Logan Park Field House Centennial: Public Input, Public Outrage
With dazzling talk of new parks along the river in northeast and downtown Minneapolis in 2013, an important anniversary slipped my attention. You probably missed it too: the Centennial of the first Logan Park Field House. The Logan Park Field House was arguably the most important building the Minneapolis park board has ever constructed. It opened in February 1913 amid a national movement to open “social centers” for burgeoning urban populations.
The population of Minneapolis in 2013 was about the same as it was in 1920: 380,000.
In 1940, the population exceeded 492,000; it peaked at about 550,000 in the mid-1950s.
The remarkable story of the Logan Park Field House includes the first extensive citizen input on the design of a park building — the first Citizen’s Advisory Committee (CAC), if you will — and the first park building targeted by neighborhood groups protesting “immoral” behavior. The objects of this indignation were the turkey trot, bear hug, and other dances that involved “hugging” or “wiggling.” The protestors might have collapsed dead on the spot if they had seen “grinding” or “twerking”, the cause of high school dance controversy these days.
The importance of the Logan Park Field House is obviously my opinion. (I’d like to hear yours!) You could make a case for the club houses at Wirth and Columbia golf courses, which were not really recreation buildings, but were used year round for community gatherings. I consider the pavilion/bandstand at Lake Harriet and the bath houses at Webber Pool, Lake Calhoun or Lake Nokomis in a different category because they were seasonal structures, with open walls or roofs. The Webber community center did include a branch library, but it was not designed to be a multipurpose recreation facility.
The field house at Logan Park was the first multi-purpose, all-season recreation center in a Minneapolis park. There had been other recreation buildings in parks — and more would soon follow — but most were little more than glorified warming houses for ice skaters until the 1960s and 1970s. A good example is the one built at North Commons in 1910, which consisted of a furnace room, toilets, an office and one large room. One of the only exceptions to this standard was the shelter in Loring Park, Charles Loring’s gift to the city when he retired from the park board (for the last time) in 1906, which featured two “kindergarten” rooms on a second floor.
Lebert Weir, a leading figure in the national playground movement, wrote in 1944 that the recreation buildings in Minneapolis parks (other than the one at Logan) were “too large for merely shelter houses and too small for use as a general recreation building. When the central room is used as a warming room for skaters, no other, or little, use can be made of the building for recreational activities.” (Recreation Survey, 1944.) In another study of recreational needs in Minneapolis, conducted by F. S. Staley in 1915 for the Civic and Commerce Association, Staley reported that the recreation shelters in parks, other than Logan and Webber, were little more than “comfort stations”, the polite term in the day for toilets. Although Weir did not lump the Logan Park Field House with other recreation shelters in his 1944 report, he had no praise for it either, recommending that it needed to be razed or remodeled. It wasn’t replaced for another 27 years, in 1971, at a time when nearly every recreation center in the city was replaced. Weir also recommended a new center for Loring Park in 1944, supporting suggestions to preserve the original shelter, too, and make it into a clubhouse for “older men.”
Social Center Movement
The importance of the Logan Park Field House rested in the explicit recognition by the park board that it had a role in addressing social issues beyond recreation, whether passive or active. The national social center movement saw facilities such as field houses in parks as essential to weaving the fabric of community. They had much in common with settlement houses. They provided gathering places, places for self-improvement, even places where hygiene could be taught or improved. They became places for assimilation and Americanization, especially in the crowded urban cores. The social centers were truly the melting pots. They were also seen as providing an alternative social venue to saloons in a society that had been struggling for decades with what many believed was excessive liquor consumption.
The new social centers were ultimately places where an Alice Dietz could emerge as Director of Community Centers for Minneapolis parks and be seen as a friend not only to neighborhood children, but to their mothers. Dietz’s office in the 1920s, of course, was at the Logan Park Field House. In Minneapolis, as elsewhere, the construction of recreation centers was the beginning of neighborhoods being identified with — and often named for — the neighborhood park.
Park superintendent Theodore Wirth credited Chicago’s South Park District as the model for his first plans for a building at Logan Park. In his 1908 annual report he wrote:
I have been so much impressed with the immense amount of benefit derived by the entire population of good-sized districts in Chicago through some of their play parks that I could not deny myself the pleasure of working out on paper and in thought, what could be done along similar lines with our Logan Park.
