Archive for the ‘Minneapolis Park History Resources’ Category

Friday Photos: Thousands of Historical Aerial Views

The closest thing to time travel. That’s what today’s photo recommendation gives you through more than 100,000 photos that allow you to track the growth of Minneapolis — and the rest of the state — from the sky.

I’m not aware of any larger local source of aerial photography than Minnesota Historical Aerial Photos Online (MHAPO). The collection is part of the John Borchert Map Library at the University of Minnesota. It was created by Joseph Koeller in consultation with the Borchert Library staff.

I’ve written before of the Borchert Map Library because I use their maps often, especially their plat maps of Minneapolis from 1892 and 1903, which I have on my “favorites” bar on my computer.

While researching the history of the auto tourist camp, which the park board operated at Minnehaha Falls from 1920s into the mid-1950s, I wanted to get some sense of the layout of the 35 cabins that were offered for rent on a nightly basis. I had never found any depiction of the layout of the camp until I found this photo from 1953 at the MHAPO site. See the U-shape of dark dots on the bluff to the left of the Ford Dam? Gotta be those cabins. I'll be writing more about the tourist camp soon.

While researching the history of the auto tourist camp, which the park board operated at Minnehaha Falls from 1920s into the mid-1950s, I wanted to get some sense of the layout of the 35 cabins that were offered for rent on a nightly basis. I had never found any depiction of the layout of the camp until I found this photo from October 1953 at the MHAPO site. See the U-shape of dark dots on the bluff to the left of the Ford Dam? Gotta be those cabins. It’s the Wabun picnic area now. I’ll be writing more about the tourist camp soon.

For more recent aerial photos of many parts of Minneapolis and the metropolitan area, I  go to the University of Minnesota’s Digital Content Library. Below are two photos from that collection using the search term “Minnehaha Park.” They provide a marvelous way to track changes in the landscape. The only shortcoming of this superb collection of images is that they are not dated.

Long ago you could drive up to the edge of Minnehaha Falls gorge. You could watch the falls from your car.

Long ago you could drive up to the edge of Minnehaha Falls. You could watch the falls from your car. A park drive passed between the falls and the pavilion with the red roof.

After the 1992 renovation of the park, the parking lot was moved away from the falls and cars could no longer drive right to the edge of the gorge.

After the 1992 renovation of the park, the parking lot was moved away from Minnehaha Falls and cars could no longer drive right to the edge of the gorge. The former parking lot was replaced by the garden in this picture, which features some verses from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha”, to which the Falls owed its world-wide renown.

Note that both photos were taken before Hiawatha Avenue was expanded and put under a land bridge at Minnehaha Parkway (upper right corner of the photos) in the 1990s. Had the Minnesota highway department had its way, the horizontal stretch of green near the top of the picture would have become an elevated freeway in the 1960s. The Minneapolis park board went all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court in a successful effort to block that freeway. That is an important story of true park heroes, such as Robert Ruhe, Walter Carpenter, Ed Gearty and others, which I hope to tell in greater detail soon.

Some of the photos and maps in the Digital Content Library collection require login to see more than a thumbnail, but many permit viewing in greater detail by the general public.

It’s worth noting that both the Borchert and Digital Content Library collections are the product of our state university—a demonstration that all of us can benefit from the presence of a major university in our community. Our taxes at work! Yeah, I complain about taxes too, but things like parks and libraries and universities and historical societies contribute enormously to the richness of our lives. My life anyway. Nearly all the resources I draw on to produce these articles are public resources. They are available to all without charge. They are an important part of our heritage—and, I hope, our legacy.

David C. Smith

© David C. Smith 2013


Minneapolis Park Planning: Theodore Wirth as Landscape Architect. Catalog of Minneapolis Park Plans, Volume I, 1906-1915

In Theodore Wirth’s 30 years as Minneapolis’s superintendent of parks (1906-1935), he produced annual reports that contained 328 maps, plans or designs for parks and park structures. Most of the plans were accompanied by some explanatory text, which provides a rich record of park board activity and Theodore Wirth’s priorities.

