What Happened to John Bradstreet’s Japanese Temple in Lake of the Isles?
One hundred years ago the Minneapolis park board lost a Japanese temple and garden with a graceful torii gate and stone lanterns called ishidoro. It’s hard to say who lost it or why it was lost, or even precisely when; we know only that it disappeared sometime around a century ago. It would have been the centerpiece of a popular Minneapolis attraction — smack in the middle of Lake of the Isles.
The story really begins in 1874 when a young John Scott Bradstreet left his Massachusetts home to travel west to Minneapolis. Within a few years he had opened his first furniture and furnishings store and was on his way to becoming the tastemaker of the town and a decorator and craftsman of international reputation. Along the way, Bradstreet was instrumental in creating the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts in 1883 and he served a six-year term (1901-1907) on the Board of Park Commissioners. He lectured coast-to-coast about his travels to exotic places where he bought items of beauty to sell in his six-story downtown Minneapolis store, and later in his famous Craftshouse store and studio. Bradstreet had a particular affinity for Japan and travelled there at least seven times.
He eventually became well-known for a particular method of finishing wood, jin di sugi, that imitated Japanese techniques and helped establish Bradstreet’s name around the world.
English journalist Perry Robinson, Bradstreet’s friend, told the story of meeting someone in London who knew of Bradstreet and asked why Bradstreet lived in Minneapolis instead of New York where he would get much wider recognition. Robinson replied that “the place for a missionary is among the savages.” Robinson admitted that he had been one of the savages until enlightened by Bradstreet.
Perry Robinson came to Minneapolis shortly after graduating Oxford and made quite a name in the city. For a time he wrote for a Minneapolis newspaper and edited a magazine. He was a novelist as well. But his greatest achievement in Minneapolis may have been marrying the daughter of Thomas Lowry in one of the grandest weddings the city had ever seen. Bradstreet was his best man. Later, when Robinson had a son by his second wife, he named him John Bradstreet Robinson.
In his later days Perry Robinson was better known as Sir Harry Perry Robinson. He was knighted for his reporting from the trenches of WWI as a correspondent for the Times of London. After he split with Mary Anne Lowry, she went to nursing school. The heiress to one of the city’s great fortunes became a nurse at Northwestern Hospital. She later married a doctor from the hospital. Details of Robinson and Lowry’s divorce are predictably hard to find. It must have been scandalous.
Though Minneapolitans may have been culture savages, Bradstreet moved in circles of immense wealth. For instance, when grain dealer Frank Peavey died in 1902, Bradstreet was an honorary pall bearer along with a who’s who of the Minneapolis super rich: Dunwoody, Washburn, McKnight, Phelps, Heffelfinger. Some savages.
Despite the rarefied social air in which Bradstreet glided, William Folwell commented that Bradstreet “was no dilettante concerned about decking out my lady’s boudoir in luxurious residences. He was more concerned how to make the best room of the plain citizen’s home liveable and loveable.”
Bradstreet must not have had much pretension in him if Folwell liked him. I admire Folwell partly because he didn’t use much varnish on his opinions. For instance, earlier in his remarks at the dedication of a plaque to Bradstreet at the Institute of Arts in January 1916, which are excerpted above, Folwell noted that Bradstreet helped educate the taste of Minneapolitans and Folwell cited as evidence of the need for it “the absurd and vulgar holiday dress of men and women — most of all, the evening attire sported by the capitalistic cliques and their parasites.” (Okay, maybe there were a few savages.) Folwell probably was looking a few of the clique and their parasites in the eye when he spoke those words.
Although Bradstreet earned the respect and affection of a plain-speaking man such as Folwell, he still was the founder, according to the Minneapolis Morning Tribune, of an “exclusive cult of foremost men,” the secretive 35-member Skylight Club that met in private, skylit rooms designed by Bradstreet. The walls were hung with Japanese lanterns according to the Tribune. I doubt that Folwell was ever invited to become a member. Perhaps it was Bradstreet’s grace in moving through the strata of wealth that endeared him to the city.
