Lost Minneapolis Parks: Oak Lake, Two Ovals and Two Triangles
Another convergence: the season of farmers’ markets is upon us and so is a decision on whether the Minnesota Vikings get a new tax-supported stadium. The site favored for a stadium by some Hennepin County commissioners is the Minneapolis Farmers’ Market on Lyndale Avenue just west of downtown and Target Field.
You’d never know by looking at it today, but the site is rich in history. The current market sits in the middle of what was once Oak Lake, one of the attractions of a semi-exclusive and progressive residential neighborhood late in the 19th Century. It was Minneapolis’s second-oldest park. A bandstand near the lake was built in 1881 to host some of the earliest outdoor concerts in the city. The gracefully curved streets of the neighborhood filled with the carriages of wealthier concert goers, while residents of the neighborhood and music lovers without carriages sat on the sloping hillside in what was called a natural amphitheater near the lake.
Some people say the Oak Lake Addition experienced gentile flight, then white flight, as the neighborhood went from mostly white Protestant to Jewish to black before it finally gave way to industrial and market uses. And it happened fast. But the trendy little neighborhood was probably doomed by something much more benign than ethnic, religious or racial bigotry; the creation of the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners helped kill the Oak Lake Addition.
The addition’s green charm and its location — once an asset, but ultimately a detriment — couldn’t compete with the parks created by a new park board. Bigotry played a prominent role in the history of the larger near north side of Minneapolis, but the transformation of the 55 acres of the Oak Lake Addition from fashionable residences to city market surrounded by industry likely would have happened regardless of the religious, ethnic and racial composition of the city.
The next time you visit the Farmers’ Market — or the first time you attend a Vikings game at a new stadium there — try to picture the former lake you’re walking on and the elegant houses that once would have surrounded you. If you get there before it’s a stadium look for Lakeside Avenue north of the market. It was named for good reason, although it’s just a name out of place and time today, a puzzling anachronism.
The First Minneapolis Swamp to Become a Lake
Oak Lake was one of a few prairie potholes in Minneapolis west of the Mississippi. Hoag’s Lake, a couple blocks east toward downtown, also long gone, was another. Oak Lake Addition, previously known as Gale’s Grove, was a residential neighborhood created by Samuel C. Gale, his brother Harlow Gale, and their partner C. W. Griggs in 1873. The addition was platted between Western (Glenwood) Avenue on the south and Sixth Avenue North (Olson Highway) on the north and Lyndale Avenue on the west and a bit of Hoag’s Avenue and not much of anything else on the east. The original Oak Lake Addition, only 55 acres, was smaller than the neighborhood later referred to as Oak Lake, which extended west across Lyndale Avenue and north of Sixth Avenue along Oak Lake Avenue. Oak Lake Avenue, which still exists, was never actually a part of Oak Lake Addition.
From the time it was laid out in lots, the addition featured five parcels set aside as “park”: the land surrounding Oak Lake and four bits of land at intersections of the unusual winding streets that followed the contour of the land: a triangle at Royalston Avenue and Sixth Avenue North, an oval on Lakeside Avenue, another on Highland Avenue, and a small triangle on Royalston. They ranged in size from the one-third acre Lakeside Oval to the tiny triangle on Royalston and Highland that barely registered at 0.01 acre. It was so small that the park board never officially named it; it was simply listed in park inventories as “Small Triangle.” Very small.
Samuel Gale must have named the streets himself: Royalston Avenue took the name of his hometown in Massachusetts and Holden Street, which led into the addition over the railroad tracks from the southeast, was named for the Massachusetts birthplace of his wife, Susan Damon Gale. (See more on Samuel Gale in a post I hope to publish tomorrow.)
The designation of the five parks on the plat filed in 1873 made them the second oldest parks in the city behind Murphy Square, which was platted as a park by Edward Murphy in 1857. The Minneapolis Tribune report on August 6, 1873, that the plat for Oak Lake Addition had been presented to the City Council noted that “the locality, with its commanding sites and stately trees, is an excellent one.” The Tribune also cited the “additional inducement to purchasers” of parks and the lake, “the latter taking the place of a marsh which had long been an eye-sore, but which will henceforth be ‘a thing of beauty,’ and therefore ‘a joy forever.'” That was a bit optimistic — or sarcastic. (With all respect to John Keats, the lake did “pass into nothingness.”)
