An Austrian architect discovers New Ulm

Judith Eiblmayr is a practicing architect, architectural critic and teacher, and was the Fulbright Visiting Professor at the University of Minnesota in the Fall of 2015. She studied at Vienna University of Technology, the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and for one semester in Venice, Italy. She visited New Ulm in August, 2015, and has written this article about her experience.

Last year, on Aug. 29 I was heading for New Ulm, coming Minneapolis in my lately bought car, a used black Volvo. I arrived in New Ulm about noon and appreciated the cheery welcome sign “Willkommen – New Ulm.” What a nice surprise!

I have known about the German history of New Ulm but had no idea about the strong presence of this attribution, though. Due to my research I chose towns with “New”added to their European names in terms of getting some original impressions of the European ancestry of settlements in the Midwest of the United States. New Ulm should become the start of the story I wanted to tell my students at the University of Minnesota: The class would be named “Old World/New World” and my intention as an architect coming from Vienna, Austria was to show and talk about the differences between American towns and their European models.

After some hours of driving I needed some refreshment on this hot Saturday and was looking for a Caf or restaurant. “Bookshelves and Coffeecups” on Minnesota Street seemed to be perfect. Actually, I was not only longing for coffee and Coke but for a source to get more specific information about New Ulm than what I had found on the internet before my ride. What a great store: Books all over the place and some nice little tables to comfort the clients. I got my coffee and glimpsed around if I would find anything of my peculiar interest. I hit paydirt by finding the official “New Ulm Visitor Guide 2015”, a nicely made magazine with a wide range of information. In addition, it made me, as an Austrian, smile when I read the subtitle “Germans have more fun!” From “Fasching”to “Christkindlmarkt,” “Glockenspiel” to Schell’s “Bier Garten”all of that sounded familiar to me and after reading the Brief History, I got an idea of the important features of New Ulm.

I took out my camera and walked down Minnesota Street. The first thing that hit me was that nobody was on the street, a completely different scene from a European town on a sunny Saturday afternoon. The “Marktplatz” turned out to be a Shopping Mall but probably it was not the right time for a Farmers Market on the street. I was hoping to meet somebody because in the USA it is so easy to get in touch with people and talk about all kinds of everything, but unfortunately no accidental informant showed up. So I went on strolling around by myself considering the houses of this kind of Main Street.

I was impressed by the variety of the facades: gorgeous ones like the white one of Retzlaff’s, probably from the 1920s, or on the left side of the street, the daintily designed one with several baywindows on the first floor. It made me smile when I read the inscriptions on the two “temple fronts” on top of the brick facade: Boesch is a common name also in Austria – actually my brother in law’s name – and Hummel too, which means humble-bee. The facade is really likable rich in variety and topped by a nice cornice which holds all the different style elements together. In total and with its stores this house has a very urban impression.

On Center Street I turned to the left, a red vertical sign caught my eye: “George’s”. As I came nearer I realized it is an object of past better days. Letters still form the words “Bar” and “Ballroom” over two entrances of the light beige brick building but as the trees are rampant you easily discover that there was no ball going on for years. I took a glimpse inside, the round cashier’s booth is still there with its red curtains but the lobby is dirty, partly destroyed and the wall painting decaying. What a pity! You still could feel the parties going on there, the street filled up with shiny cars parking and people in fancy dresses, laughing, entering lobby or bar. Later on, googeling the history of Georges I got to know about what a busy place George’s was. It is a bit too quiet now, the Polka Days are hardly to imagine.

Back on Minnesota Street heading south I found two more interesting buildings, first Nr. 21, another brick facade with a nice wooden portal. Later I found out it is a storefront church. It needed a little restoring so it would become an architectural treasure. Have you ever noticed the small head figurines supporting the window boards? These are tiny sensitive details revealing the architectural quality and craftwork like this should be saved for the future. Completely different and quirkier was the facade of the “Bckerei” next to the church: A cladding made of rounded stones. It impressed me though, not only by the German lettering applied on the facade but by its “Flintstones style” radiating a rough warmth. Crossing First street I spotted the next interesting object: The lovely Heritage Tree, telling New Ulm’s history in a light and delightful way, a neat manner to become familiar with the artifacts which the inhabitants are proud of.

I turned around heading back to my car. The map in the New Ulm visitor guide showed me other places of importance for which I needed the car. Suddenly, roaming up on Minnesota Street, I really felt at home and asked myself: Why is that?! The urban appeal of New Ulm was so much American, so where is the clue to get a special Mideuropean kind of feeling? Then I realized that bells were ringing. Mistakenly I thought church bells. We are used to that sound, as Austria, like Bavaria or Bohemia is a Catholic country, so the center of every smallest village is shaped due to a church. And it is still a usefull tradition to everybody to ring the bells every full hour (even though the bell ringer is not a person anymore but a computer…).