The Fellowship of Good Things
An editorial in the Minneapolis Morning Tribune, August 11, 1914, the day after Bradstreet died offered a remarkable view of American art and design and Bradstreet’s place in it.
His neighbors must have been surprised could they have known how wide his fame. In the field of interior decoration in America he stood conspicuously for what might be termed the fellowship of good things. It was his theory that devotion to styles, to “period” furnishings was restrictive rather than broadening in influence; that America was the heir to all that was good in every school of design; that her people would serve themselves best by choosing things that seemed to them best; and that out of such choosing would develop in proper time a style distinctive of America in architecture and decoration rather than an empty imitation of some special style risen out of other living conditions.
That paragraph is better than many books on the subject.
Equally impressive was Folwell’s description of Bradstreet near the conclusion of his remarks at the fabulous year-old Minneapolis Institute of Arts:
He was a minister of the beautiful, an apostle of good taste in a city and world where ugliness still abounded. It was this character, never asserted by him, but recognized by others, that gave him the high consideration accorded to him in our and other cities, at home and abroad.
Finally Folwell noted that if not for Bradstreet’s “quiet and persistent agitation through many years” the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts, which built the Institute of Arts, may not have come into existence when it did, if at all. “It may not be an extravagance to say,” Folwell mused, “That this institute may be regarded as a monument to Bradstreet.” Folwell spoke from a position of authority for he had been the first president of the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts when it was created in 1883.
(For much more on Bradstreet and his contributions to the decorative arts see Sarah Sik’s “John Scott Bradstreet and the Decorative Arts Revival in America” and Michael Conforti and Jennifer Komar’s “Bradstreet’s Craftshouse: Retailing in an Arts and Crafts Style” in Minnesota 1900: Art and Life on the Upper Mississippi 1890-1915, a catalog for a 1994 MIA exhibit.)
Bradstreet was even said to have had a hand in creating what I consider the worst name in the history of Minneapolis parks. As a park commissioner at the time Thomas Lowry donated land down the hill from his house for a park, Bradstreet was reported to have suggested naming the new park, “The Lowry Parade.” The somewhat abashed Lowry preferred that his name be removed, so it was decided that the park which would eventually be home to an extensive recreation complex and a sculpture garden, would be known simply as “The Parade.”
Bradstreet was such a well-liked figure in the city that when he suffered serious injuries in a car accident in 1905, the Minneapolis Morning Tribune provided updates on his recovery during a long convalescence. Bradstreet offered to relinquish his seat on the park board while he recuperated but the other commissioners declined to accept his resignation.
In the Nature of a Gift to the City
So it was a big deal when Bradstreet, so well-travelled and so well-liked, wrote a letter to the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners on September 16, 1910. It was such a big deal that the park board printed the whole letter in the minutes of its meeting a few days later.
It has long been my desire to show in some definite way, my sincere appreciation for the most excellent work of your honorable body already accomplished, together with the admirable plans for the future. I have noted with increasing interest, the gradual improvement of the Lake of the Isles and surrounding shores.
For several years, the possibilities of the islands have appealed to me, with an increasing desire to add to their picturesqueness something of a personal nature. There is, among the beautiful islands of the Inland Sea of Japan, one that always has attracted me by its wonderful combination of nature and art. To even partially simulate it I should consider an achievement.
With your permission and approval, I should like to so treat the farthest of the two Islands, that from the shore it may, with its Pagoda, Torii and stone Ishidoro suggest the picturesqueness of a temple island of the Far East.
It would be in the nature of a gift to the city, and in undertaking it I would ask the cooperation of Mr. Wirth.
Yours Very truly,
John S. Bradstreet
A Delegation from the Mikado
An important social and cultural event of 1909 in Minneapolis may have given Bradstreet the encouragement to make such a gift. A delegation of 40 distinguished Japanese leaders toured the United States that year partly in response to a tour of Japan the year before by prominent Americans aimed at increasing trade and interchange between the countries. But the trip was also partly public relations to combat open hostility to Japanese citizens in the United States, especially in the west.
