Lake Calhoun Bath House and Calhoun Beach Club: From “Disfigurement” to National Register

Charles Loring was the first to sound the alarm about businesses across Lake Street from the Lake Calhoun Bath House, but no one put the criticism so bluntly as Theodore Wirth.

The Calhoun Beach Club loomed over the beach and lake in 1940. The old three-level diving platform was a bit less timid than today's rafts. (Minneapolis Tribune, Minnesota Historical Society)

Four days after the official dedication of the new bath house — with changing rooms, lockers and showers, not to mention $10,000 worth of sand on the new beach — Loring appeared in person at the August 5, 1912 meeting of the Board of Park Commissioners, a board he had once presided over, to plead for the park board to acquire the land across Lake Street from the beach before it became filled with “refreshment stands.” He wasn’t proposing a massive acquisition: the park board already owned Dean Parkway to the west and much of the land between Calhoun and Lake of the Isles to the east. Loring only wanted the board to buy the strip between Lake Street and the railroad tracks sandwiched between existing park lands.

It didn’t. Which gave rise to one of the most novel criticisms ever of a Minneapolis landscape. From one of the most unusual locations.

Writing from a ship sailing from Capetown, South Africa to the Canary Islands in 1936, Theodore Wirth wrote this about Durban, a South African city on the Indian Ocean (see Letters from Theodore post):

Modern Durban. The buildings might still be "monster rent barracks," to use Wirth's phrase, but the atmosphere at Durban's beach has changed much more since 1936 than at Lake Calhoun. This photo looks nothing like what I remember from a visit in 1980.

Along the city side of the Durban Bay is the Marine Parade or Ocean Beach, flanked by a number of imposing modern buildings serving apartment and hotel purposes. The latter are called “flats” here and some of them are deserving of no better name, for they are anything but attractive. I am inclined to classify them as “monster rent barracks” — a still worse disfigurement of an otherwise attractive landscape than our Calhoun Beach Hotel at Dean Boulevard.

Theodore Wirth’s first opinion on the land across from the bath house was expressed in the 1912 annual report when he seconded the words of Loring and then board president Wilbur Decker encouraging the board to acquire the land to preserve it from commercial development.

Their fears may have been prompted by unpleasantness around Minnehaha Park in the  early 1900s. Saloons and other commercial establishments near the falls had contributed to an objectionable environment in the park. In the 1905 annual report of the park board, president Fred Smith wrote that a new pavilion, changes in policing and support from the city administration had “done much to redeem Minnehaha from its unsavory reputation and make it a place where women and children can visit and enjoy their picnics without fear of molestation or insult.”

I can imagine that specter haunting Loring in particular, a man who had run for mayor of Minneapolis in 1882 on a strong anti-saloon platform. Loring also deserved most of the credit for the park board acquiring Minnehaha Falls, Lake Calhoun and Lake Harriet, the three jewels in the park crown at the time, and I’m sure he took a proprietary interest in their well-being, which would not have included “refreshment stands” nearby.

Despite their fears, the land across Lake Street from the immensely popular bath house — it was called the best beach between the oceans — was not filled with houses of debauchery. At least that’s the inference we can draw from another round of encouragement for the park board to acquire the land in 1917. Still it didn’t happen.

Another ten years passed before grand plans for the property took shape. It would become a residential building fitted with its own entertainment and recreation facilities. Curiously, the last mention of the development in park board proceedings is Wirth’s recommendation on April 20, 1927 that the board consent to a building permit for the facility as long as the building did not come within 15 feet of park property along Dean Parkway. The board agreed. Perhaps plans for the property were too far along for Wirth and the park board to fight, or they had no real alternative after taking no action themselves for 15 years

But perhaps Wirth’s objection in 1936 was not that the building was there, but that it was unfinished. Although construction began in 1927 the building remained unfinished and empty until 1946. In a bit of irony, the property Wirth worried would fall into private hands and the building which he said “disfigured” the lake was the site of a tribute dinner to him in 1946 before he moved from Minneapolis to San Diego for health reasons.

The Calhoun Beach Club was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003 for its architecture and engineering. The building now adjacent to the commercial and residential “club” was the focus of a fight in 1988 to limit the height of buildings around Minneapolis lakes. That battle resulted in a city ordinance that limits the height of such buildings. When the Calhoun Beach Club was first designed in 1927, at ten stories, it was the tallest building in the city outside of downtown.

David C. Smith   minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com

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2 comments so far

  1. […] 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 […]

  2. […] Theodore Wirth wrote to his friends during his 1936 around-the-world voyage, which included a quote on the Calhoun Beach Club, reveal little about Minneapolis parks, but quite a bit about the […]


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