Archive for the ‘Minneapolis Park Board’ Category
The Minneapolis Park Board and Hennepin County Library report that we are probably only weeks away from the transfer of the park board’s historical archives to the downtown Minneapolis library. A valuable trove of historical information will be preserved, protected and made available to the public as never before.
Among the more intriguing documents discovered in preparing those archives for transfer to a better place was a letter from Theodore Wirth to Charles Loring, July 4, 1905, after Wirth visited Minneapolis to consider taking the position of Superintendent of Parks. Upon returning to his home in Hartford, Connecticut, where he held a similar position, Wirth wrote to thank Loring for his hospitality and, more importantly, to outline his terms for accepting the position in Minneapolis.
The letter was an exciting discovery because for many years I and others have looked for evidence that Loring and the park board had agreed in 1905 to build a house for Wirth. That house was eventually built in 1910, four years after Wirth came to Minneapolis, at Lyndale Farmstead on Bryant Avenue near Lake Harriet. Theodore Wirth lived in the house until 1945, ten years after he retired as park superintendent. It was occupied by succeeding superintendents from then until David Fisher moved out of the house to one of his own choosing in the mid-1990s. The house became the residence of the superintendent once again in 2010, however, when Jayne Miller chose to live there when she moved to Minneapolis.
The construction of a house on park property for Wirth was very controversial in 1910. The park board’s authority to build it was challenged in court. The park board justified its decision in part by claiming that the structure was not just a residence, but an administration building — and also claimed that the house fulfilled a condition of Wirth’s employment years earlier.
Although park board plans to build the house as a residence for Wirth survived a court challenge — by a split vote in the Minnesota Supreme Court — historians, including me, had found no proof that the park board had agreed to provide housing for Wirth. I had seen a copy of Wirth’s five-page letter from 1905 proposing the terms of his employment, but the pertinent portions of that copy were utterly illegible. Now, we can read them in Wirth’s original ink.
In a subsequent letter to Loring, Wirth wrote that while he was torn between staying in Hartford or moving to Minneapolis, he had stated his terms for accepting the Minneapolis job and the park board had agreed to them, so he felt honor-bound to accept the new job. That is as close as we can get, without seeing Loring’s actual response to Wirth, to knowing that Loring and the park board had agreed to meet Wirth’s expectation of a house.
Why had the original letter been missing for so long? We found it in a file of park board correspondence not from 1905, but 1911! No one ever would have looked for it there. I suspect it was filed there after the court case had been decided and the supporting documents were no longer needed and were thrown into a current file. It probably hadn’t been looked at between 1911 and last summer.
Proper Attribution: A Park within a Half-mile of Every Residence?
Another discovery of interest to me in the documents soon to take up permanent residence at the library was a memorandum from Wirth that sheds light on the often-repeated claim that he championed a playground within a half-mile of every residence in the city.
The attribution of that claim to Wirth often presumes that he not only supported it but that it originated with him. I have scoured Wirth’s writing and the park board’s published records for the source of that particular measure for playground location. No luck. I couldn’t find that standard proposed by Wirth even in the hundreds of pages he wrote for his annual reports.
The only similar claim I was able to find was in the autobiography of Wirth’s son Conrad, who was the director of the National Park Service 1951-1964. In Parks, Politics and the People, published in 1980, more than 30 years after his father’s death, Conrad associated the “park within a half mile” concept with his father.
Then came the deep dive into once dusty archive boxes. A 1916 committee file contained many petitions signed by residents of south Minneapolis asking for a park at 39th and Chicago — what eventually became Phelps Field. Theodore Wirth submitted his opinion to a joint committee considering the issue. He opposed the playground because it was within the district already served by Nicollet (Martin Luther King) Field and Powderhorn Park. He explained,
“It is conceded by playground authorities from all parts of the country that one good-sized playground per square mile of city area is sufficient for even densely populated districts.”
That hardly seems the statement of a man who had created the standard. While I have not researched the subject on a national scale to see where the standard did originate, it appears that the park per square mile standard was already widely used. Keep in mind that Minneapolis was fairly late to the practice of establishing playgrounds under the auspices of a park board, so it was an unlikely pioneer in developing standards for playground locations. To the credit of Minneapolis and Theodore Wirth, however, Minneapolis probably came closer to meeting that standard eventually than almost all other cities.