Lawmakers in Nevada, California and Oregon had all passed or were considering vicious anti-Japanese laws that prohibited Japanese people from owning land or sending their children to public schools. It was not one of the finer chapters in the history of the American melting pot. It was only a precursor to the 1924 Immigration Act which effectively prevented Japanese from entering the country for nearly three decades. And we all know of the treatment of the Japanese in the U.S. during WWII.
In 1909, Japan was a newly emerged world power. It’s shocking defeat of Russia and obliteration of the Russian navy in the war of 1905 was followed by peace negotiations between Japan and Russia in Portsmouth, Maine. Japan had become a major military force and expansionist power in the Pacific with its occupation and imminent annexation of the Korean peninsula.
Against that backdrop, the delegation of eminent Japanese men, some accompanied by their wives, was scheduled to visit many American cities during a two-month tour. The delegation was headed by Baron Eiichi Shibusawa, president of the Dai Ichi Bank, who was often called the J. P. Morgan of Japan.
The day the delegation arrived in Minneapolis after crossing the northwest from Seattle and touring mines on the Iron Range, Mayor J. C. Haynes issued a proclamation saying that Minneapolis “owes it to the nation, the state of Minnesota and to itself not to fall behind or be lacking in that true spirit of hospitality that will make each representative of the Mikado feel he is being welcomed for his own sake as well as for the cause he represents.”
With all due respect to the Japanese emperor’s eminent representatives, the real attraction of the Japanese visit that September was that President Taft chose to meet the Japanese delegation in Minneapolis. It was the first visit of a president to Minneapolis in four years, and Taft’s presence charged the event with a level of excitement that foreign industrialists alone may not have generated.
After church on Sunday, September 19 — Taft attended Westminster Presbyterian, while the Japanese delegation attended Fowler Methodist — an official reception was held at the Lafayette Club on Lake Minnetonka. Taft and Shibusawa exchanged toasts decrying rumors of war between the nations. I don’t know how large Baron Shibusawa was but he must have been dwarfed by the 6 foot, 300-plus pound American president.
Baron Naibu Kanda, a member of the delegation who also happened to be an alumnus of Yale University, the President’s alma mater, explained to a Minneapolis journalist that day why emigration from Japan to the US had recently been prohibited by the Emperor: “With the prejudice against our countrymen on your Pacific coast the friendly relations between the United States and Japan were becoming strained and our government thought it unwise to allow its interests to be jeopardized because of personal feelings…We hope that in time the prejudice against the Japanese will die out, and we will again allow our people to come to the United States.”
The next day President Taft returned to Washington and the Japanese guests were taken to places of interest in smaller groups. One group visited the John Deere plant and purchased significant quantities of agricultural implements to test in their homeland. After lunch the group went together to visit John Bradstreet’s Craftshouse studio. (On a later visit to Japan, Bradstreet visited many of the delegates he met that day.) Mayor Haynes called it one of the most notable days in the history of Minneapolis.
When the Japanese delegation finally reached Washington D. C., after stops in Chicago and Pittsburgh, among other cities, Baron Shibusawa announced that his Emperor’s gift to the city would be 2,000 cherry trees. When delivered the next spring, the trees were found to be infested with insects and had to be destroyed, but the Mayor of Tokyo eventually replaced them. The new trees were planted around the Potomac River basin and are still a major spring-time attraction in Washington. A similar gift to New York City during the same visit resulted in the cherry trees along Riverside Drive.
Another Gift Gladly Accepted
Minneapolis didn’t get any cherry trees from the Japanese Emperor, but the idea of Bradstreet’s gift to the city may have originated during that same 1909 visit. Noting that Bradstreet was “a leader in this community in the promotion of the arts and a safe guide in matters of taste” park board president Wilbur Decker wrote in the park board’s 1910 annual report that the offer was “gladly accepted.” Work on the island project, he wrote, could begin that summer. He added that Bradstreet’s gift would not only create an “exquisite beauty spot,” but would set an example that “other public-spirited citizens would do well to emulate.”
So why don’t we see a Japanese Temple when we look across Lake of the Isles today?