Although it is not clear what exactly was done to convert marsh into lake, Oak Lake was apparently the first place in the city where anyone attempted to reclaim a lake, presaging later, more successful efforts at Loring Pond, Lake of the Isles, Powderhorn Lake, Lake Nokomis, and Lake Hiawatha in that order. Oak Lake, however, appears to have been in a bit of trouble from the time it was called a park. It was deep enough in 1874 that a nine-year-old boy drowned in the lake after falling off a raft. Three years later, however, the Minneapolis Tribune reported that the fire department had built a platform at the lake to use in filling its firefighting “steamer,” but that the water had receded from the platform creating a “mud hole.” Such would be the history of Oak Lake and ultimately its disappearance and replacement by a paved market.
Gale’s new addition was a huge success early in its history, but the glory days were extraordinarily brief. Gale and company intended to make it an upscale neighborhood by offering buyers better terms if they agreed to spend at least $1,000 to build a house on a purchased lot. Proximity to downtown, only 8-12 blocks away, and the charming landscape attracted prestigious buyers.
By 1879 the Tribune referred to “that growing part of the city” in articles about repairing the Holden Street bridge over the railroad tracks and providing water mains to the addition. The next year Royalston Avenue was finally graded, gas mains and a fire alarm box were installed, and, thanks to a Dr. Salisbury, “who recently moved to that part of town” (Tribune, February 6, 1880), Oak Lake got its first telephone line. This was Dr. Augustus Harrison Salisbury, grandfather of Harrison Salisbury who grew up at 107 Royalston in the house his grandfather built and became a famous New York Times correspondent and author.
By 1881 a special policeman was assigned to Oak Lake and a new Presbyterian Church was planned to be built on a lot donated by Samuel Gale, “a beautiful and fitting location in keeping with the picturesqueness and artistic tastes of the addition.” (Tribune, October 6, 1881.) Gale was called a Unitarian in the histories of the time, but those same histories cited his singing in the choir at Plymouth Congregational Church, music trumping theology. By 1881, Gale and Co. newspaper ads offering the remaining Oak Lake Addition lots for sale referred to the neighborhood as the “famous” Oak Lake Addition.
“That’s where Mr. Buffington lives. He invented the skyscraper, ya know.”
A bit fanciful. Leroy Buffington didn’t patent his method for building a skyscraper until later in the 1880s, and then found it unenforceable, but he did live at Oak Lake. Minnesota’s most famous architect lived at 83 Highland Avenue overlooking Highland Oval. (As you’d expect by now if you read this blog a bit, the Minnesota Historical Society does have a photo of the house, but it’s not digitized so I can’t show it to you here.) Mr. Buffington was quite active in the neighborhood, which we know from reports on the doings of the Oak Lake Improvement Association (OLIA). The association was the first neighborhood improvement association in Minneapolis, showing the way for other neighborhoods later in the 1880s when improvement associations became all the rage, a legacy that lives on in neighborhood councils.
The innovative association got its start in the summer of 1881 when neighbors in Oak Lake got together to sponsor outdoor concerts by its little lake. By July a bandstand was built and painted and the neighbors saw the possibilities for community action. In the fall of 1881 the OLIA was formed. Each property owner paid a couple bucks to the association. In return the association hired a man to collect garbage, including stable waste, and haul it away. Many residents had a horse and a cow.
Later the association also planted more than 300 trees, installed curbs and gutters, cleared brush, shovelled sidewalks and successfully lobbied the City Council for better services. Prominent names in the association were Buffington, long-time association secretary J. Newton Nind, and city treasurer T. J. Buxton, who was also president of City Bank, but is most romantically remembered for being a founder of Buxton, North Dakota, which still has nearly 400 residents. I don’t know if Buxton himself forsook Oak Lake for North Dakota; perhaps that could be the real reason the neighborhood eventually withered. The OLIA noted that only one property owner refused to pay the small fee for association services.