By the way, the park board did not take Wirth’s advice in this instance and approved the acquisition of Phelps Field despite its proximity to other playgrounds and the large amount of grading that Wirth asserted would be required to make the land into usable playground space.
Hundreds more documents, like these, that provide information and insights into the creation and evolution of Minneapolis’s parks will soon be available to everyone at the library.
The transfer of the park board archives culminates the work of several years. Park commissioners, led by Scott Vreeland, superintendent Jayne Miller, and park board staff, especially Dawn Sommers and former real estate attorney Renay Leone, deserve thanks for their commitment to preserving park historical records. The project also owes a great deal to the cooperation of Josh Schaffer in the City Clerk’s office, and Ted Hathaway, director of Special Collections at Hennepin County Library.
I would encourage local historians, especially those with an interest in the first half of the 20th Century, as well as park enthusiasts, to take a look at the archives once Ted and his staff at the library can make them available. They provide a fascinating historical view of not just a park system, but a city.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
What has changed in 100 years? A few times on this site, I have looked back 100 years at park history. I’ll expand my scope this year because of extraordinary political developments. Politics first, then parks.
The national electoral map flipped. The electoral map of the 1916 Presidential contest is astonishing. Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, won a close re-election against Republican candidate Charles Hughes, a Supreme Court Justice. Compare red and blue states below to today. Nearly inverted. The Northeast, Upper Midwest and Far West — well, Oregon — voted alike. Republican. And lost.
While Minnesota’s electoral votes were cast for the Republican — although Hughes received only 392 more votes than Wilson out of nearly 400,000 cast — Minneapolis elected Thomas Van Lear as its mayor, the only Socialist to hold that office in city history. One hundred years later, Minneapolis politics are again dominated by left-of-center politicians.
The population of Minneapolis in 1916 and 2016 was about the same: now a little over 400,000, then a little under. Minneapolis population peaked in mid-500,000s in mid-1950s and dropped into mid-300,000s in late 20th Century. One hundred years ago, however, Minneapolis suburbs were very sparsely populated.
The world 100 years ago was a violent and unstable place. World War I was in its bloody, muddy depths, although the U.S. had not yet entered the war, and Russia was on the verge of revolution. Now people are killed indiscriminately by trucks, guns, and bombs. People worldwide debated then how to address the excesses of capitalists, oligarchs and despots unencumbered by morality. We still do.
One notable change? Many Americans campaigned in 1916 to put women in voting booths, in 2016 to put a woman in the Oval Office.
Continuing Park Growth: North and South
How about progress in parks? The Minneapolis park board added significantly to its playground holdings in 1916 and 1917 as public demand for facilities and fields for active recreation increased. In North Minneapolis, Glenwood (Theodore Wirth) Park was expanded and land for Folwell Park was acquired. In South Minneapolis, Nicollet (Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) Park and Chicago Avenue (Phelps) Park were purchased and land for Cedar Avenue Park was donated. In 1917, the first Longfellow Field was sold to Minneapolis Steel and steps were initiated to replace it at its present location.
One particular recreational activity was in park headlines in 1916 for the very first time. A nine-hole course was opened that year at Glenwood (Theodore Wirth) Park, the first public golf course in Minneapolis. Golf was free and greens weren’t green, they were made of sand. In less than ten years, the park board operated four 18-hole courses (Glenwood [Wirth], Columbia, Armour [Gross], and Meadowbrook) and was preparing to add a fifth at Lake Hiawatha.
The Grand Rounds were nearly completed conceptually, when first plans for St. Anthony Boulevard from Camden Bridge on the Mississippi River to the Ramsey County line on East Hennepin Avenue were presented in 1916. Park Superintendent Theodore Wirth also suggested that the banks of the Mississippi River above St. Anthony Falls might be made more attractive with shore parks and plantings, even if the railroads maintained ownership of the land. One hundred years later we’re still working on that, but have made some progress including the continuing purchase by the Park Board of riverfront lots as they have become available.These have been the only notable additions to park acreage in many years.
One important result of the increasing demand for playground space in Minneapolis one hundred years ago was the passage by the Minnesota legislature in 1917 of a bill that enabled the park board to increase property tax collections by 50%. In 2016, the Park Board and the City Council reached an important agreement on funding to maintain and improve neighborhood parks.