It’s not likely that the virulent prejudice against the Japanese spread east in the United States and prevented the construction of a symbol of Japanese culture in Minneapolis. In the 1910 census fewer than 60 people of Japanese descent lived in St. Paul and Minneapolis, up from five in 1900. By 1918 the Japanese population of Minneapolis was 36 adult males. Such tiny minorities are more often the subject of curiosity than persecution.
Besides there was a precedent for a Japanese garden in the Twin Cities. In 1905 a Japanese garden had been established at St. Paul’s Como Park on the shore of Cozy Lake, which had once been the northern arm of Lake Como. Judging from newspaper accounts, the garden, inspired by the Japanese exhibit at the 1904 world’s fair in St. Louis, seems to have been an appealing addition to Como Park years before the Conservatory was built there. Several postcards of the garden exist, suggesting its popularity. The garden isn’t mentioned after 1909, however, as Cozy Lake dried up and was converted eventually into a golf course.
Minnesota also appears to have had little history of anti-Japanese behavior that would have created an obstacle to the creation of a Japanese garden in a prominent location. Even before Pearl Harbor, the US army had created a Military Intelligence Service Language School in 1941 to increase the Japanese language skills of some of the 3700 American soldiers of Japanese descent. The army foresaw the need for Japanese linguists to help gather intelligence and assumed that many of those soldiers would speak Japanese. The army was disappointed to learn that only 7% of the Nisei soldiers were proficient in Japanese and another 3% knew enough of the language to be brought up to proficiency with intensive training. The army chose to establish a Japanese language school at a former home for indigent, elderly men at Savage, Minnesota, partly because the army had identified Minnesota as “the geographic area with the best record of racial amity.” (The foregoing information and quote comes from the chapter on the Japanese, by Michael Albert, in They Chose Minnesota: A Survey of the State’s Ethnic Groups, June Drenning Holmquist, editor, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1981. It’s a fascinating look at Minnesotans of just about every ethnic identity imaginable. Highly recommended.)
The Japanese Already Loved Baseball
Michael Albert notes in his writing on Japanese in Minnesota that two Japanese men worked at the Nicollet Hotel around 1910. One of them apparently played a role in arranging baseball games between Japanese and Minnesota teams. I had assumed that baseball became popular in Japan during the American occupation after WWII. I was wrong. The Japanese had adopted the game long before. On June 10, 1910 the Minneapolis Morning Tribune reported that a Japanese bell boy at the Nicollet Hotel had received a letter from a member of the Kiou team of Tokyo asking him to arrange games with two or three semi-professional teams in Minneapolis for July. That August the University of Chicago team passed through town and played the U of M team en route to Japan for a series of games against Japanese university teams.
The next May, the team from Japan’s Waseda University played two games against the University of Minnesota nine at Northrup Field and Nicollet Park., losing 3-2 in 15 innings and 8-2. The Waseda team had hosted the Chicago team the year before. The Tribune reported that the Chicago team — and a University of Wisconsin team in 1909 — had been treated as “national guests” of Japan and noted that special arrangements were being made to entertain the Japanese team “so they will feel they are the guests of the Twin Cities as well as the university.”
As a point of reference, the park board established the first baseball fields in a city park in 1908 at The Parade. Athletic fields were just beginning to be viewed as an appropriate interest of park authorities.
Another possible explanation for the death of the plan for a Japanese island is that it didn’t fit into Theodore Wirth’s vision of the park system. The most recent reshaping of Lake of the Isles at that time was Wirth’s project. Although the first dredging and filling at the lake occurred under Charles Loring’s direction more than a decade before Wirth’s arrival in Minneapolis, Wirth had by the end of 1910 spent nearly four years working on the shape of the lake, the parkways around it and the connections between Isles and neighboring lakes. The lake may have been just the way he wanted it.
That may explain Wirth’s lack of enthusiasm for Bradstreet’s gift. In the 1910 annual report, presented in January 1911, four months after Bradstreet offered to create the island garden, park board president Wilbur Decker described Bradstreet’s gift and ‘”gladly accepted” it. In Wirth’s section of the report, however, he made no mention of any possible improvements to the island. On a large fold-out map of Lake of the Isles that showed all that had been accomplished there in four years, there is no indication that any future work would be done on the island. He did quote at length a letter he had received from a realtor praising the work that had already been done.
