Long before the world closed down due to the threat of COVID-19, Scott Mayer knew the incredible value of keeping doors open in the city of Minneapolis.
It was just one year ago this month, in fact, that the 63-year-old event creator and community builder founded Doors Open Minneapolis.
Thanks to the City of Minneapolis, the American Institute of Architects, an engaged advisory committee, over 20 sponsors and 800 volunteers and workers, it was a huge success and brought 18,000 people out to 112 venues for a total of 77,000 visits overall.
Of course, this year’s event has been moved from its originally scheduled mid-May weekend to Sept. 12-13, when the architecturally minded, historically curious and just plain nosy will be encouraged (pandemic willing) to explore dozens of venues public and private, humble and lofty, all around the city.
Meanwhile, Mayer’s got an initiative — Strolls Through the Streets of Minneapolis — in the works this spring while the main event is in hiatus. It plays off the energy of Doors Open Minneapolis and the participating venues, but allows for safe social distancing and features many of the same Doors Open venues, albeit in new ways.
INSPIRED BY PARIS
Doors Open Minneapolis, a nonprofit organization, started when a then-newly elected Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey had a conversation with Mayer about finding ways to celebrate the city and highlight why it’s such a special place to work and live.
Mayer had hoped to come up with a brilliant idea all his own. But then he saw an article about the Paris phenomenon of Doors Open, an annual event that began in 1984 and spread all over the world, including U.S. cities such as New York, Chicago and Milwaukee.
With Doors Open Minneapolis, venues agree to allow visitors inside for a weekend. Public transportation is provided (with a pass downloaded online). And residents get to learn more about the buildings they walk and drive by all the time. And it’s all free.
“You can create your own itinerary and just see one building or visit as many as you’d like over the course of two days,” Mayer said.
SIGHTS TO SEE IN 2020
This year’s 100-plus venues include the Target Lights, a video display on top of the Target headquarters building downtown, featuring 650,000 LEDs that provide creative, colorful videos every evening.
Other venues are more historic, such as Fhima’s Minneapolis, an Art Deco space dating back to 1914. Originally the Forum Cafeteria, it was designed to serve 1,000 people an hour. Today, it’s an award-winning restaurant, featuring a modern take on French-Mediterranean cuisine, amid mirrors, chandeliers and elaborate tilework.
Architectural wonders abound, too, this year, including churches and synagogues, the Federal Reserve Bank, the Witch’s Hat water tower in Prospect Park, the Grain Belt Brew House, the Pillsbury A Mill Underground and the Tractorworks Building.
Just a few of the insider destinations include the Guthrie Theater’s offsite costume and prop warehouse; the Woman’s Club of Minneapolis; and Mayo Clinic Square, home of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx teams.
And that’s not to mention fascinating stops at restaurants, bars, theaters, hotels and other local businesses on the self-guided tour.
STROLLS THROUGH THE STREETS
But Twin Cities residents won’t have to wait until fall to celebrate all the vibrancy the city has to offer.
Doors Open Minneapolis — true to Mayer’s form of dealing swiftly and graciously with last-minute hiccups — is pivoting at the speed of light to deliver Strolls Through the Streets of Minneapolis.
Featured venues will include many of those same destinations set to welcome visitors later this year for Doors Open.
They’ll keep their doors closed for the event. But the idea will be for them to showcase facets of their exterior architecture and information about how they’re responding to the pandemic — such as retail sales, online instruction and fundraisers — and what they do in normal times as well.
“We will group the venues by neighborhood and invite the community to take neighborhood walks,” Mayer said. “And — armed with our information — our community will learn more about Minne- apolis neighborhoods and the venues that exist within them.”
Walkers can take a photo of their favorite venue or their home and upload it to Instagram using #dompls, along with 100 words explaining why the venue is their favorite. A winning entrant will receive $250.
“As we are staying in place, our world becomes much smaller,” Mayer said. “It underscores even more why feeling a sense of community with the people close to you — and where they work and live — has become more essential. Having an opportunity to learn more about these venues, whether by reading about them or experiencing them in the future is something Doors Open Minneapolis can facilitate.”
Mayer hopes Strolls Through the Streets can be especially helpful for families looking for ways to keep kids educated and entertained.
“It is our belief that even closed doors can open minds,” he said.
A LEGACY OF LOCAL EVENTS
Mayer, who’s been called “the unofficial mayor of Minneapolis,” brought the Doors Open event to the city and turned it from a new idea into a smoothly operating reality with help from an astonishing array of local entities and volunteers.
But it wasn’t his first rodeo.
He also founded the Ivey Awards — which celebrated Twin Cities’ theater excellence for 13 years — and the Charlie Awards, which he co-founded in 2011 with the legendary foodie-philanthropist Sue Zelickson to celebrate excellence in the local restaurant, food and beverage industry.
