City Ordinance Restricts Building Height Around Minneapolis Lakes

If you’re a long-time follower of Minneapolis politics, you might think this headline came from the 1988 fight to prevent a high-rise building from being constructed next to the Calhoun Beach Club facing Lake Calhoun. But you have to go back much farther in history to get to the first city ordinance to restrict construction on parkways encircling Minneapolis lakes.

I wrote a few weeks ago about Theodore Wirth’s description of the Calhoun Beach Club as a “disfigurement.” In that post I noted that Charles Loring was the first to warn the park board of the likelihood of commercial encroachment on the lake following the highly successful opening of the Lake Calhoun Bath House in July, 1912. Loring urged the park board to acquire the property across Lake Street from the bath house to prevent commercial development there. The fear, I’m sure, was the opening of saloons or dance halls. (Just two years earlier, in June 1910, the park board expanded Riverside Park when a dance hall was planned for land facing the park. The board preempted the dance hall plans by acquiring the land through condemnation.)

Since I wrote that post I’ve learned that by the time Loring made his suggestion in August 1912, the city had already passed an ordinance limiting construction on parkways around the lakes. And it had nothing to do with the Lake Calhoun Bath House. The purpose of the ordinance was essentially to facilitate the construction of this castle.

Gates’ mansion on Lake of the Isles, built in 1913, demolished in 1933. (Minnesota Historical Society)

This is the house built by Charles Gates at 2501 East Lake of the Isles Boulevard in 1913. At 38,000 square feet it is reputed to be the largest mansion ever built in Minneapolis. It stood for less than 20 years.

Of course, such an enormous building requires a good bit of land — and that was the sticking point. As early as May 11, 1912 the New York Times reported that Gates, a New York native, had purchased two blocks of land facing Lake of the Isles for $75,000 and planned to spend another $100,000 building his home there after marrying a Minneapolis native, Florence Hopwood. “The Gates deal is regarded as the most important in residence property ever negotiated in Minneapolis,” wrote the Times.

But judging by an article in the Minneapolis Tribune, July 2, 1912, about the park board meeting the night before, Gates’ purchase of the land on the lake faced obstacles. This is how the Tribune framed the issue:

“Park commissioners were unanimous in urging the taking of steps to put a stop to what they termed the ‘bluffing’ methods of John Cogan of Lake of the Isles Boulevard, who recently refused to continue negotiations with Charles G. Gates for the sale of his property and announced he was going to make a better deal for the sale of his property for a hotel site.”

Commissioner Thomas Voegeli, according to the Tribune, said it was “time for the park board to take a positive stand on the class of structures to be erected on boulevards encircling lakes under park board control.” (Two years earlier Voegeli, owner of two popular downtown drug stores, had paid a record sum at the time — nearly $20,000 — for a 150-foot lot in nearby Kenwood at Logan and Douglas, where he built a new home. Minneapolis Tribune Jan. 16, 1910)

The park board promptly took a “positive stand” and passed, unanimously, this resolution, which Commissioner Carl Peterson said was intended to “foil attempts to make capital off park improvements by erecting inappropriate structures”:

In order to protect the shores of its lakes from the encroachment of apartment houses, flats, hotels and garages, (the Park Board does) hereby request the City Council of the City of Minneapolis to pass an ordinance prohibiting the issuance of a building permit for the erection of any building, except a single dwelling house of not more than three full stories, on any lot facing or abutting on any parkway encircling Lake Harriet, Lake Calhoun, Lake of the Isles or any other lake within the city.

The City Council unanimously passed an ordinance to that effect and it was signed by Mayor J. C. Haynes before the month ended (Proceedings, Minneapolis City Council, July 26, 1912).

I don’t know how or when that ordinance was repealed or amended to permit the construction of the Calhoun Beach Club 15 years later – or many other buildings facing Minneapolis parks that exceed “three full stories.” If anyone knows that story, or where to find more info, send us a note.

The park board’s role in the story of the Gates mansion is a footnote at best, but it played a much bigger part in the stories of two other Minneapolis mansions.

Swan Turnblad and the American Swedish Institute

Swan Turnblad, the publisher of a Swedish language newspaper, built his castle on Park Avenue.

Swan Turnblad’s home, now the American Swedish Institute, on Park Avenue. (City of Parks, Minnesota Historical Society)

He had originally planned to build it on land he owned on the southwest corner of Loring Park. When the park board learned of his elaborate building plans in 1901, which would have made it impossible for the park board ever to add that coveted land to the park, it initiated condemnation proceedings for the land. Turnblad then built his house on Park Avenue. It later became the home of the American Swedish Institute.

William Washburn and Fair Oaks

The home of William Washburn, Fair Oaks, at Stevens Avenue and East 22nd Street, was acquired by the park board in 1915. Washburn sold his 8-acre estate across from what is now the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 1911 for the cost of the land alone, or $250,000. His home, Fair Oaks, and other buildings were valued at another $400,000. The deal was reached following the donation of Dorilus Morrison’s estate, immediately south of Fair Oaks, to the park board to serve as the future home of the Institute of Arts.

Girls Liberty League activities at Fair Oaks, ca. 1917. (City of Parks, Minnesota Historical Society)

The Washburns’ agreement with the park board allowed them to retain possession of the house for the rest of their lives. The park board assumed control of the property when Mrs. Washburn died in 1915. The park board allowed civic groups to use the home for activities and considered creating park board headquarters in the mansion, but ultimately maintenance of the house proved too expensive for the park board and it was demolished in 1924.

David C. Smith  minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com

© David C. Smith

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