Culture, community and more at Twin Cities’ American Swedish Institute

Music & Arts

Culture, community and more at Twin Cities’ American Swedish Institute

A heritage museum and cultural center.

A gathering place for Swedes and non-Swedes alike.

A geothermal energy-lover’s dream.

The American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis is all of these things, but the nearly 86-year-old cultural center also serves as an outpost for Swedes in America to stay connected to their Scandinavian roots.

“We love to have our finger on the pulse of what’s going on in Stockholm, Helsinki, Oslo and the entire Nordic region,” said Laura Cederberg, marketing and communications manager at the American Swedish Institute (ASI). “There is a strong interest in Swedish-American heritage, which is a primary reason people come here.”

The American Midwest, and particularly Minneapolis, has one of the highest concentrations of Americans of Swedish descent. At the turn of the 20th century, a large famine in Sweden propelled a migration of residents to set sail for America in search of tillable land and a new life. Minnesota, with its rich farmland, abundance of water and lakes and similar geography to their homeland, was an obvious region of choice.

Situated in the Phillips West neighborhood of Minneapolis, the ASI “engages locally and connects globally,” serving more than 100,000 visitors each year who come to gather, and for those visitors with Swedish roots, feel a kinship to their Nordic heritage.

“When Swedes visit Minneapolis, the Institute is often a first step,” Cederberg said.

Even for those who don’t have Swedish roots. A native Minnesotan, Mary Jenn moved back to the state this summer after 30 years in California. She returned, she said, for the culture of Minnesota and its Scandinavian Influence.

“I wanted to immerse myself in the Scandinavian-infused culture of Minnesota,” Jenn said, attending the ASI’s “Cocktails at the Cabin” event in the gardens. “I plan to go back. Minnesota culture is very Scandinavian…I can see why they settled here in the 1800s.”

The ASI’s quiet and unassuming campus off Park Avenue contains two main buildings: the historic Turnblad Mansion and the modern Nelson Cultural Center.

Turnblad Mansion

A haven for Instagrammers, Turnblad Mansion is an architectural gem in the Twin Cities.

“The woodworking in it is some of the finest in the world,” Cederberg said. “Makers, craftsmen and hobbyists travel here just to admire the craftsmanship of the mansion.”

The imposing French Chateauesque castle was built by newspaperman Swan Turnblad as a way, like many affluent people the time, to show wealth. The family’s trips to Europe served as inspiration.

“He wanted to build a castle that would rival what he was seeing in Sweden, a mansion or home to last thousands of years to celebrate Swedish arts, culture and contributions to our society,” Cederberg said.

Construction of the mansion took five years and was completed in 1908; 19 years later the family donated the residence to what is now the American Swedish Institute.

During a trip to Minneapolis in August, Christian Cruz visited the Institute and called it “one of the surprise destinations of the city.”

The ASI “gives you the opportunity to get insights into the great heritage of the city,” the Hoboken, N.J., resident says. “The mansion itself is a great quick excursion if you have an hour or two to kill.”

Nelson Cultural Center

The 34,000-square-foot Carl and Leslie Nelson Cultural Center opened in 2012, a long-anticipated addition to help bolster the Institute’s status as a cultural center and gathering spot for the greater Twin Cities community and the Phillips neighborhood.

The design team traveled to Sweden, and the result is a facility with architecture that embraces handcrafted, Swedish-inspired aesthetics and Nordic values – respect for nature, use of quality materials and sustainable building practices. The LEED Gold-certified center features a sloping green roof populated with beehives to promote pollination. There’s even a hidden geothermal well field for heating and cooling. When in the courtyard, “you’re walking over 96 geothermal wells that are eight-stories deep, and you’d have no idea,” Cederberg said.

Also at Nelson is Fika, an award-winning restaurant (Yelp: 4.5 stars with 71 reviews) named after the Swedish coffee-break custom. Fika serves up Nordic inspired foods – which Americans largely would recognize as farm-to-table fare. [RELATED: Don’t’ grab a coffee – have a fika]

“When you say ‘farm-to-table’ to Swedes, it is strange, because that is the way Nordic chefs have always cooked: locally sourced, clean foods, whole foods,” Cederberg said. “Nordic food means clean, sustainable food practices.”

The ASI even houses a school: Svenska Skolan, a Saturday-morning language and cultural program for children. Many families who move to Minneapolis from Sweden enroll their kids as a way to keep their heritage alive.

“When people think of Swedish-Americans coming to the Twin Cities, they think of the 20th century, but it’s absolutely a sought-after designation for current immigrants,” Cederberg said. “Swedish-American culture here is not just one era of immigration – it’s still happening today.”

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