Nind provided a fascinating retrospective on the work of the OLIA in a letter to the Minneapolis Morning Tribune written from his residence in Chicago and published May 23, 1909. (Find it at Proquest Newstand at hclib.org.) Nind wrote that the association was not satisfied “to hammer at the door of the council to secure public improvements. We believed in doing things.”
Nind went on to write, “I regret to say that Oak Lake addition has declined as a choice residence section in recent years. This decadence began almost with the abandonment of work of the Oak Lake Improvement Association.” Nind neglects to give a reason for that “abandonment.”
The Beginning of Parks. The End of Oak Lake.
It was at the first annual meeting of the OLIA in 1882 that Charles Loring delivered the speech I cited here about the importance of parks and landscaping. The success of the OLIA added impetus to the push to create a park board in Minneapolis. The Tribune opined back when the neighborhood was first considering sponsoring outdoor concerts in the spring of 1881 that it was for things such as outdoor concerts that the city really needed a park. Samuel Gale had also demonstrated that attention to landscaping, natural beauty and open spaces was good business; it was profitable.
Samuel Gale was one of the strongest proponents of parks for Minneapolis — beyond those he had created himself. When the Board of Trade appointed a parks and public grounds committee to draft legislation to create the park board in 1883, it was Samuel Gale who was appointed to chair that committee. He was one of the driving forces behind drafting and getting the legislature to pass a bill that established a powerful park commission in Minneapolis. In doing so, he may have doomed his own development — although it should be noted that he had already sold most of the land there and had made a small fortune in it. (He would do it again a few years later in the Forest Heights plat of North Minneapolis where one of the parks he included in the plat, and thus donated to the city, Glen Gale, was named for him.)
With the creation of the park board in April 1883, Oak Lake was rapidly eclipsed as a beauty spot in the city. Central (Loring) Park, less than a mile south of Oak Lake, was immediately acquired by the new board and the work of turning the pond there and the wetlands around it into a park began. With landscape design by Horace Cleveland and supervision by park board president Charles Loring, Central Park quickly became a park praised nationally. Lake Harriet was acquired by donations of land and the same was true for much of a route connecting Central Park with Lake Harriet by way of Kenwood Parkway, Lake of the Isles and Lake Calhoun. The city then had a plethora of beauty spots. And to diminish the unique charm of Oak Lake even more, by the late 1880s the park board had been granted by the legislature the power to plant and care for trees along all streets in the city. The park board began turning much of Minneapolis west of the Mississippi from treeless prairie into a green canopy of shade. Oak Lake was no longer one of the few places in the city that offered respite from the sun.
The Oak Lake Addition couldn’t compete with any of it. Trapped between railroads constantly muscling for more land on Oak Lake’s southern margin and by the increasing, appalling filth of Bassett’s Creek which looped around Oak Lake on the west and north, merely a few blocks away in both directions, Oak Lake was smack in the middle of loud, pungent unpleasantness. And that is not where people with money build new homes.
Oak Lake itself was not all that appealing, either. The Bulletin of the Minnesota Academy of Natural Sciences, Volume 3, includes an entry from March 6, 1883 from a committee on the water supply of Minneapolis. The most damming part:
“That portion of the Mississippi which lies immediately about the mouth of Bassett’s Creek is subject during summer to constant contamination from the numerous marshes, slums and ditches which border that creek and fester and rot in the sun. The figures given below show how enormous a number of animal forms are supported by the filth that is the pool known as Oak Lake.”
The “animal forms” cited are tiny creepy-crawlies with Latin names you wouldn’t want in your water supply or a lake in your backyard. It’s not a list that makes you want to run off to find your picnic basket for an idyllic afternoon lakeside.
That Oak Lake was losing the competition with nearby Central (Loring) Park was evident in a short time. Oak Lake continued hosting summer concerts in 1883 and 1884, but the park board built a bandstand at Central Park in 1885. The result is evident in the Minneapolis City Council proceedings on October 14, 1885 when the council voted to relocate a gas light “now located at the old site of the Oak Lake bandstand.” Oak Lake couldn’t hold onto its bandstand and summer concerts — its gift to the city — or even its street light.