Is it possible that Wirth was less than helpful in facilitating Bradstreet’s gift? Writing a decade later one Minneapolis observer alluded to Wirth’s proprietary interest in Minneapolis parks. In Pipes o’ Pan in a City Park, (Colwell Press, 1922), Minneapolis writer Henrietta Jewett Keith writes of an imagined conversation in Loring Park, “I asked Peter (Peter Pan you know, who wanders around Our Park a great deal) if he thought Mr. Wirth would approve of May-houses. Peter shook his head. ‘Mr. Wirth never approves of anything he doesn’t suggest,’ said Peter.”
Wirth was probably not the only one at the park board with reservations about committing more resources to Lake of the Isles. Even if Bradstreet covered all the direct costs of the project, the park board would still have considerable demands on its time and resources for the installation and maintenance of another manicured park space. Wilbur Decker in his 1911 annual report, his third and final report as the president of the board, wrote clearly of his vision for Minneapolis parks — which may have precluded a Temple Island. He wrote:
“Every citizen cannot have a beautiful lake or other great park feature opposite his residence, but it is quite possible for this Board to establish beauty spots and places of recreation within easy walking distance of every home…In days to come our proudest claim should not be that our natural park features are among the finest in the country, but that people in every quarter of the city enjoy adequate park privileges.”
In the 1911 annual report, enthusiasm for the project seemed to have waned. Wirth wrote, “The improvements of Lake of the Isles being nearly completed, the largest of our lakes might now well receive our attention.” He had clearly shifted his focus to Lake Calhoun although he did note of Lake of the Isles, “The large island should be graded to conform to the plans of Mr. J. S. Bradstreet who has offered to establish a Japanese garden there. This work consists mostly of grading the banks and could be done to advantage between now and spring.” Missing in Wirth’s remark was any mention of a temple or its adornments.
Wirth added matter-of-factly that “about 8000 cubic yards of material was taken from the big island and used for topdressing on the small island and for filling the low land in the southeast corner of the lake.” He gave the impression that Bradstreet’s offer or plans were not near the top of his to-do list. In fact, by the time the 1911 annual report was presented on January 20, 1912, Bradstreet’s plans may have already been dead — despite the hopeful article that appeared in The Bellman on that same date.
The third reason that Bradstreet’s Island doesn’t exist in Lake of the Isles could be simply that the park board was already too busy, had too little money and couldn’t afford the political cost of spending more time and money on Lake of the Isles, even if it would have facilitated a considerable gift. As 1911 started Wirth and his dredging crew knew time was short to move the dredge across Lake of the Isles and get a channel dug to Lake Calhoun for the “Linking of the Lakes” in July 1911. Wirth’s plans for 1911 included extensive dredge and fill work at Lake Calhoun to shape that lake to his liking and a preliminary plan for the complete makeover of Lake Nokomis. Extensive plans were developed for building athletic fields at The Parade, a community center was planned for Logan Park, the city’s newest and biggest park, Glenwood, was beginning to get Wirth’s attention, as were the parkways that would connect Glenwood to Webber Park and cut across Northeast Minneapolis to Columbia Park and, eventually, Stinson Boulevard. Moreover, Wirth led off his 1911 annual report with an elaborate plan to remake Minnehaha Parkway from Lake Harriet to Minnehaha Falls. And, by the way, in 1911 the park board had acquired the soon-to-be home of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts from Clinton Morrison and Washburn Fair Oaks, across the street, from the Washburns. It had also just paid more than a half-million very controversial dollars for the property that would become The Gateway downtown.