Theodore Wirth, Superintendent of Parks, 1906-1935 (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

The annual reports include plans for recreation shelters, bridges, parkways, parks, playgrounds, gardens, golf courses, and more. Nearly every Minneapolis park is represented in some form, from if-cost-were-no-object conceptual designs for new parks to the “rearrangement” of existing parks. Many of the plans were never implemented due to cost or other objections; others were considerably modified after input from commissioners and the public.

In many cases over the years, Wirth referred in his written narratives to plans published in prior years that he hoped the board would implement. Sometimes it did, often it didn’t. One of the drawbacks to implementing Wirth’s plans was the method of financing park acquisitions and improvements during much of his tenure as superintendent. The costs of both were often assessed on “benefitted” property, along with real estate tax bills. In other words, the people who lived near a park and received the “benefit” of it — both in enjoyment and increased property values — had to pay the cost, usually through assessments spread over ten years. To be able to assess those costs, however, a majority of property owners had to agree to the assessment, and in many neighborhoods property owners refused to agree until plans were modified considerably to reduce costs.

Phelps Wyman’s plan for what is now Thomas Lowry Park from the 1922 annual report is one of the only colored plans and one of the only plans that wasn’t produced by the park board staff.

Many of the annual report drawings contain a “Designed by” tag, but many do not have any attribution. For those that don’t, it is sometimes unclear who the actual designer was. In many cases it would have been Wirth, but in some cases — the golf courses are notable examples — others would have been responsible for the layouts even though they weren’t credited. William Clark, for instance, is known to have designed the first Minneapolis golf courses, Wirth said so, but only Wirth’s name appears on these plans, not Clark’s.

Also, because these plans were created while Wirth was superintendent does not mean that the idea for each project originated with Wirth. Some of the demands for the parks featured here pre-dated Wirth’s arrival in Minneapolis by decades. Other plans were largely his creation. In most cases, however, Wirth was responsible for implementing those plans.

The majority of the drawings were reproduced on a thin, tissue-like paper that could be folded small enough to be glued into the annual reports. The intent was to publish plans large enough to be readable, but not too bulky.  The paper is fragile and easily torn when unfolding; I doubt that many of the plans survive. Even where efforts have been made to preserve and digitize the annual reports, such as by Hathitrust and Google Books, the plans on the translucent sheets are not reproduced. In many cases it would require a large-format scanner to digitize them from the annual reports. Originals do not exist for most of these plans, because they were not working plans.

This plan for the original Longfellow Field in 1912 was typical of the plans in the annual reports,

Catalog of Minneapolis Park Plans

I’ve been threatening for some time to do something that probably only the planners at the Minneapolis park board and a few others will appreciate. I’m publishing a complete list of the park plans that appeared in the annual reports of the park board. I’m periodically asked when a certain park was discussed, acquired or planned and I search my list of annual report plans quickly to provide some direction. I hope that by publishing this catalog of park plans I can save other researchers a great deal of time.

Unfortunately I do not have copies or scans of the plans themselves. Neither does the park board. You’ll have to go to the Central Library in downtown Minneapolis to view the original annual reports and see these plans. The Gale Library at the Minnesota Historical Society also has copies of the park board’s annual reports for many years.

I’ve started this catalog with the 1906 annual report, the first year that Theodore Wirth was responsible for producing the report, his first year as superintendent of Minneapolis parks. (Several of H.W.S. Cleveland’s original park designs were reproduced in earlier annual reports. I’ll provide a list of those in the very near future. You may still view the very large originals of many of Cleveland’s plans, by appointment, at the Hennepin History Museum. It’s worth a visit!)

