Ralph Rapson dies at age 93

A view of the iconic Riverside Plaza buildings from beneath the University of Minnesota’s Rarig Center. Both were designed by renowned architect Ralph Rapson, who died on Saturday, March 39.

Photo by Todd Melby

Prospect Park resident designed Riverside Plaza, Southeast library, U of M's Rarig Center

Ralph Rapson, a Minnesota modernist architect best known for designing the original Guthrie Theatre, died on Saturday. He was 93.

Rapson, who lived in a traditional house near the “Witch’s Hat” tower in Prospect Park, served as dean of the University of Minnesota School of Architecture for three decades, had an office on the West Bank and was a legend among Minnesota architects.

Locally, Rapson also designed Pillsbury House (1963), Southeast Community Library (1964), Rarig Center (1971), Riverside Plaza (1973) and the Rapson Glass Cube (1974), a family vacation home in rural Wisconsin.

“His work was beautifully composed,” but not overpriced, says Thomas Fisher, current dean of the University of Minnesota School of Architecture. “His buildings were functional, practical and low cost.”

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Weisman Art Museum featured a retrospective of the architect’s work in 1999. Called “Ralph Rapson: Sixty Years of Modern Design,” the exhibition featured models, photographs, furniture (including the “Rapson Rapid Rocker”) and drawings. Unlike most architects, Rapson didn’t just draw buildings in his renderings; he sketched people relaxing in chairs or gardening in his creations.

“I really don’t talk well without a pencil in my hand,” said Rapson, in a 2003 interview with the Star Tribune.

After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1938, Rapson studied at the elite Cranbook Academy of Art for two years. According to an article in the Journal of Architectural Historians, Rapson “worked elbow-to-elbow with fellow students Harry Weese, Charles Eames, and Eero Saarinen in the learn-as-you-work Cranbook environment.”

Rapson’s most popular neighborhood building is Southeast Community Library, 122 Fourth St. SE. After opening as the State Capitol Credit Union, Rapson supervised its transition to a library in 1967. Architecture critic Larry Millett called the building a “crisp, convincing period piece from the 1960s.”

Due to budget cuts, the library was shuttered in recent years, but is now open again. Many of Rapson’s other creations have suffered worse fates. When the Pillsbury House in Wayzata was sold in the mid-1990s, the new owners called in the wrecking crew. When the Guthrie moved to new digs along the Mississippi River in 2006, the Walker Art Center crushed Rapson’s original creation, which had been sitting next to its warehouse of modern art for 43 years.

In a 2002 interview with Minnesota magazine, an Rapson criticized the museum for demolishing his landmark building. “I’m very disturbed and disappointed that an organization such as the Walker, which obviously has been a great force in the art world, would be so negative about what really is a very significant building,” he said at the time.

However, several smaller Rapson projects live on. Three of his sometimes angular, sometimes flat-roof houses in the University Grove neighborhood of St. Paul (2160, 2179 and 2197 Folwell Avenue) remain in use today. So do at least two churches — St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Edina and Hope Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.

These contributions to Minnesota’s architecture shouldn’t be overlooked. “That’s a legacy we need to remember,” Fisher says. “[Rapson] didn’t just work on big fancy projects. Many of his highest quality designs were for ordinary people.”

See more on Rapson at Todd Melby’s architecture blog, Building Minnesota. Melby is a Seward resident and a former editor of the Seward Profile.

last revised: March 31, 2008