To top it off the park board was taking heat from its critics, especially on the city council. The city council had developed the Municipal (Gerber) Baths on Hall’s Island and planned to build a recreation area on the adjoining east river bank. Some aldermen proposed to pay for it by using bond money approved by the legislature for the school board to develop playgrounds. If the council could take the school board’s bond money, they could also try to grab park board bond money allocated for parks. One alderman stated explicitly that the council would no longer be ignored by the park board when it came to decisions on parks and playgrounds. Park commissioners and Wirth certainly realized that more expenditures at Lake of the Isles would not strengthen the park board’s case for retaining control over park funds. The park board’s decision to build a house at Lyndale Farmstead in 1910, and a very nice house, for Wirth, which it had a right to do according to a divided opinion by the Minnesota Supreme Court, provoked grumbling as well.
To make the perception worse that the park board had been profligate, bond houses refused to purchase park board bonds from the city in early 1911 through no fault of the park board. The bond houses questioned the wording of legislation in 1907 and 1909 that authorized the bonds, and until that language was sorted out in the courts, the park board had no money to pay its bills. That shortage of funds coming at the time of the grand celebration of the Linking of the Lakes was an embarrassment to the park board. It couldn’t even afford to sponsor a float in its own parade.
Is it possible that Bradstreet underestimated what it could cost him to landscape an island and build a pagoda and torii? Seems unlikely. He had been a shrewd businessman for years and had built the Craftshouse and furnished and decorated it. He had not accumulated the wealth of some of his Minneapolis clients, but he had money and his friends and patrons had much more. It is hard for me to imagine that if the park board and Wirth had been inclined to facilitate the project that Bradstreet couldn’t have found the means to get it done.
A Dream of Japanese Loveliness
The only subsequent park board mention of plans for the “Big Island” in 1912 was a March 20 authorization to spend $2,000 to grade and plant the islands to plans “heretofore prepared.” There was no mention of Bradstreet or a Japanese anything. Whatever those plans had been they had never been published by the park board, especially in its annual reports where Wirth published drawings for most projects over many years, including the plan drawn by a private landscape architecture firm, Morell and Nichols, for little Farwell Park in 1910.
If Bradstreet’s offer had been withdrawn, politely killed by Wirth and Decker or had simply proved unworkable, some real estate people either didn’t know or care. An article in the Morning Tribune, May 5, 1912, proclaimed that realtors were predicting that Island Park, a development on the north shore of Lake of the Isles, was coming into its own due, in part, to Bradstreet’s plans to beautify the island. The paper reported that many of the lots, which were “in full view of the island which Mr. Bradstreet plans to turn into a dream of Japanese loveliness” had been sold to people who planned to build “handsome residences.”
That article was the last mention I can find of Bradstreet’s Temple Island.
In the end it seemed as if W. P. Kirkwood’s warning in his article for The Bellman turned into a curse. He wrote that whether Bradstreet’s vision would come true “depends on many things and, unhappily, there are difficulties in the road.” Without specifying those difficulties, he added, “Unless the citizens of Minneapolis have lost their very keen instincts for doing things to beautify and ennoble their city, which seems entirely improbable, they will not suffer so delightful a project to fail for lack of the necessary cooperation.”
Following the opening of the channel that linked Calhoun and Isles, and later channels to Cedar Lake and from there to Brownie Lake, the islands in Lake of the Isles became popular destinations for the enormous flotilla of canoes on the Chain of Lakes until the park board passed an ordinance in 1919 that prohibited canoes from landing on the islands.
John Bradstreet continued to travel extensively after his offer to transform the big island. He embarked on a six-month around-the-world trip in December 1912 that took him to most major cities in Asia and Europe according to press accounts. Just over a year after his return from that trip, in the summer of 1914, at the age of 68, he became ill and died at the home of a friend on Lake Minnetonka.
The tribute to Bradstreet in the Morning Tribune upon his death included these words:
So quietly he did his work that he was not known to the great mass of those he served. Yet he did it so well and with an enthusiasm so sustained that he has stamped his influence, we hope for all time, on the development of Minneapolis and the outlying country.
Unfortunately, that influence does not — for reasons mysterious — include a Japanese temple and garden in Lake of the Isles.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
Note: Thanks to Ian Stade, Special Collections Librarian at Hennepin County Library, for his assistance in researching John Bradstreet.
© David C. Smith