In Minnesota, Hold the Mayo

By Elinor Lander horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 28, 2005

Whenever I refer to my husband as "a native Washingtonian," he leaps into the conversation. "Actually, I'm from Minnesota," he says in a let's-get-the-facts-straight voice. If a spouse of many decades misrepresents her husband's basic biographical data, it confuses people -- but gimme a break! The truth is that long, long ago, my late father-in-law and his bride train-safaried from Washington to distant Rochester, Minn., where he was starting four years of surgical training at the Mayo Clinic. Norman was born there and toddled around for two years until his parents permanently returned to Washington. You call that a Minnesotan?

My mother-in-law, to whom "going out of town" had always implied a shopping trip to Baltimore, found her four-year stint in this frigid, isolated outpost -- where the car was put up on blocks for the winter because of severe weather and no one had even heard of a bagel -- traumatizing. My workaholic father-in-law developed a passionate admiration for the clinic and its doctors. Whenever any family member or friend had a puzzling or grave medical condition, his advice was "Go up to Mayo."

Which is why I was there.

My condition, a bizarre and severe allergic problem, was not critical, although it had a certain undeniable drama. I anticipated passing the time between examinations and tests catching up on my reading and staring at the walls of my hotel room. What I found instead was a city that had quintupled in size since my mother-in-law's indenture and offered diversions in abundance. With considerable downtime between medical appointments, I explored the clinic, the shops, the restaurants and a number of memorable sights.

Rochester, which bills itself "the best small city in America," now has a population of 93,000, a staggering percentage of whom work at the clinic or in clinic-related jobs. The Mayo Clinic is the largest private medical clinic in the world, with more than 2 million patient visits each year. Patients come from all areas of America and around the world, among them a great many folks from Washington and its vicinity. Most arrive with family members and without cars.

Where do they stay? What do they do with their off-clinic time?

I've visited the clinic four times -- as a patient and as a companion -- and, although it sounds a bit weird, I look forward to these visits. I am fascinated by the clinic's superb art collection. I do my gift shopping at favorite Rochester boutiques. I browse the bookstores and antiques shops. I like eating the local walleyed pike and baklava at Michael's, the succulent kebabs at Pappageorge Taverna, sipping perfect martinis at City Cafe and digging into their macadamia-sesame-crusted fresh mahi-mahi ("also can be prepared without dairy, fats or oils for your pre-examination," the menu reads -- after all, you are in a medical community). I enjoy the friendly, patient, chatty Midwestern men and women I encounter in the clinic and all around town.

Like most Washingtonians, I fly to Minneapolis and switch planes for the brief 80-mile flight to Rochester. On a clear day, you can peer down and see mile after mile of Olmsted County's picturesque family farms, the sort we all thought had disappeared eons ago.

The clinic, in the heart of downtown, is ringed by hotels, restaurants and shops. The first thing a visitor learns about navigating Mayo's many buildings and hospitals is that they are connected by a maze of underground walkways called the subway.

Forget any associations you have with the term. This subway system comprises miles of brightly lit, high-ceilinged passages lined with places to eat and shop. Their raison d'etre is Rochester's formidable climate -- mid-winter temperatures of 10 to 20 degrees below are commonplace, and much lower readings are frequently recorded -- but visitors perambulate them in all seasons. The system also links four nearby hotels, including the Marriott, to the clinic, and a skyway connects other hotels with commercial and civic buildings.

Worst scenario but best news: If you come during a record freeze, you can eat, sleep, see your doctor and entertain yourself without once braving the elements.

I have never been bold enough to visit Rochester in extreme weather, so my personal list of favorite diversions includes places and events within the clinic or a short and pleasant walk from it, plus a few that require a taxi.

Activities Within the Clinic

· Take a tour of the clinic buildings. The free guided tours include the elaborate Siebens Building and the glass-fronted Gonda Building. See the reverentially preserved 1920s offices of "Dr. Will" and "Dr. Charlie," the Mayo brothers who, with their physician father, William Worrall Mayo, founded a group practice based on the idea of medicine as a cooperative science with "the clinician, the specialist, and the laboratory workers uniting for the good of the patient." The offices can also be visited on your own.