I assumed that the bell sound must come from the bell tower on German Street, as soon as I checked out the magazine and the map of New Ulm. Lacking the “Mnster”on Mnsterplatz of Ulm, Germany, it made sense to build a “Glockenspiel” in New Ulm, Minnesota. I got into my car and drove over one block to the park and got sight of the Glockenspiel, a tower of sober architecture with the bells on a visible height and three musician figurines in traditional “Lederhosen”easily to interpreting as the members of a “Blasmusik-Kapelle”(Brass band), be it Bavarian or even Austrian. I could not watch the 12 figurines, though, I didn’t have time to wait for the next performance due to the second part of my New Ulm tour. My next aim would be the town heading up the hill, then the Hermann Monument. I stopped on Broadway, though, at the beautiful Post office building with its castle-like facade in brick and white stone, housing the Brown County Historical Museum. Unfortunately I didn’t enter this building to the exhibition, because I knew that I would not have enough time. On the backside I discovered another treasure of an American building type from a European point of view: a tiny gas station with round forms and a tender steel construction for the Shell sign. It looked closed and studying my fotos and the internet about it later, I found out that it was built in 1926 and fortunately registered as a Historic Place in Minnesota. The simple material and form of the shop and service building and the gas pump with the sign work as a special kind of “Heritage Tree” typifying an early modern and innocent approach to American car culture.

Driving up the hill it became obvious to me that the building culture of New Ulm is definitely different from other American towns, because many of the private houses and mansions have a brick instead of a wooden facade. Could it be that even the structure of the buildings is made in brick?! We call it in German “Massivbauweise,” be it in brick or concrete which is the usual way of construction in most parts of Europe. Coming to the USA I was amazed when I found out that even very expensive houses all over the country have a cheap wooden construction. Maybe New Ulm would be different, maybe New Ulmers would be more aware of the building culture of their European ancestors? But as far as I know the brick way to shape a house is also in New Ulm more on the surface and less in the structure.

At least they did a massive structure by erecting the Hermann Monument. Over a base building stands a round temple with 11 columns covered by a dome and with the copper statue of “Hermann the German” on top. More than the person himself I was impressed by the architecture language telling one part of the history; Hermann was the hero when German clans were fighting the Romans in 9 A.D., the built expression of it is not only his upraised sword but more impressively him standing on the rooftop of a Roman “tempietto.” That is an unusual pedestal for a statue though! Looks like Hermann is trying to rule Roman culture itself by trampling on it Even knowing – by reading – that this monument finished in 1897 is a citation of the one in Germany finished in 1875, it was special for me to get this story told in Southern Minnesota, USA.

After enjoying the wonderful view over the green canopy of New Ulm, detecting some steeples of the many churches of all confessions in town I drove back, down to the Minnesota River, passing one church without a steeple, another interesting brick building, the United Church of Christ. Could be one of the many midcentury modern churches in Minnesota or younger, I am not sure about that. I parked my car on Front Street and walked down the meadow of Riverside Park. Another calm and contemplative experience, no people around, no boats on the river, no kiosk with ice cream or soda, not even geese to prove that I’m on the ground of former Goose Town, the workers quarter in the old days. Like the Bohemian Flats in Minneapolis, down by the Mississippi, there is no big information left here how near actually the city was built to the river mainly by workers housing in the neighborhood of the water powered industries. The only proof that in New Ulm has been big business going starting in the 19th century was another complex with silos and a brick building that had attracted me by walking around and crossing the rail tracks: The power plant of the Eagle Roller Mill Company, built in 1920. A piece of reduced modern architecture, lightly expressive which should absolutely be saved as a monument of industrial history. Hopefully there will be some use for it, it would be a real loss to building culture if this nice block was torn down. Maybe it could become a caf with a deck to bring people together again near the Minnesota River.

I went back to my car and drove up to Minnesota Street again, I wanted to buy some postcards at the “Guten Tag Haus”giftshop, another funny place for me finding all the articles we usually do have in Mideuropean giftshops ourselves. I bought a postcard of the Wanda Gag House, as I knew I would not have enough time for visiting. Although I still had some other objects of interest in New Ulm on my list I knew I had to head back home. Since I was driving only for some days in the USA, I felt not so familiar with Highways and Freeways and I wanted to find my way back home by daylight not wanting to arrive too late in Minneapolis.

Weeks later and after visiting many other towns to study their structure I would prepare my class, one lecture of it was comparing New Ulm to the original Ulm in Germany. As I arranged the power point sheets with my fotos and with maps and pictures from the internet, I found a nicely drawn plan of New Ulm, which I knew I had to show my students. With all the nice houses surrounded by green grass and trees, with a boat on the river and vague mountains in the background it had a nave appeal like a child’s drawing. Most striking though were the streets to me: No straight rectangular blocks were drawn but tangled roads with wide curves, like they would naturally lead up a hill like in a European town, be it on the Amalfi Coast in the South of Italy, in the Bavarian mountains or in a small Scottish village. That feels like home! The grid structure of US-American cities make the big difference in urbanity compared to European cities and most of the Americans got used to it. But maybe New Ulmers still have more connection to European urban structures like to brick facades – as it says: Germans have more fun! At least in their imagination they have a sentimental but joyful approach to their city and that is something a visitor can feel!

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