Charles Loring’s Memorial Arch

In 1908 Charles Loring commissioned young architect William Gray Purcell to design a memorial arch. That project, revealed in Purcell’s papers at the Northwestern Architectural Library (a fabulous historical resource at the University of Minnesota), was a mystery to me.  Where was this memorial arch supposed to be located?

Soldiers Memorial Arch, Purcell

This “presentation rendering” created by William Gray Purcell for Charles Loring is from the UMedia Digital Archive. Additional information on the William Gray Purcell Papers can be found by following the above link — as well as this one from and Mark Hammons.

I might have found the answer to the location last year when I helped create a record of the archival documents being sent from the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board to the Minneapolis Central Library for permanent archiving and public access. Among the documents catalogued was a plan created in January 1909 by Theodore Wirth for a “Memorial Entrance” to the Minneapolis park system. A small version of the plan was reproduced in the 1908 annual report but I never made the connection until I saw the much larger original blueprint.Cathedral Concourse and Memorial Arch rev

This segment of a plan for a grand entrance to the park system was located in front of what is now the Basilica where Hennepin Avenue turns south between Loring Park and the Sculpture Garden. Lyndale Avenue is at the left edge. Notice the location of the “Arch” across the “parkway” that would have run along the northern edge of The Parade to link up to Kenwood Parkway near Spring Lake. Keep in mind that this was before The Parade was converted almost exclusively into playing fields — and also before the present Basilica was built.

Although I have not found in Loring’s or Wirth’s records any plan to build the Purcell Arch in this location, the dates of the rendering and the plan support a conclusion that Loring and Wirth may have had this place in mind for an arch. To my recollection, the plan was never seriously considered by the park board. I find a couple of things particularly interesting about this project.

First, Loring considered building a “soldiers” memorial ten years before U.S. involvement in World War I. In that case, it seems his intention was to honor primarily the generation — his generation — that fought the Civil War, perhaps as well as those who fought in the Spanish-American War. A decade later, after WWI, Loring proposed another memorial, a tree-lined parkway that became Victory Memorial Drive along the city’s western border. By that time of course many more young Americans had died in war. I think it remains a common misconception that Victory Memorial Drive was a tribute to soldiers who died in Europe, furthered by the attendance of WWI Allied commander Marshall Foch at the dedication of the drive. Based on this evidence, Loring also had in mind those who had died much closer to home to end slavery and preserve the Union.

1919-02-04 letter suggesting Memorial Drive perpetual care donation

This is an excerpt from the letter in which Loring originally proposed creating a trust fund to care for trees along a memorial boulevard. His suggestion led to the creation of Victory Memorial Drive. As he promised here, he deposited $50,000 in a fund for the perpetual care of the trees that were planted. This letter, like Wirth’s plan above, is now in the collections of the Central Branch of the Hennepin County Library.

Second, imagine how the creation of such a Soldiers Memorial Arch might have altered the map of Minneapolis today. The location of the arch and surrounding gardens in Wirth’s plan would place it directly under the present I-94 freeway. Would freeway planners have plowed right through or bridged over such a memorial arch? Or would they have found a different route through the city for the concrete ribbons built a half-century later — as they did when they veered I-35, also called the “Stevens Avenue Expressway”, a couple blocks east to avoid plowing through the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Could a park feature have attained such an exalted place as a palace of the arts?

Six Degrees of Separation: William Purcell worked for a short time after he graduated Cornell University for famous architect Louis Sullivan in Chicago. At the same time, Sullivan’s favorite architectural photographer was Ralph Cleveland, son of Minneapolis park architect H.W.S. Cleveland and one-time superintendent of Lakewood Cemetery.

This update on things Loring grew out of reposting last weekend three earlier articles I had written about Charles Loring, his second wife Florence Barton Loring and the book of poetry she published in his memory. If you missed them when I originally posted them, here’s your  chance.

David C. Smith

© David C. Smith


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