In Pathé Newsreel footage from 1927, we see T.B. Walker opening the Walker Galleries. He opens the giant forbidding doors, pushing past lion-headed doorknockers, and we get a brief glimpse of his personal collection of art and artifacts as the camera goes through the galleries. Later, in 1979, artist Richard Haas took the image of the exterior of the 1927 building and another photograph of T.B. Walker standing on the sweeping staircase, known as the grand staircase, to create his trompe l’oeil work Walker Art Galleries Circa ‘27, now on view in the exhibition Art at the Center: 75 Years of Walker Collections. The ghostly image of T.B. Walker reminds us that before the brick-and-aluminum facility we know today there was another home for the Walker Art Center.
The Walker Galleries—sited in a building by architects Long and Thorshov of Minneapolis—existed from 1927 to 1969. The Moorish-style structure stood where the brick building by architect Edward Larrabee Barnes stands now. The grand staircase was the central focal point of the building, and over the years it was a backdrop for showcasing artwork, people, and events. It is the most enduring image of the old structure we have today. But what was beyond that staircase?
Upon entering the building’s first floor, visitors were greeted by the grand staircase. To the left was the information desk and book corner and to the right, the coatroom. From the lobby one entered the galleries from either right or left. The galleries were a series of connected rectangle-shaped rooms.
The galleries continued on the second floor, lit by skylights that lined the ceiling.
A surprising feature of the building was its horseshoe shape that surrounded an open courtyard. The courtyard was used for concerts such as the very popular Doc Evans Jazz Band in the 1950s. At times the court was also used for sculpture classes or exhibitions. In the 1960s it was known as the Sculpture Court.
The Walker Art School was on the basement level. Founded in 1940 under the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the art school was operational until 1950, hosting art classes for children and adults in a variety of subjects including drawing, painting, sculpture, design, and fashion. Dozens of local artists taught at the school, led by the charismatic director, Mac Le Sueur. Other instructors included Evelyn Raymond, Arthur Kerrick, and Stanford Fenelle, all successful artists of the time. Although not a degree program, credit from the Walker Art School could be transferred to the University of Minnesota. The art school was very popular and served hundreds of people regularly in the classrooms.
When the terra cotta features on the Long and Thorshov building began to crack—raising fears that decorative pieces might fall and injure visitors—the Moorish-style facade was replaced with a Moderne look in 1944. In addition to being safer for the public, the sleek new look designed by Magney, Tusslar and Setter, Architects, reflected the spirit of the progressive contemporary programming offered at the Walker Art Center in the mid 1940s.
By the 1960s the old Walker Galleries building was in desperate need of repair. One side of the building had reportedly sunk, causing a crack through the center of the building. After examining the condition of the structure, architect Edward Larrabee Barnes was hired to design a new building. He created seven schemes before settling on the current brick facade that sits on Vineland and Hennepin. The old Long and Thorshov building was torn down in 1969, but before the wrecking ball began swinging, the Walker held a grand goodbye party along with a solo exhibition by Barry Le Va. The Le Va installation was not open to the public as the Walker Art Center had already moved the collections off-site. The building itself had been condemned in preparation for demolition so virtually no one saw Le Va’s show that has since become legend. It was a fitting end to a grand building.