The greatest testament to the drawing power of Loring Park over Oak Lake, however, occurred in 1890-91 when Samuel Gale built a new house. He did not build it in his own development at Oak Lake, but rather overlooking a bigger, better, newer park. His new home was on Harmon Place facing Loring Park. It was designed by Leroy Buffington.
The Forgotten Parks
In the excitement of finally having a park board with the authority to acquire and develop parks in the city, the little parks in Oak Lake Addition were completely forgotten when the park board came into existence in April 1883. According to Charles Loring in the first annual report of the Board of Park Commissioners, the City Council dutifully handed over to the new park board control over the parks that already existed in the city: Murphy Square, Franklin Steele Square, Market Square and Hawthorn (Wilson) Park. Apparently, no one remembered that the Oak Lake parks had also been donated to the city on the original plat.
That oversight wasn’t corrected until 1885. That spring a park board resolution to purchase property in Oak Lake for parks failed, with Commissioner Adin Austin suggesting that there were “plenty of swale holes elsewhere that could be more advantageously worked on by the commission.” By the end of the summer, however, Charles Loring mentioned that the park board had taken control of Oak Lake Park, which he called a “charming triangular piece of land recently donated to the city.” He noted that the park board had appropriated money to plant trees and increase its attractiveness. He didn’t mention the other small parks in the addition. Over the next year the park board purchased all the “increase in attractiveness” at Oak Lake that could be bought for $189. The Oak Lake Improvement Association kicked in nearly as much, $150, in an effort to dredge the little lake. Despite its rejection by the park board and loss of its bandstand, the neighborhood seemed to keep its spirits and sense of humor up judging by a 1886 Tribune article about the Oak Lake Naval Toboggan Club. The club was a group of Oak Lake men who tobogganed neighborhood slopes while wearing navy uniforms. Strikes me as quintessentially English, something out of Gilbert and Sullivan — and I wish there were pictures of it. I can’t find any.
It wasn’t until December 20, 1890 that the park board finally accepted control from the city council of the other little parks in Oak Lake Addition. The park board spent about $1,000 from 1885 to 1893 on the Oak Lake parks, but when the Panic of 1893 eliminated nearly all park board spending for the better part of a decade, the park board forgot about Oak Lake for good. The only exception was officially naming the properties Lakeside Oval, Highland Oval and Royalston Triangle in December, 1893. Again, the tiny triangle in Royalston Avenue was overlooked, relegating it to be known forever as just “small.”
The March of Progress
In September of 1889 the Tribune’s anonymous “Truthful James” humor column, sometimes satirical, other times downright mean, had this to say about Oak Lake:
“The aristocratic quarter of Royalston Avenue is growing more regal in its aspect every day. I cannot afford to live out there, but there is no objection to my hobbling down the street occasionally and watching the march of progress.”
In fact, progress in terms of new buildings seems to have stopped about that time. Comparing an 1892 plat map and a 1912 Sanborn map of the neighborhood shows very few new buildings erected in those 20 years, a time when the population of Minneapolis was doubling to more than 300,000. The population of Minneapolis in 1870, three years before Samuel Gale platted the neighborhood, was 13,000. Curiously, both maps mentioned show almost no building on the lots facing Oak Lake itself. All homes appear to have been built on the higher ground on Highland and Royalston avenues.
The one major development on the maps of Oak Lake Addition over those twenty years is the addition of large coal yards running the length of the eastern border of the addition. Harrison Salisbury wrote that during his childhood, he was born in 1908, the coal yards “lapped at the back of Royalston Avenue.” Yet another reason for those with options to move to more tranquil sections of the city.
Despite the park board’s modest efforts to improve and maintain the Oak Lake parks when first acquired, in 1913 the Health and Hospitals Committee of the City Council asked the park board to drain what little water remained in Oak Lake. The next year the park board reported that due to the elevation of the storm sewers it wouldn’t be possible to drain Oak Lake, but instructed the Superintendent to fill it if it could be done at no cost to the park board. Somewhere Theodore Wirth found some fill, because there is no record of any expense items for purchasing fill and in 1915 the park board reported that a tennis court had been constructed on the site.