In a city blessed with water and public waterfronts, however, some of the most significant issues facing the Minneapolis park board in 1917 involved shorelines — beyond beautifying polluted river banks.
The most contentious issue was an extension of Lake Calhoun, a South Bay, south on Xerxes Avenue to 43rd Street. Residents of southwest Minneapolis wanted that marshy area either filled or dredged — dry land or lake. There was no parkway at that time around the west and south shore of Lake Calhoun from Lake Street and Dean Parkway to William Berry Parkway. As a part of plans to construct a parkway along that shoreline, the park board in 1916 approved extending Lake Calhoun and putting a drive around a new South Bay as well.
The challenge, of course was how to pay for it. The park board’s plan to assess property owners in the area for the expensive improvements was met with furiuos opposition and lawsuits. Many property owners thought that assessments they were already paying for acquisitions and improvements over the years at Lake Calhoun, Lake Harriet and William Berry Park were too heavy. The courts eventually decided in favor of the park board’s right to assess for those improvements, but by then estimated costs for the project had increased and become prohibitive and the South Bay scheme was abandoned.
Instead land for Linden Hills Park was acquired in 1919 and the surrounding wet land was drained into Lake Calhoun in the early 1920s. Dredged material from the lake was used to create a better-defined shoreline on the southwestern and northwestern shores of the lake in 1923 in preparation for the construction of the parkway.
Flowage Rights on the Mississippi River and a Canal to Brownie Lake
Minneapolis parks also lost land to water in 1916. The federal government claimed 27.6 acres of land in the Mississippi River gorge for flowage rights for the reservoir that would be created by a new dam to be built near Minnehaha Creek. Those acres, on the banks of the river and several islands in the river, would be submerged behind what became Lock and Dam No. 1 or the Ford Dam. In exchange for the land to be flooded, the park board did acquire some additional land on the bluffs overlooking the dam.
The other alteration in water courses was the dredging of a navigable channel between Cedar Lake and Brownie Lake, which completed the “linking of the lakes” that was begun with the connection of Lake of the Isles and Lake Calhoun in 1911. The land lost to the channel was negligible and probably balanced by a slight drop in water level in Brownie Lake. (A five-foot drop in Cedar Lake was caused by the opening of the Kenilworth Lagoon to Lake of the Isles in 1913.)
Another potential loss of water from Minneapolis parks may have occurred in 1917. William Washburn’s Fair Oaks estate at one time had a pond. I don’t know when that pond was filled. The estate became park board property upon the death of Mrs. Washburn in 1915. Perhaps in 1917 when the stables and greenhouses on the southwest corner of the property were demolished, the south end of the estate was graded and the pond was filled. Theodore Wirth’s suggestion for the park, presented in 1917, included an amphitheater in part of the park where the pond had once been.
The Dredge Report
The year 1917 marked the end of the most ambitious dredging project in Minneapolis parks — in fact the biggest single project ever undertaken by the park board until then, according to Theodore Wirth. The four-year project moved more than 2.5 million cubic yards of earth and reduced the lake from 300 shallow acres to 200 acres with a uniform depth of 15 feet.
That wasn’t the end of work at Lake Nokomis, however. The park surrounding the lake, especially the playing fields northwest of the lake couldn’t be graded for another five years, after the dredge fill had settled.
Dredging may again be an issue in 2017 if the Park Board succeeds in raising funds for a new park on the river in northeast Minneapolis. Dredges would carve a new island out of land where an old man-made island once existed next to the Plymouth Avenue Bridge. But that may be a long time off — and could go the way of South Bay.
One other development in 1917 had more to do with standing water than was probably understood at the time. The Park Board joined with the Real Estate Board in a war on mosquitoes. However, after spending $100 on the project and realizing they would have to spend considerably more to achieve results, park commissioners terminated the project. It was not the first or last battle won by mosquitoes in Minneapolis.
As we look again at new calendars, it’s always worth taking a glance backward to see how we got here. For me, it is much easier to follow the course of events in Minneapolis park history than in American political history.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
Comments: I am not interested in comments of a partisan political nature here, so save those for your favorite political sites.
For decades, public and private parties have claimed that they need just a little bit of Minneapolis parkland to achieve their goals. And now even Governor Dayton has joined the shrill chorus of those who think taking parkland is the most expedient solution to political challenges. The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) is justified in examining very skeptically all desires to take parkland for other purposes and in rejecting nearly all of them categorically.
