Taking a walk around historic downtown Albert Lea

Published 6:52 am Sunday, May 19, 2013

Column: Art is…, by Bev Jackson Cotter

Even when I was a little girl riding in the back seat of my dad’s 1937 Buick, I remember looking up at the beautiful second, third and sometimes fourth stories of the buildings on Broadway and thinking they were so unique. I still think so.

Bev Jackson Cotter

Bev Jackson Cotter

The people who built the downtown as we know it today believed in Albert Lea and its future. They were willing to invest in buildings that develop a sense of pride in the community’s residents. They enhance the storefronts with medallions, cornices and stylized pilasters. The extra details said, “Here I am. I am proud of this community and the services that we offer.” In Albert Lea, architecture and art are so mingled that it is hard to tell where one stops and the other begins.

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I was lucky to grow up in the 1950s. We walked — up town, down town, through town and around town — and I took for granted our beautiful city thinking that all southern Minnesota towns looked like us. Not so…

Let’s just for the fun of it, take a walk through town and see if we can remember the store fronts, signage, the window displays and the architectural features of the various stores. Here goes.

Beginning on the east side of North Broadway and heading south, we find the water pumping station, Johnson Launderers and Furriers, City Hall and the Fire Department, Kycek Radiator Shop, Seliger Motor Co., Morlea Dairy with its ice cream cone designs and Interstate Power Co. Across the street was Gordon Electric, Earl Ellson Barber, Morries Cigar Store, the Banquet Cafe, Sullivan Paint & Wallpaper, Brownie’s Bake Shop (where I had my first neapolitan), Plymouth Shoe Store, State Farm Insurance, Les Olson Shoe Salon and Weber Apparel and the First National Bank. We cross another street and find the Freeborn National Bank with its terra cotta and marble facade, Fred’s Diamond Shop in the lobby and professional offices and the Medical Arts in the upper floors, Firestone Store, Ben Franklin’s, J.C. Penney’s, Skinner-Chamberlain department store and the Tru-Value Dress Shop. Crossing Main we’ll find Lloyd’s Standard Service Station, Montgomery Ward’s, the Canton Cafe, Carrow Drug Store, Bailey Electric Co. and the Hotel Albert, host to Eleanor Roosevelt, Roy Rogers, Elizabeth Taylor and Sunday dinners accompanied by classical music played on the grand piano. Then on south to the court house situated in the center of the next block.

Heading back to North Broadway we find the Wilson & Co. garage, Strong Insurance Agency, Western Auto, Hellie Real Estate, the Masonic Hall, Petersen Funeral Chapel, Palace Furniture and the Rex Cafe. Crossing Clark Street we admire the Barlow-Spicer Drug Store, Albert Lea Baking Co., Schulz Jewelry, Stevensons (annual shoe sale – buy one pair at regular price and the second for $1 – that’s where I bought my first pair of red high heels), Johnsrud’s Food Market, Leuthold & Groce, Behrend’s Drug Store, Three Sisters and Woolworth’s dime store (45 cent BLTs and nickel cokes). South of William we find Albert Lea Savings & Loan, Deutschmann Jewelers, Gildner Lageson’s men’s clothing, Spurgeons, the Rivoli Theatre with the UWCA on its upper level, Sanders Drug (book store in basement) Carr’s billiards, Bisgaard Shoes and the St. Paul Clothing Store. South of Main were Wallace’s, Gulbrandson’s Hardware, the Popcorn Stand, Mier Wolf’s, KATE, Wolf’s Jewelry, Broadway Book Store, the Broadway Theatre and the Shattuck Hat Shop. South of College was the Albert Lea Evening Tribune, Anderson Furniture (we paid $65 for our first sofa), the Aragon Cafe and Nite Club and Ackland’s Mobil Service. All of the upper floors of these buildings provided offices or apartments.

What I find interesting, even today, on the part of most of the building owners, there has been a continued interest in maintaining the integrity of the buildings, the original architectural art.

I’ve invited you to take this memory walk through our historic downtown because I believe that this architectural integrity can be restored or at least maintained and while the remaining buildings will be used with different purposes, future generations will still be able to enjoy the beautiful architectural art in our downtown.


Bev Jackson Cotter is a member of the Albert Lea Art Center which is located in our historic downtown.