Lake Harriet: The Heart of the Minneapolis Park System
NOTE: The following outline and photos introduce the important role of Lake Harriet in the creation and growth of the Minneapolis park system. While much of this information is familiar to Minneapolis residents, I prepared this presentation for students visiting Minneapolis today from University of Wisconsin Eau Claire. I thought other readers of minneapolisparkhistory.com might enjoy the images and information as well. For more in-depth info visit the history pages of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. For a more complete picture of the parks surrounding Lake Harriet see the history of Lake Harriet, but also of William Berry Park and Lyndale Park.
If the prized Minneapolis park system were a living thing, Lake Harriet would be its heart. The Grand Rounds — 60 miles of parkways threaded through the city — would be the rest of the circulatory system of veins and arteries. The analogy holds more for the creation of the park system, with parkways radiating out from Lake Harriet and back, than for the current function of Lake Harriet in the system.
Lake Harriet and Lake Calhoun had always been primary targets of people in Minneapolis and St. Anthony who believed the growing towns needed parks. For decades, residents of the small towns beside St. Anthony Falls had taken Sunday excursions to the shores of the lakes for picnics and relaxation. As early as 1869, the Board of Trade, a chamber-of-commerce type organization, had voted to acquire the shores of Lake Calhoun for a “pleasure drive” and had secured commitments from all landowners around the lake except one to donate their shoreline for that purpose. That one unnamed holdout must have torpedoed the entire plan.
When the Minneapolis park board was created by an act of the Minnesota Legislature and ratified by Minneapolis voters in 1883, it was well-understood that the lakes would become part of a new park system. Proof was easy: the legislature expanded the city limits of Minneapolis to include Lake Harriet at the same time it created the park board. One went with the other.
One of the park board’s first acts was to hire landscape architect and park advocate H. W. S. Cleveland to advise the board on the creation of parks. About a month later Cleveland presented his “Suggestions” to the broad for a new park system featuring interconnected parkways rather than just a couple large parks. The map that accompanied his suggestions, below, shows in red the parkways he recommended. Note that only Lake Harriet is fully encircled by parkway, the “heart” of this circulatory system.
The map provided a blueprint for a park system that the park board tried to implement. Although the board failed to acquire many of the specific routes proposed by Cleveland — and added others — the concept of a system of parkways encircling the city eventually became the Grand Rounds parkway system of today.
Cleveland used another anatomical metaphor in the park system he proposed that focused on what was most important to him. He called the Mississippi River gorge and parkways on both sides the “lungs” of the city. He meant that a corridor of green on both sides of the river — the “jewel” of the city — would provide a flow of fresh air through the city north to south, which would help prevent pollution and disease. It was not a coinage that originated with Cleveland, but had been used to advocate city parks in the dense and squalid urban cores of Paris and London since early in the century.
In fact, however, the Grand Rounds parkway system had its start at Lake Harriet and the rest of the parkways followed. It was the first parkway the park board attempted to acquire. A first appraisal of the shores of the lake put the cost at $300,000, much more than the park board could legally spend. Then landowners Henry Beard, Charles Reeve and James Merritt approached park board president Charles Loring with an offer: they would donate to the park board a strip of land 125 feet wide that nearly encircled the lake. The park board gratefully accepted that offer 1985. (Ownership of a portion of that land was being contested at the time in court and a court ruling returned much of the land to William S. King, then a park commissioner. He honored the deal already struck with the other landowners and the park board owned a strip of land for a parkway around most of the lake.)
The park board’s other parkway projects revolved primarily around creating routes from other parts of Minneapolis to Lake Harriet. Hennepin Avenue was acquired to be a parkway connection from Central (Loring) Park to Lake Harriet. But when heavy traffic on that road dimmed its prospects for ever being a parkway, an alternative route to Harriet was found. Land was donated for Kenwood Parkway from Central Park to Lake of the Isles, then around Lake of the Isles, which hadn’t figured at all in Cleveland’s plan, to Lake Calhoun. The park board purchased the eastern shore of Lake Calhoun, at what Loring considered an exorbitant but necessary price, to reach the southern tip of Lake Calhoun. From there, Linden Hills Boulevard, also acquired from Henry Beard, would carry traffic to Lake Harriet.
Cleveland conceived of another major circulatory connection to Lake Harriet as a parkway east from Lake Harriet to the Mississippi River. He envisioned that to be Lake Street, but that thoroughfare already was home to a concentration of businesses that made it too expensive to acquire. The route east from Harriet that later emerged, largely due to free land, was Minnehaha Creek. Although much farther south and far from the central city neighborhoods that Cleveland thought would need a parkway, Minnehaha Parkway became the park connection to Minnehaha Falls and the river parkways.
