Adding Modern Spirit to the American Swedish Institute

The gård, or central courtyard, is a traditional Swedish design feature. Photo from HGA

Swan Turnblad made his mark on Minneapolis. As publisher of the nation’s leading Swedish-American newspaper 100 years ago, he helped generations of immigrants build new lives in America. As a wealthy businessman, he took his place alongside the city’s milling and lumber barons with a 33-room mansion on Park Avenue that would cost $38 million to build today.

Turnblad endowed the American Swedish Institute and donated his mansion as its home. But when the institute began planning a new addition, its architect faced a puzzling design challenge.


Photo from HGA

“There are a lot of people who think that any addition to a historical building needs to look historical.” Tim Carl

How do you create a modern building that embodies the spirit of Swedish design – without overwhelming the giant French chateau that had become a beloved landmark in its South Minneapolis neighborhood?

“It’s not an easy philosophical conversation,” said Tim Carl, AIA, who led the project for the Minneapolis-based firm HGA. “There are a lot of people who think that any addition to a historical building needs to look historical.

“But a new building shouldn’t be confused with a historical building. They should relate. But there should be some room for interpretation in how they relate.”

Nelson Cultural Center addition (left) and 1908 Turnblad Mansion. Photo from HGA

Carl met the challenge beautifully with an addition that enhances the institute’s campus while respecting the primacy of the historic mansion. In dozens of subtle ways, the Nelson Cultural Center pays homage to Turnblad’s home while firmly retaining its own identity.

Among the ways Carl and his team integrated and enhanced old and new:

  • The addition’s siding uses the same slate tiles as the roof of the mansion.
  • The new building faces the main avenue with a single story set back in alignment with the mansion, allowing the mansion’s profile to stand tall.
  • Strategically placed windows and triangular “light monitors” offer constant views of the mansion throughout the new addition.

One central decision framed the entire project. On a scouting trip to Sweden, Carl learned about the traditional Swedish courtyard, called a “gård.” Swedish farms were designed with the house and outbuildings around a gård, creating a focus and gathering place.


Photo from HGA

American Swedish Institute
2600 Park Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55407

The 33-room Swan Turnblad mansion cost $1.5 million to build in 1908, or about $38 million today.

Carl began his planning with a central courtyard and wrapped the new building around it.

“The whole massing and functional layout of the addition is done to create an experience that keeps the mansion as the centerpiece of the campus,” he said.

The Nelson Cultural Center isn’t anything like the home Swan Turnblad built a century ago. But we think he’d like it.

The original mansion is in constant view from inside the new addition. Photo from HGA


Photo from HGA

The addition is sided with the same slate tiles as the mansion’s roof, helping the two buildings relate. Photo from HGA