With everything he’s spearheaded, Mayer is quick to credit those around him. “An idea, no matter how good, remains just an idea unless there are the collaborations and resources to make it a reality,” Mayer said.
Intensely productive and utterly unflappable, Mayer brings to mind the image of the graceful swan, gliding serenely along a pond while paddling furiously just underneath the surface of the water.
He seems to know everyone, moving comfortably in overlapping social circles of artists, businesspeople and politicians.
“I enjoy talking with people, and I love listening to people,” he said. “I even love eavesdropping, especially in the locker room at the downtown YMCA. You hear it all there.”
Even though his name and career are so strongly associated with big city life, Mayer started off in a very different place.
He grew up in Roscoe, South Dakota, population 300.
“Living in a small town has benefits and disadvantages,” he said. “The education didn’t offer a lot for those who wanted to study something creative, like photography, for example. But then again, the community was too small for cliques to be able to form. In a small town, you interact with a variety of people every day, and you need to learn to get along with them.”
While he’s been running his own event-production company for more than 15 years, Mayer’s held a number of jobs before going out on his own.
After he graduated from Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota, he and a friend packed up his Dodge Dart and drove west to Lake Tahoe.
Both landed jobs as blackjack dealers, working from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m., spending days relaxing by the lake.
“It was a wonderful break after college,” Mayer said. “One time, John Travolta and Lily Tomlin were in town filming Moment by Moment, and I got to deal at their table.”
RETURNING TO THE MIDWEST
Eventually, Mayer realized he wasn’t cut out to relax by a lake all day, so he moved back to Aberdeen and got a job teaching English.
Then he came to the Twin Cities for law school, practiced law for one year in Phoenix, then moved back to Minneapolis and eventually started working as a lobbyist.
When the AIDS crisis hit in the 1980s, Mayer said his life changed drastically. “My entire social life was going to fundraisers or going to funerals,” he said. While still working as a lobbyist, he started an event to benefit the Minnesota AIDS project. The event began in his apartment and ultimately grew to 4,000 attendees at the Orpheum Theatre and Mall of America.
“I realized I had skills in creating the relationships and partnerships needed to pull something like that off, so I set up shop for myself,” he said.
Mayer’s longtime friend Fran Davis, a realtor and sales manager at Coldwell Banker Burnet Minneapolis, said Mayer is blessed with the rare qualities of someone who can dream big, but still get things done.
“Scott is a great creative mind, and he’s also able to pull things off,” she said. “He’s a great organizer, and he can identify the right people to be involved to support good ideas like Doors Open.”
Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak has been friends with Mayer for more than 30 years.
“I always tell him I’d love to see him run for mayor, not only because we could have ‘Mayor Mayer,’ but also because he seems to have a unique understanding of how to move in the sometimes-abstract ecosystem of a city,” Rybak said.
Rybak said Mayer has made a difference for the city, in ways big and small.
“He has the brains and creativity behind some of the very best ways we have to tell who we are here in the Twin Cities,” Rybak said. “More than almost anyone else, he understands what we are today, but also why we need to constantly raise the bar to be a better, more inclusive place.”
Mayer dwells in the Loring Heights neigh- borhood of Minneapolis, just north of Loring Park, in a condo he shares with his husband, John Zeches, an esthetician and owner of John Zeches Skincare in Minneapolis. They’ve been together for 26 years. “John was born and raised here, and he isn’t inclined to move,” Mayer said. Fortunately, Mayer has grown to love his adopted city and state.
“Minneapolis is large enough to experience the kind of amenities that the largest cities offer, but small enough that you can still run into friends at the grocery store or at your favorite restaurant,” he said. “It’s very much a community-oriented city.”
“I still have some ideas around celebrating our theater community,” he said.
The Ivey Awards, which ended in 2018 a few years after Mayer retired from the board, ran for 13 years. Outside of the Tony Awards, it was the highest attended theater awards show in the country.
Mayer added: “I think that the richness of our theater scene is a real differentiator from other cities of our size.”
In the meantime, you could make plans to head out to Strolls Through the Streets.
As for Doors Open Minneapolis, Mayer is cautiously optimistic the event will proceed on its reschedule date. (He’ll know more by July 1. Stay tuned.)
Either way, you’ll have the opportunity to remind yourself — or even to find out for the first time — what a marvelous place this city is, open or closed.
Strolls Through the Streets of Minneapolis: This free event — which encourages walkers to get to know various city venues from a safe distance — is coming this spring, featuring fun facts and architectural details for numerous venues. Learn more at doorsopenminneapolis.org.
Doors Open Minneapolis: Set for Sept. 12-13, this second-annual event allows the public free, behind- the-scenes access to buildings and venues in Minneapolis that are architecturally, culturally or socially significant; download free transit passes at doorsopenminneapolis.org.
Julie Kendrick is a contributing writer for many local and national publications. She lives in Minneapolis. Follow her on Twitter @KendrickWorks.