Even the parkways from the Lake District into north Minneapolis were really arteries directly from the north side to Lake Harriet. When it became evident that Lyndale Avenue could not be converted into a parkway from Central Park north, the park board looked to the west to connect Lake Harriet via Cedar Lake and what eventually became Theodore Wirth Park and Parkway to north Minneapolis. Once again the appeal, at first, was the prospect of free land along that route from William McNair, a friend of the parks and several park commissioners.
Further supporting the Lake Harriet-as-heart metaphor is that the northern half of the Grand Rounds was inspired by what had already occurred in the southern half of the city connecting lakes, river, and creek to Lake Harriet. William Folwell, former University of Minnesota president, park commissioner and Cleveland’s close friend, urged the park board in a special report at the end of 1890 to return to the vision of Cleveland. In his report, he urged the board to resurrect and finish the system of parkways throughout the city that Cleveland had suggested. Folwell even gave that system of parkways, which began and ended at Lake Harriet, a name for the first time: Grand Rounds.
To the Water’s Edge
The parkway at Lake Harriet also established another critical precedent in the history of Minneapolis parks. In keeping with Cleveland’s plan for an interconnected system of parkways, the park board wanted a parkway around the lake instead of just a large park beside it. The parkway acquired encircled the lake on its shoreline. That meant the park board owned the entire lake and it established that precedent for later acquisitions at Lake of Isles, Lake Calhoun, Minnehaha Creek, even the Mississippi River gorge. Nearly everywhere in Minneapolis, the park board owns the water front. The only places that is not true today is the banks of the Mississippi River above the falls, and that is in the process of being acquired piece by piece, and those parts of Bassett’s Creek that had been tunneled below ground even before the park board was created.
The unique and defining feature of Minneapolis today is not only that the city has lakes and creeks and a river running through it, but that almost all land abutting those bodies of water is publicly owned and preserved as parkland. We aren’t restricted to a glimpse of water between mansions built on lakeshores, the people own the lake shores. The effect on the prosperity of the city has always been significant. As Minneapolis park board studies have shown, property values are increased not only adjacent to the lakes, creeks and river but up to several blocks away from those amenities because they are publicly owned.
Donation of Land
Another reason for the centrality of Lake Harriet to the development of the Minneapolis park system was the means by which the park board acquired the Lake Harriet shoreline: it was donated. That also established a precedent that Charles Loring, in particular, was very successful in replicating. Loring secured other land donations in the few years after the donations by Beard, Reeve, Merritt and King. Kenwood Parkway, most of Lake of the Isles, half of Lake Calhoun, part of Cedar Lake, much of Minnehaha Creek, Stinson Parkway, Lyndale Park and The Parade. Even much of the river gorge was sold to the park board well below market value.
Let Us Entertain You
Lake Harriet was also the heart of park board expansion into new areas, especially providing entertainment and recreation. Entertainment at the lake began at a pavilion built by the street railway company on private land beside the lake, but became one of the most popular destinations in the city after the park board allowed the street railway company to build a pavilion on the shores of the lake in 1892. The park board didn’t provide the entertainment directly, but did exercise considerable control over the types of entertainment the railway company was allowed to present. That entertainment did not always meet the approval of all park commissioners, but it continued because people liked it and turned out by the thousands. It is one of the first examples of the nature of parks being adapted to what people wanted.
Another important attraction at the Lake Harriet Pavilion were row boats. One of the donors of land around the lake Charles Reeve offered in 1887 to pay the park board $1,000 for the right to rent boats and sell refreshments at the lake. Competitive bidding pushed the price up to $1,250, a large sum in the day, before Reeve gained concession rights. But by 1889 the park board realized it could make a nice profit running the boat and refreshment concessions itself and purchase Reeve’s boats.
The Bicycle Craze
Active recreation, physical exercise, began at Lake Harriet with boating and canoeing, but then along came the bicycle craze of the 1890s and the park board continued what has become a long tradition of accommodating what people wanted from their parks.
Bicycling was so popular that the park board built a bicycle path around the lake in 1896. So many people rode bicycles to the lake that the park board built an enclosure where people could check their bicycles while they were at the pavilion or renting a boat. It was built to hold 800 bicycles. Soon after, the park board built bicycle trails along Minnehaha Creek as well.
These are just the beginning of the accommodation of public desires at Lake Harriet and then other park properties. What began at Lake Harriet, like the parkways radiating out from it, quickly extended to other parts of the park system even as new amenities were added at Lake Harriet. From the picnic shelter at Beard Plaisance on the west side of the lake in 1904 to the Rose Garden created on the east side of the lake in 1907, the throngs drawn to the lake were regularly provided new attractions.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
© 2014 David C. Smith