Wirth’s choice of Logan Park for a new center is not surprising. It was one of the first four parks acquired by the Minneapolis park board when it was created in 1883 and it was still one of the few parks in the city that offered no distinguishing landscape features, neither lakes, streams, nor hills. That was likely the reason that the Minneapolis park board’s first landscape architect, H.W.S. Cleveland, proposed the fountain that stood at the middle of the park.
Logan had also been one of the first two Minneapolis parks to have playground equipment installed in 1906, when the park board took its first timid steps into the park and recreation era. (Riverside Park was the other.)
In his 1908 report,Wirth provided two photos of the field house at Sherman Park in Chicago to accompany his “Suggestive Plan for the Transformation of Logan Park into a General Recreation Ground”. The most prominent feature of his plan for Logan Park was a “General Recreation Building” along 13th Avenue NE. He proposed a building far, far grander than was eventually built. His proposal included an indoor swimming pool, gymnasium and lunch counter, as well as an assembly room, office and multiple club rooms. He even provided a sample of a budget for improvements at Armour Park in Chicago, which was similar in size, he said, to Logan Park. There the building, improvements and equipment had cost $170,000. As was often the case in Wirth’s proposals for Minneapolis parks, he significantly overshot what the park board would spend or neighborhoods would agree to pay in property assessments. The eventual cost of the Logan Park Field House was $40,000, with $8,000 of that chipped in by the Library Board in exchange for space to operate a branch library in the building.
While it would take another four years before the Logan Park field house was built on a reduced scale, the park board in 1908 had begun to appreciate and anticipate the larger social role it would play throughout the city. At the same time, the park board recognized its increasing role in city life, it also demonstrated that it valued the increasing role that citizens would play in the board’s decision-making.
Incidentally, it’s not likely that Wirth was among those who saw the new park field house as a weapon in the war against alcohol. When Wirth helped design a house for himself at Lyndale Farmstead later that year he would build in a hidden liquor cabinet and he would be censured later by the park board for serving alcohol to visiting dignitaries at the Lake Harriet Pavilion, where liquor was forbidden.
The Logan Park Field House provided another first in Minneapolis park history; the park board solicited the views of the neighborhood on the architectural plans for the field house. A jury examined designs from twelve architects who submitted plans for the field house and selected those of Minneapolis architect Cecil Bayless Chapman. Designs by Downs and Eads and A. R. Van Dyke placed second and third. Based on input from a committee of the Logan Park Improvement Association on the style of building, materials, and interior arrangements, the park board’s improvement committee modified Chapman’s plan “considerably”, according to the Morning Tribune.
“This is the first time we have invited the people of any neighborhood to help us choose plans for a park building,” said President [Wilbur] Decker, “but this is the first time the park board has ever contemplated erecting a building in a park to serve neighborhood recreation purposes.” (Minneapolis Morning Tribune, Dec. 28, 1911)
The Tribune’s coverage of park board deliberations on the issue concluded with the claim that the building would have “a large assembly room that can be used for neighborhood gatherings, including dances or similar entertainments.” That would prove to be somewhat sticky.
Logan Park’s field house was the focus of great controversy shortly after it officially opened February 1, 1913.
The Minneapolis Tribune wrote the next morning, “The formal exercises marked an era in Minneapolis, the beginning of the movement to open social centers in all parts of the city.” The objective, the paper wrote, was “social development and civic betterment furnished by recreational environment.”
It took barely three months for some neighborhood residents to challenge the “development” and “betterment” because of one aspect of the environment. A rumor rippled through neighborhood churches that on Saturday night, May 3, a “dance” had been held at the field house. It mattered little to the pastors of the eight churches within a block of the park that the dance had been part of a private wedding anniversary celebration. The ministers claimed that they had opposed construction of the field house the previous year until they had been assured that the facility would not be used for dances.
Park superintendent Wirth contested that such an assurance had ever been made and added that he had been assured that the only dancing at the event would be a few “old folks” dances.