Tours leave Judd Auditorium in the Mayo Building Monday-Friday at 10 a.m.

· Take a conducted art and architecture tour. The clinic's outstanding art collection features such names as Rodin, Miro, Calder and Warhol. Dale Chihuly and Lino Tagliapietra are represented in the international collection of contemporary glass. There are also drawings, prints, photographs and a vast collection of ethnographic art.

The free tours leave Judd Auditorium in the Mayo Building Monday through Friday at 1:30 p.m.

· Visit the carillon. Not many medical facilities employ a carillonneur, but Dean Robinson has been handling the job at Mayo since 1958. The Rochester Carillon, housed in the tower of the Plummer Building, is one of the most complete in North America. Carillon concerts are held Monday evenings at 7 and on Wednesdays and Fridays at noon, and are best listened to 500 or more feet downwind from the tower.

To visit the carillon, call 507-284-8294.

· Browse the shops. There are many upscale shops in the subway and the Kahler Grand Hotel lobby. "People shop like crazy when they come here," says Lisa Ihrke, owner of Exquisite Leather and Luggage. "They celebrate when they get good news by treating themselves to expensive presents, and they also console themselves with presents when they get bad news." On my first visit I watched Arab women in abayas buy multithousand-dollar Judith Lieber purses in the Paloma Picasso Shop in the Kahler's lobby. That shop is now gone, but other luxury boutiques have taken its place (see Details).

· Immerse yourself in health education. Pick up a copy of "Gray's Anatomy," available at the subway's newsstand and other unlikely places. Gather a supply of the clinic's handouts on every disease imaginable. Visit the Patient Education Center in the subway and attend classes on such subjects as asthma, back care, weight management, hypertension and other common conditions.

All classes are free. Brochures giving class descriptions and schedules can be found on the racks of publications in all Mayo Clinic buildings.

· Tickle the ivories. If you enjoy playing, sit down at the grand piano in the atrium of the Gonda Building. A cautionary sign tells overly enthusiastic performers not to "accept donations, and limit playing time to approximately 30 minutes."

Nearby Activities

· Browse in Rochester's book and antiques shops. A large Barnes & Noble is housed in an old movie theater with striking original details on the facade and second floor. I always stop in the Extraordinary Bookseller, across the street from the Marriott. See fine 18th-century antiques and flea market delights in nearby shops and malls (see Details).

· Visit the Centerplace Galleria. The Galleria is a small shopping mall with three fine Scandinavian shops: Counterpoint, the Nordic Shop and Collections by the Nordic Shop. If you have a Norwegian friend, you can pick up a card in Counterpoint and many drugstores and gift shops that reads "Gratulerer Med Dagen," or "Greetings of the day."

More Distant Diversions

The clinic is closed tight on weekends, so if you have Monday appointments and you've done the clinic and the shops, here are some suggestions if you get claustrophobic.

· Visit Mayowood and the Plummer House. In the early 20th century, when it was apparently possible to be both an idealist and a millionaire, William Mayo and Henry Plummer, a physician and inventor, built huge homes with extensive gardens. Both are short cab rides from the clinic. Mayowood is a 38-room mansion where three generations of Mayos lived. The Plummer House, with 49 rooms, contains many technological innovations. Tour hours vary seasonally.

For information on the Plummer House ($3): 507-281-6160, . For Mayowood ($10): 507-282-9447, .

· See a show. Check schedules and exhibits at the Mayo Civic Center, the Rochester Civic Theater, the Rochester Repertory Theater and the new art center.

A listing of events citywide can be found on the calendar of events put out by the Rochester Convention and Visitors Bureau (see Details). Check it out on the bureau's Web site, ask for it at your hotel or visit the bureau's office on the third floor of the Galleria shopping mall.

· Visit the Mississippi. Rent a car or check on Star Limousine's chauffeured service to nearby river towns. Trips to several Amish communities are popular as well. Star Limo will also drive you to a riverside casino or the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.

For information on Star Limo trips, call 866-440-2907.

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