”
Hession earned her degree in architecture at the University of Minnesota; shortly after graduation, she had the opportunity to co-author the book Ralph Rapson: Sixty Years of Modern Design about one of the state’s best-known and most beloved architects. She also guest-curated the exhibit of the same name at the Weisman Art Museum (the Minneapolis Institute of Arts mounted the other half of the exhibit). Hession went on to archive the drawings of the first African-American municipal architect, Cap Wigington, who was also the first black architect to be registered in Minnesota. Wigington designed many of the St. Paul Winter Carnival’s ice palaces and other projects for which he was never credited.
During a stint as president of the Chicago-based Frank Lloyd Wright building conservancy, Hession wrote Frank Lloyd Wright in New York: the Plaza Years, 1954-1959. There are a number of Wright’s buildings in Minnesota: the Willey house in Prospect Park, the Niles House on Cedar Lake and the Lynholm gas station — the only gas station he ever designed. “There was almost a Frank Lloyd Wright house built in Edina in 1938,” Hession says. Life Magazine sponsored a competition called “Eight Houses in Modern Living,” which matched eight architects with eight clients. Frank Lloyd Wright was paired with the Blackburn family of Edina. “His design was never built,” Hession reports. “In typical fashion, he’d designed something that had no relationship to the client’s budget. The family also wanted a garage, but Wright didn’t believe in garages. He said that cars were not animals and should stay outside all year.” In desperation, the family turned toward another architect, Royal Barry Willis, and Wright’s Edina design was eventually built in Two Rivers, Wisconsin.
Hession is now working on two books: one about John Howe, the “pencil” in Wright’s hand from 1932 to 1959, who established a Minnesota practice that resulted in many wonderful homes. The other is about Elizabeth “Liesl” Close, who began practicing in Minnesota in 1938. Close designed hundreds of homes as well as the Gray Freshwater Biological Institute on Lake Minnetonka. One of the first female architects in Minnesota, her buildings were primarily noted for her use of natural materials and are still in use today.
Hession is a veritable encyclopedia of notable local buildings. “It’s always great to see the marquee of the Edina Theater,” she says. “I remember when it was damaged by the 1980 tornado.” Hession also admires Ralph Rapson’s St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Edina, even though it has been altered.
Beyond Edina, she is fond of Christ Church Lutheran in Minneapolis by Eliel Saarinen (with an addition by Eero Saarinen) and the Mill City Museum. “I love the fact that the building is built in the ruins of what was once the world’s largest flour mill,” Hession says. “I applaud projects that preserve history and a sense of place yet find new, creative ways to adapt these buildings to 21st century use. I’m a preservationist at heart.” Hession praises the openness and accessibility of the new Guthrie Theater. “The public can freely experience the space and the spectacular view from the “endless bridge” without a ticket. It’s a great and generous urban space.”
“I am concerned that so much is changing in Edina,” Hession admits. “I see lots of teardowns in our neighborhood but I hope the houses from the 1920s remain.” She advocates the creative re-use of existing buildings, lauding local coffee shop chain Dunn Brothers’ efforts to move into old buildings. “We need to think creatively about how we can find new uses for old structures. We have to be sure that we don’t love our city to death but love it carefully and wisely.”