Commentators writing in December in the StarTribune asserted that the Park Board is wrong to object to just 28 feet of bridge expansion over Kenilworth Lagoon for the construction of the Southwest Light Rail Transit (SWLRT) corridor. They write as if that bridge and expansion of rail traffic across park property were the only alternative. Gov. Dayton seems to repeat the error. Other political jurisdictions involved in the proposed light rail corridor have objected to this or that provision of the project and their objections have been given a hearing, often favorable.
I didn’t hear Governor Dayton threaten to slash local government aid to St. Louis Park when officials there objected to the Met Council’s original proposals for SWLRT. But the Park Board is supposed to cave into whatever demands remain after everyone else has whined and won. Minneapolis parks are too valuable an asset – for the entire state – to have them viewed as simply the least painful political sacrifice.
Should the SWLRT bridge be built? I don’t know – but I do want the Park Board to ensure that all options have been investigated fully. That desire to consider all feasible options to taking parkland for transportation projects that use federal funds was first expressed in 1960s legislation. The legislation was meant to ensure that parkland would be taken for the nation’s burgeoning freeway system only as a last resort. In the present case, the Park Board was not convinced that the Met Council had investigated all options thoroughly once it had acquiesced to the demands of other interested parties.
A Park Board study in 1960 identified more than 300 acres of Minneapolis parkland that were desired by other entities both private and public. Hennepin County wanted to turn Victory Memorial Drive into the new County Highway 169. A few years later, the Minnesota Department of Highways planned to convert Hiawatha Avenue, Highway 55, into an elevated expressway within yards of Minnehaha Falls – in addition to taking scores of acres of parkland for I-94 and I-35W. In the freeway-building years, parkland was lost in every part of the city: at Loring Park, The Parade, Riverside Park, Murphy Square, Luxton Park, Martin Luther King Park (then Nicollet Park), Perkins Hill, North Mississippi, Theodore Wirth Park and others, not to mention the extinction of Elwell Park and Wilson Park. Chute Square was penciled in to become a parking lot.
In 1966, faced with another assault – a parking garage under Elliot Park – Park Superintendent Robert Ruhe, backed by Park Board President Richard Erdall and Attorney Edward Gearty, urged a new policy for dealing with demands for parkland for other uses. It was blunt, reading in part,
“Those who seek parklands for their own particular ends must look elsewhere to satiate their land hunger. Minneapolis parklands should not be looked upon as land banks upon which others may draw.”
With that policy in place, the Park Board resisted efforts by the Minnesota Department of Highways to take parkland for freeways or, as a last resort, pay next to nothing for it. Still, the Park Board battled the state all the way to the United States Supreme Court over plans to build an elevated freeway within view of Minnehaha Falls – a plan supported by nearly every other elected body or officeholder in the city and state, including the Minneapolis City Council.
While the Supreme Court chose not to hear the Minnehaha case, its decision in a related case involving parkland in Memphis, Tenn. established a precedent that forced Minnesota to reconsider its Highway 55 plans and provides the basis for the Park Board today to investigate alternatives to taking park property for projects that use federal funds.
The Park Board is right to do so, even at the high cost it must pay – which the Met Council should be paying — and regardless of the results of that investigation. The Park Board needs to reassert very forcefully that taking parkland is a very serious matter and not the easiest way out when other arrangements don’t fall into place.
In a report to park commissioners on a proposed new land policy on April 1, 1966 Robert Ruhe concluded with these words,
“The park lands of Minneapolis are an integral part of our heritage and natural resources and, as such, should be available to all present and future generations of Minneapolitans. This is our public trust and responsibility.”
That trust and responsibility has not changed in the intervening 50 years. And it is not exercised well if the Park Board allows land to be lopped away from parks – even 28 feet at a time – without the most intense scrutiny and, when necessary, resistance. It could help us avoid horrors like elevated freeways near our most famous landmarks.
What I find most troubling about events of the past year relating to Minneapolis parks is the blatant disregard by elected officials – from Minneapolis’s Mayors to Minnesota’s Governor – of the demands and complexity of park planning and administration, as if great parks and park systems happen by accident. They don’t. They take conscientious, informed planning, funding, programming and maintaining. We can’t just write them into and out of existence as mere bargaining chips in some grander game. Parks should not be an afterthought in the crush of city or state business.
