Bell Museum of Natural History, 10 Church Street SE, Minneapolis, Minnesota

From Placeography

Jump to: navigation, search
Edit with form

Bell Museum of Natural History

The James F. Bell Museum of Natural History (Minnesota Museum of Natural History), 1940, Credit: Minnesota Historical Society
The James F. Bell Museum of Natural History (Minnesota Museum of Natural History), 1940, Credit: Minnesota Historical Society
Address: 10 Church Street SE
Neighborhood/s: University, Minneapolis, Minnesota, East Bank, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Hennepin County, Minnesota
State/province: Minnesota
Country: United States
Year built: 1939-1940
Primary Style: Art Deco/Art Moderne
Additions: Ground Broken in July 1964. Construction completed in April 1971. Building Dedication on May 8, 1971.
Major Alterations: Some/mostly intact
Historic Function: Museum
Historic Function: Research, Theater
Other Historic Function: Research, Theater
Current Function: Museum
Current Function: Research, Theater
Other Current Function: Research, Theater
Architect or source of design: Clarence H Johnson, Jr.
Builder: Devereux-Olson Construction Company
Material of Exterior Wall Covering: Limestone
Material of Roof: Metal/Steel
Material of Foundation: Concrete
First Owner: University of Minnesota
Part of the Site: University of Minnesota, East Bank Campus
Notes: James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History

Minnesota Museum of Natural History

University, East Bank Minneapolis Hennepin

Bell Museum of Natural History, 10 Church Street SE, Minneapolis, Minnesota
(44.977625° N, 93.232791° WLatitude: 44°58′39.45″N
Longitude: 93°13′58.048″W

Building Information

The James Ford Bell Museum, located at 10 Church Street SE, Minneapolis, Minnesota, is part of the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota. It's mission is to encourage better understanding of the natural world through research, teaching, and public education in the natural sciences. The museum's three major goals are to (1) Encourage and conduct research in the natural sciences; (2) Provide a permanent record of biotic diversity in time nd space through collections; (3) Present and interpret the facts, principles and controversies of the natural sciences to the public and the University community.(1)

The Museum continues to be a natural history resource for grade school children throughout Minnesota. The museum, during the summer, hosts various camps for kids and in the cold winter months some weekend workshops.

Building History

The James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History was founded in 1872 as the Zoological Museum, and was housed in one room of the main building on the Minneapolis Campus. As the collections grew, and staff was added, it was realized by many on the University Campus that a larger building was required in order to keep up with demand.

In 1938 James Bell, a 1901 alumni of the University of Minnesota, and President of General Mills provided a $150,000 donation to help in the design and construction of the new Minnesota Museum of Natural History. This donation covered over half of the total estimated building costs of $272,000. The remaining monies came from private donations and the PWA, a federal funding program. The building would be located on the corner of University Avenue and Church Street on the University of Minnesota East Bank Campus in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Clarence H. Johnston, Jr., son of famed architect, Clarence H. Johnston, designed the building. Johnston Sr's firm had designed university buildings for years, and understood the workings of the University so the architect was a logical choice. The contractor who won the bid ws Devereux-Olson Construction Company. Ground broke in November of 1938, and the Museum was completed in 1940. The building dedication was held September 28, 1940.

Over the years, the museum staff expanded and the biological science area exploded with new research. This, in turn, cramped the museum quarters. In 1963, an addition was suggested to be built along the backside of the museum, adjacent to Folwell Hall. By this time, Clarence Johnston, Jr. had passed on, so a new firm, Cavin & Page Architects, was hired to design the addition. Initial costs came in at a $503,526. On July 23, 1964, ground was broken for the new wing of the Museum. The final cost came to $711,400, which included a $50,000 donation from the National Science Foundation, $250,800 in private donations and a $410,600 allocation from the state legislature.

The new addition design used more concrete, but kept the very rigid rectilinear format developed by the original architect, Clarence Johnston, Jr. A glass conservatory connected the original building to the new wing. The addition cost more than the original, yet the attention to architectural and interior detail was lacking. The design was very utilitarian. The 5,750 square foot addition was completed in April 1971. The building dedication was May 8, 1971.

In 1967, the Minnesota Museum of Natural History was renamed the James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History in honor of its main patron, James Ford Bell.

Architectural Style

The building design was very rectilinear in an Art Moderne/Art Deco style. The exterior ended up being Indiana limestone, although more local stones were looked at. Unfortunately cost was a big factor. The interior housed an auditorium to seat 500, plus the gallery space to house the dioramas on the first and mezzanine floors, classroom, office and storage space. Very few windows were placed due to the fragility of the collections.

Samuel Bell, son of James F. Bell, did the sculptural reliefs on the exterior of the building. Specifically, he sculpted the buffalo above the door, and the nature motifs around the top of the exterior building facade.

Art Moderne / Art Deco Style

Art Moderne is characterized by a horizontal orientation, flat roof, asymmetry, cube-like shape, no cornices or eaves, sleek, stream-lined appearance, smooth white walls, rounded corners highlighted by wraparound windows, aluminum or stainless steel door and window trim, mirrored panels, steel balustrades, a suggestion of speed and movement, little or no ornamentation and open floor plans.

Art Moderne and Art Deco can be very similar, yet have specific differences. They both have stripped-down forms and geometric design, yet the Art Moderne tends to appear sleeker and plain, while the Art Deco is more ornate. Art Moderne tends to use the white throughout, while Art Deco is more brightly colored. The Art Deco style also tended to be used on more public buildings, while the Art Moderne was used on more residential buildings. (5)

Art Moderne originated with the Bauhaus movement, which began in Germany under the leadership of Walter Gropius. The movement, under the leadership of Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe closed due to Nazi occupation in 1933. These designers and architects used the principles of classical architecture in their more purest forms - triangles, squares, curves and cones. There was no excess or ornamentation. (5)

Reuse, Recycle, Restore

During the mid 1980's the curator and staff at the Bell realized again that the building was becoming inadequate and antiquated for the research and the accumulating collections. The University again began plans for expansion. This time it was suggested that a new building, near the Biological Science buildings on the St. Paul campus would be more appropriate. ESG Architects was awarded the contract for initial concept, and funding was requested. In Spring 2009, Governor Pawlenty vetoed the funding for the $24 Million budget for the new building due to the economic recession and the state budget crisis.

Today, plans still exist to design and build a new museum on the University of Minnesota St. Paul campus. When and if that happens the current Bell Museum will be emptied of its dioramas and original use. What happens to the building then? Believe it or not, the building will have its 70th birthday in the Spring of 2010. It is no longer considered a "young" building. Yet it has character and represents a time in our local and national history where technology and research was growing in leaps and bounds.

As our newer buildings age, preservationists need to begin asking the questions, "Is this building worthy of the National Register? What does it bring to the table that would contribute to our local and national heritage?"

The James F. Bell Museum could be National Register material. The building also needs to find a reuse, so that it can continue to be a viable space in the 21st Century. Perhaps that could be another museum, or space for other smaller college programs within the University setting.


1. Rubenstein, Doris. Fact Sheet: Bell Museum of Natural History. University of Minnesota Archives.

2. University of Minnesota Archives, Anderson Library, University of Minnesota

3. Northwest Archives, Anderson Library, University of Minnesota

4. Facilities Management, Donhowe Building, University of Minnesota



Memories and stories

Photo Gallery

Related Links



    64px}px This place is part of
    the ARCH5670 Class Project
    Personal tools
    [ snubnosed]