The city council’s request to drain Oak Lake must have awakened the park board to the neighborhood, because in the park board’s 1916 annual report, Wirth made the following observations about Oak Lake and Lakeside Oval:
These two small parks, the area of the first being one and one-third acre and of the latter one-third acre, have been sadly neglected in the past. I believe their improvement would have a beneficial influence on the present unsightly and untidy neighborhood. A plan of betterment is herewith submitted. The larger tract is utilized for three tennis courts, lawn effects and shrubbery plantings. Equipped with sand-boxes, swings, etc. the smaller park can be made to serve as an attractive retreat for small children.
The most interesting aspect of Wirth’s accompanying drawing is that it shows the tracks of the new Electric Short Line Railway, also known as the Luce Line, passing right through the southern part of the Oak Lake Addition, north of Western (Glenwood) Avenue and just a couple hundred feet from the old lake bed.
Wirth’s recommendations for improving the little parks in Oak Lake were never implemented. Consideration of those plans was complicated by the continuing effort to find money to enlarge and finish the nearest playground, Sumner Field, just a few blocks northwest from Oak Lake Addition at 8th and Bryant. The initial land for Sumner Field had been acquired in 1911 at the request of Associated Jewish Charities. Piecemeal efforts to enlarge and improve that park, one of the “busiest fields in the city,” according to Theodore Wirth in 1915, took what little resources the park board could spend in that area.
For more than forty years the park board spent nothing improving the Oak Lake Addition parks. Not that it was unusual, because the park board spent little or nothing on neighborhood parks throughout the city during that time, which included war and depression. The only time the Oak Lake parks got any attention at all was in the 1928 annual report when Wirth suggested that the two largest parks, Oak Lake and Lakeside Oval, “which have been of no particular value or service for years” and “are located next to industrial property” should be either improved or sold. He added, making his preference clear, “Since they were donated for park purposes, the consent of the heirs of the donors, as well as the court, would have to be obtained.”
Nothing was done, despite that fact that the heir of the donor was very well-known. Samuel Gale’s son, Edward C., who had married John Pillsbury’s daughter, Sara, was an influential attorney in Minneapolis. Edward Gale was the attorney who had represented the wealthy neighbors of the Washburn’s empty Fair Oaks mansion in the 1920s when they offered the park board $25,000 to knock the mansion down and not build a playground on the property. The park board accepted — and built a new neighborhood playground on Clinton Avenue a couple blocks east.
The Demise of the Toy Parks
That was the end of references to Oak Lake in park board documents until 1936 when the city council asked the park board to turn over the property to the city for a new market. By that time Hillside Oval and Small Triangle were already gone, levelled during street reconfigurations. The park board agreed, stipulating only that if the land ever ceased being used for market purposes, ownership would revert to the park board.
Lest anyone at the park board get all excited about getting some money for the land if the Vikings build a stadium there, in 1959 the Minneapolis housing authority paid the park board a little over $38,000 for its remaining rights in the property. The same year the park board sold its lone remaining bit of land in Oak Lake Addition — Royalston Triangle at Sixth Avenue North — to the housing authority.
In the relatively short span of 63 years, four small parks and a pond called Oak Lake, had gone from being one of the charming attractions of a stylish suburb to city parks to abandoned lots in an industrial area to a thriving city market. Created as some of the first public parks in the city, back when it had a population of fewer than 20,000 people, the small plots of land may have been doomed to be paved over when Minneapolis’s Board of Park Commissioners was legislated into being in 1883. The park board began to create extensive, beautiful parks around the city’s more substantial bodies of water. The “toy parks in Oak Lake,” as the Minneapolis Tribune called them in 1896, simply couldn’t compete and the sumptuous houses of the Oak Lake Addition were eventually cut into apartments, then rooming houses, and were eventually knocked down. No trace of them or the curved streets or sloping hillsides remain. The only hint of a neighborhood and a lake long gone is one street sign that says, “Lakeside Avenue.”
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
© David C. Smith