I worry when an outgoing mayor negotiates an awful agreement for a “public” park for the benefit of the Minnesota Vikings without the input of the people who would have to build and run it. I wince when an incoming mayor trumpets a youth initiative without input from the organization that has the greatest capacity for interaction with the city’s young people. And I am really perplexed when a governor makes so little effort to engage an elected body with as important a stake in a major project as the park board’s in the SWLRT.
Other elected officials seem more than happy to rub shoulders with park commissioners and staff when the Minneapolis park system receives national awards, or a President highlights the parks on a visit, or when exciting new park projects are unveiled. But they seem to forget who those people are when they are sending out invitations to the table to decide the city’s future. That is a serious and easily avoidable mistake.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory.com
© 2015 David C. Smith
I have neglected these pages in recent months, yet I have so many good park stories to tell, some of them from readers. I will get to them soon I hope. In the last eight months I have discovered more fascinating information about Minneapolis parks and the people who created themthan at any time since my initial research for City of Parks. But until I can get to those stories, I wanted to show you one of the more interesting bits of history I’ve encountered recently. Garish, but oddly charming.
The images below are of a promotional envelope used by a Minneapolis merchant in advance of the July 1911 Civic Celebration that was conceived primarily to celebrate the digging of the channel that connected Lake Calhoun with Lake of the Isles — as is noted at the bottom of the envelope. I found these images on an Ebay auction site and use them with permission of the seller of the envelope who sells mostly postal history under the name of “gregfree”. This envelope is for sale at an opening bid of $150 — more than I can pay. I appreciate gregfree’s willingness to let me share the image with you. Maybe you should buy it. If you do, thank him for me.
I love the background in green, a photo of the Stone Arch Bridge and Mill District, laid over a map of the city that shows the Chain of Lakes and Minnehaha Creek meeting the Mississippi River in the lower right corner.
It’s nice to know that Minneapolis also had the lowest death rate in the United States. How that was measured, I’m not sure.
The coincidence of me finding this image now has a bit of Ouija-Board spookiness to it, because the lake connections have been on my mind — and in the news — a good bit lately. The channel that was celebrated 103 years ago between Isles and Calhoun has been in the news because the developer of a residential building at Knox Avenue and Lake Street has been pumping millions of gallons of water from a flooded underground parking garage into that channel, which has prevented it from freezing and caused considerable increase in phosphorous levels in the lake. More phosphorous means more algae. The Park Board and the City have sued to stop the pumping. Good! Such negligence on the part of a developer is astonishing. Hmmm, what do you think might happen if you put a parking garage below the water table between two lakes? I’m no engineer, but I think I’d be a tad suspicious of anyone who told me, “Hey, no problem.” The next time you hear people complaining about too much government regulation, ask them if it’s cases like this that they have in mind? I hope the Park Board uses every weapon at their disposal in this case to protect our lakes.
The other lake connection issue is not so clear-cut, but may be more important. That is the issue of tunneling under or bridging over the Kenilworth Lagoon that connects Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake in order to build the Southwest LRT.
The history of other interests, public and private, wanting to take a little park land here or there for this or that good idea is long and sordid. For decades the park board has had to fight those who wanted just an acre or a little easement across park property. If the Park Board had acquiesced, all we’d have left of a magnificent park system would be a couple triangle parks. The reasons for taking park land have often been legitimate. For instance, I’m strongly in favor of better mass transit in Minneapolis and the entire Twin Cities metro area, but only if it doesn’t harm parks — or even the notion of parks. Is a tunnel or a bridge over Kenilworth channel better for the LRT? That question and a hornets nest of others, isn’t the right place to start. The only place to start in my very prejudiced opinion is with “Will it harm park property?” If the Park Board determines that the answer to that question is “Yes,” it is obliged to oppose those plans with all its might — regardless of how small the “harm.” Because in historical terms, “harm” seems more than precedent, it is invitation.
I have more to write about the issue. Did you know that the Park Board once went to the United States Supreme Court to prevent the State of Minnesota from taking Minneapolis parkland? True story. Til then quite an interesting envelope. Thanks again gregfree.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
© 2014 David C. Smith