Monday, August 23, 2010

Then and Now: "The Old Gray Heads," part one -- Roy Thorshov

"Then and Now" is a series by Alan K. Lathrop, curator of the Manuscripts Division at the University of Minnesota Libraries from 1970 to 2008. He is author of Minnesota Architects and Churches of Minnesota.

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Some fifteen years ago or more, the late Charlie Nelson, architectural historian at the Minnesota Historical Society, started a short-lived series of programs for the local chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians called “The Old Gray Heads.” He and I conferred on the scope and details of the series, and it was well received by the membership of the local SAH chapter.

Each year at the December meeting, one of the older architects in the Twin Cities was invited to speak about his or her career, works, and architects of their day. Unfortunately, the series ran out of steam after five years or so. Out of all architects who had been invited, I am going to write about two: Roy Thorshov and Elizabeth Close (who will be featured in Part Two).

Roy was a heavy-set, jowly, good-natured soul who had started practicing in the early 1920s with Long & Thorshov (whose work includes the now-former Dayton's dept. store in downtown Minneapolis) – the “Thorshov” in this case being his father, Olaf, a native of Norway who had migrated to the U.S. around 1901. Olaf died in 1928 and Roy succeeded as the “Thorshov” partner. By the time I knew Roy in 1977, he was semi-retired with a hefty body of work behind him (including work at the Hennepin County Courthouse and at St. Mary's Greek Orthodox Church in Minneapolis) and was well respected in the community of architects, both within Minnesota and nationally. He had been a long-time member of the Sons of Norway and his firm designed their building on West Lake Street (pictured) in the 1970s.

The name of the firm changed in the early 1940s, becoming Thorshov & Cerny after Robert Cerny joined it and a decade and a half after the last Long had passed on. (Thorshov & Cerny's extensive body of work includes St. Olaf's Catholic Church.) It dissolved in 1960 and each partner went into other practices: Roy Thorshov joined Willard Thorsen, and Robert Cerny started his own firm, Cerny & Associates. Both occupied offices within a couple blocks of each other in downtown Minneapolis for a number of years: Thorsen & Thorshov was in the Old Republic Title Building at the corner of Fourth Street and Second Avenue South, and Cerny had offices in the Soo Line Building at Marquette Avenue and Fifth Street South.

Roy was one of the initial members of the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission, formed by an ordinance in 1973. He was still on the HPC when I came on board in 1977. Because of his extensive knowledge of the city’s architectural history, he was a valued member, both of the Commission and of its Catalog Committee. The latter was a three-person group consisting of Roy, Kermit Crouch, and me, most ably assisted by staff members Gail Bronner and Camille Kudzia. Our task was to spend two or three hours once or twice a month driving through city neighborhoods and identifying buildings of all types that seemed to merit, on the basis of their appearance, further research (by the staff) to determine their date of construction, original owner’s name, architect’s name, and other pertinent information. Any structure that met the criteria of stylistic and historical significance could potentially be nominated by the Commission to its list of historic structures and thus be protected from wanton destruction.

During these trips up and down city streets, Roy would regale us with stories about neighborhoods, architects of the past, and even owners whom he may have known as either clients or by reputation. He was especially knowledgeable about Prospect Park in Southeast Minneapolis, where his family had roots and his sister still lived in a house built in the 1880s. He would point out a house and remark, “So-and-so lived there,” and proceed to tell a story about the person or the house or both and chuckle over its humorous aspects. Needless to say, these were gloriously fun-packed days, filled with first-hand history from a man who “had been there and done that.”

When it came his turn to speak at the “Old Gray Heads” program, we held the meeting in the City Hall. Roy spoke all too briefly about his career – being a very modest man by nature – but he treated everyone to a ride in the very cramped clock tower elevator to the roof of City Hall, where we had a delightful view of downtown. Of course, Roy pointed out the sights and commented on buildings that had once stood there. It was a lesson in living history, and I shall never forget it.

Sadly, Roy has been gone for nearly twenty years and took with him a wealth of information about the architectural history and heritage of Minneapolis. I feel immensely pleased and honored to have known him as one of the “Old Gray Heads.”

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Alan K. Lathrop is author of Minnesota Architects (2010) and Churches of Minnesota (2003).

Also in the Then and Now series:
-Fine architecture in Winona, MN.
-Art deco treasures in the Twin Cities.
-The Guthrie Theater(s).
-The Metropolitan Building.
-The Hollywood, Uptown, and Varsity theaters in Minneapolis.

Want to know the architectural history of your favorite Minnesota building? E-mail suggestions about content you would like to see here to sattl014@umn.edu.

Images in this post are from Creative Commons.

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