The annual reports of the park board were divided into several parts: a report by the president of the park board, reports by the superintendent and attorney, financial reports, and an inventory of park properties. Most of the plans described here were a part of the superintendent’s report. For that reason, I’ve cited the date on Wirth’s reports rather than the date of the president’s report, which at times differed.

I will post the catalog of plans, maps and drawings in three “volumes” due to the size of the file — more than 9,000 words in total. Go to the Catalog of Minneapolis Park Plans 1906-1915

Minneapolis Park History Resources: Hathitrust

If you’re researching early Minneapolis history, particularly parks, you absolutely must know about this resource:

HathiTrust is a digital library that has millions of books from university and public libraries. Most of the books are no longer copyrighted so they are in the public domain. (This includes most books published before 1923.)

What is most useful is that the volumes are searchable. Fortunately the annual reports and the proceedings of the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners were widely sought after nationally and widely distributed. In old park board files, there are many cards and letters from individuals and institutions around the country requesting copies of the annual reports. Hathitrust has scanned most years of the park board’s annual reports and some proceedings up to 1923 either from the collections of the New York Public Library or the University of Michigan. The University of Minnesota also participates in Hathitrust.

“No other city gets out such artistic and complete records of its park work as does Minneapolis.”

Warren Manning’s magazine, Billerica (“The Fugitive Literature of the Landscape Art,” Vol. IV, March 1916, No. 10, Part 2), singled out the annual reports of the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners for praise. The article particularly recommended the Fourteenth (1896) and Eighteenth (1900) annual reports, which were “notable for their illustrations.”

Both reports were produced while William Watts Folwell was president of the park board. As a historian Folwell understood well the value of documenting the efforts of an organization such as the park board.

An illustration from the 1896 annual report praised by Manning

HathiTrust also allows you to create an account and establish your own “collections” from its vast catalog. It’s easy to set up a guest account. Here’s what I did: I put all available issues of the park board’s annual reports and proceedings, as well as most of the early books about Minneapolis history, such as Isaac Atwater’s and Horace Hudson’s histories, into a single “collection.” I can then search the collection for any terms I want. That means I can search for Lake Harriet or Powderhorn Park and find every reference to those park properties in park board documents—and other books—over many years. Such a capability saves hours of research because the park board annual reports and proceedings in the early years did not have indexes.

Annual reports are not available for some years in the Minneapolis park board’s first decade, but all annual reports 1895-1922 are available. HathiTrust also has many issues of the Minneapolis City Council proceedings, which provides for another layer of research. HathiTrust has also scanned many park board annual reports from 1923-1960. Due to copyright restrictions the full text of those reports is not available online, but a search will reveal if and how often terms do appear in those volumes. Not as helpful as full-view text searches, but still a big time-saver. You can then go straight to the pages you want in a library.

Give a try. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll be able to find. The digitization for HathiTrust was done by Google, but the collection is far more extensive than what is available at Google Books.

David C. Smith

Minneapolis Park History Resources: Maps

If you love history, you probably love maps. For students of Minneapolis history, including the history of the park system, two of the most fascinating maps are found at the website of the John R. Borchert Map Library at the University of Minnesota. Have a look at the digitized 1892 Minneapolis plat book and the 1903 Minneapolis plat book. Compare them to the city map at right that Horace Cleveland used to illustrate his “suggestions” for the Minneapolis park system in 1883. Search for your home, park, church, school; see how your neighborhood was created or has changed.

While your at the Borchert Libreary site be sure to investigate the aerial photos. Many excellent images of Minneapolis as it’s grown.

Warning: you could spend hours with these maps and photos. For me, they have the addicting power of video games. But the things you’ll discover! Such as: H. W. S. Cleveland owned a half-block of land in south Minneapolis in 1892. I know! Nobody cares! But it’s endlessly interesting for those curious about their surroundings and the people who created them.

If you have a favorite research tool or resource, let us know. Especially if it’s accessible while in pajamas.

David C. Smith