At the time, dancing was a hot-button issue. In a poll of 10,000 families the week before the field house opened, the Tribune found a close correlation between those who opposed social centers and those who opposed dancing. About 21% of those polled opposed dancing and about 24% opposed social centers.
Efforts to outlaw dances, even school dances and charity balls, had passed the city council the previous year, but was vetoed by Mayor Haynes. At the time of the controversy, a bill was being introduced in the Minnesota legislature that would dramatically curtail public dance halls through licensing and prohibition of serving alcohol in them. The bill also banned “immodest” dancing and required bright lighting in rooms where dances were held. The bill eventually passed the House, but not the Senate.
The debate over dancing, like that over alcohol, was not restricted to Minnesota. In the spring of 1913, Chicago was considering an ordinance that would have mandated that dancers maintain a distance between them of no less than six inches.
The protest to the park board over dances at Logan Park didn’t get far. When a committee hearing was held on the issue, all but one park commissioner expressed himself, in the words of the Tribune, “heartily in favor of public dances, properly supervised, in the parks.” Commissioner David Jones, chair of the committee, was particularly outspoken in his defense of dancing at the parks, claiming that park dances offered a positive alternative to young people frequenting public dance halls where mixed crowds gathered without supervision. When a trustee of Emanuel Swedish Lutheran Church accused the park board of building the field house at Logan Park to “set up a worship of dancing,” Commissioner Jones demanded and received a retraction. Jones reportedly said that dancing was not a religious or even an ethical issue, but one only of “decent comportment” and he refused to allow those who opposed dancing to impose their standards on the rest of the city. The park board did concede, however, that “rag” dancing shouldn’t be permitted at dances on park property.
That was not the end of the issue. A year later, representatives of five churches returned to the park board with a new resolution to restrict dancing, and this time they had the support of the park commissioner who represented that part of the city, Portius Deming. Dancing had become too popular. The opponents claimed that the field house was booked six to eight weeks in advance for dances. They asked that dances be limited to three a week and only from October 1 to April 1. Deming’s support for the measure and his former legislative skill was evident in the wording of the resolution: it applied only to park field houses that also housed a branch library. As Logan Park had the only facility to fit that description, the restrictions wouldn’t apply in any other city park.
The neighborhood was not, however, unanimous in its opposition to dances. E. J. Comstock presented a petition from those who lived in houses that faced the park. Thirty-one of thirty-seven park neighbors favored the use of the field house for dancing.
Ultimately, the park board agreed to prohibit dances at Logan Park for the summer of 1914 while a new ordinance was written that would set stricter conditions for dances at all parks. In exchange for that compromise, Deming withdrew his resolution that applied only to Logan Park. After a summer of study, the park board passed a new dance ordinance in October that restricted dances to Tuesday and Saturday nights from 9 to 11:45 pm. Girls younger than 18 could not to be admitted and only residents of the neighborhood could attend. The question of smoking at dances was to be “tactfully handled” by park employees, whatever that meant. Curiously, while the Minneapolis Tribune reported the new policy on dancing at Logan Park on October 7, 1914, those restrictions were never part of the officially published “Proceedings” of the park board.
I can find no indication that dancing in parks was an issue of policy debate after 1914, although I wouldn’t be surprised if the issue came up at individual parks. One reason it may not have been an issue after 1914 was that despite the enormous success of the Logan Park Field House, the park board never built another like it anywhere in the city for the next fifty years. I did find an article in the Tribune about a winter carnival at Logan Park in 1920 that mentioned there was dancing both indoors and outdoors for the ten thousand people who attended. They must not have objected to dancing. Along the way, however, in 1917 the Minnesota Senate did pass a law that prohibited dancing to the Star Spangled Banner. That’s a bit surprising because the song isn’t exactly a toe-tapper — not to mention the fact that the song didn’t officially become the national anthem until a Congressional resolution passed in 1931.
The most significant lesson of the Logan Park Field House story is that, as always, the people of Minneapolis determined how parks would be used. At Logan Park, neighborhood residents first had input into how a building was designed and constructed and then, through considerable, often noisy, public debate, how it was used. One hundred years later, we still do things much the same way.
That’s worth celebrating a centennial. Here’s to the original Logan Park Field House.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
© 2014 David C. Smith