New England on the Praire

My new article for the Star Tribune—introduces a book that I’m writing on the settlement of the Great Plains and the overlay of Euro-American landscape aesthetics on land  quite recently inhabited by Native Americans

Beauty spots were likely born out of a desire to mimic East Coast village greens and wooded glens here on the prairie. Postcards of the parks, though often retouched with color and perhaps even edited to remove flaws, document an early and earnest civic pride.

Towns like Litchfield, Le Sueur, Owatonna and Mankato were eager to let the world know about the civilized public parks they had to offer.

Many town parks grew up along rivers and lakes, including Mankato’s Sibley Park, which boasted a racetrack and deer park. Located on the banks of the Minnesota River, it became a popular destination. But it wasn’t the only one in the area.

 

Blessed with blufflands, Mankato had beauty spots with sweeping river views, but also more urbane locales, such as Lincoln Park in downtown, and a Lovers Lane.

In Bemidji, the beauty spot was a lakeshore parkway that linked its downtown Carnegie Library to the state teachers college, which would later become Bemidji State University.

Shelter on the plains

In much of western and central Minnesota, geographic features tend to be subtle. Without dramatic river bluffs, dense woods or lakes, townspeople constructed local landmarks, many of which were reminiscent of their pasts.

In railroad towns on the prairie, such as Litchfield, residents carved out a sense of local character by creating formal town parks. They installed formal, linear walks and planted a canopy of trees, then used the surrounding buildings to create an urbane sense of enclosure.

Across the Upper Midwest, even the smallest towns built parks, with formal iron fountains imported from the East Coast and bandstands for summer concerts. Like Litchfield’s beauty spot, they served as sheltering public spaces that contrasted with the open prairie.

 

Olivia copyAuthor’s collection

In Renville County, the small town of Olivia planted a grove of trees as its early town park. Less costly than an ornamental park with formal fountains, the canopy of trees offered a rare place of enclosure and shade. The linear layout of the trees and central path to a wooden bandstand established a sense of order on the open land.

Higher aspirations, growing towns

A generation later, in the City Beautiful and Beaux Arts eras (1900-30), Midwestern towns began to build even grander, neoclassically inspired parks with pergolas, performance halls and amphitheaters.

Owatonna’s Central Park boasted a Craftsman-style bandstand and linear walks converging on an ornate, two-tier iron fountain.

In Red Wing, Broadway Park was nestled between churches and the neoclassical Sheldon Auditorium (one of the state’s most beautiful theaters). The triangular space was furnished with stone benches, planting beds and a fountain pool sheltered by a curving pergola. Now named John Rich Park, it remains one of the most beautiful small civic spaces in the country.

Borrowing from Europe

Many of the state’s oldest small town parks were, and continue to be, beautiful expressions of public space. But these beauty spots — many of which offered the reassurance of familiar landscapes — forced a European aesthetic on a “frontier” that had been inhabited for millennia.

Far away from larger cities, Minnesota’s small towns staked out a claim to settlement with remarkable works of landscape architecture and design. The towns’ founders were creating public parks for what they hoped would be a growing number of citizens, but they never understood the native cultures that came before them — people with a different sense of beauty and promise in the land.

Frank Edgerton Martin is a consulting writer for architecture and design firms and a historic landscape preservation planner.

 

 

 

Streetscapes: Celebrating Minnesota architecture

Streetscapes: Celebrating Minnesota architecture

 

 

 

Two Suprises: 1. Penny Postcards were an early kind of Photoshop and 2. Los Angeles was once a great streetcar city

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Postcard circa 1908. It’s hard to believe that downtown Los Angeles could be so urbane and romantic under a painted-in postcard full moon. This image comes from the time of “The Great White Way” when downtowns were brightly illuminated by the invention of the electric street lamps—shown here as Beaux Arts styled globe fixtures. 

NIMBY-ism at the original shopping mall

Here’s my commentary on a article in the Star Tribune about a suburban icon. This conflict exemplifies how many Americans hide their prejudices with superficial arguments. And they often come out when suburbs grow more dense.

Southdale logo

Original Southdale Logo from when the shopping mall opened in 1956. Alvin Lustig, the graphic designer, often worked with Southdale’s architect Victor Gruen. 

Edina leaders, residents at loggerheads on future development

City weighs its evolving footprint against residents’ resistance to apartment towers near Southdale.

By Miguel Otárola Star Tribune

The proposed seven-story 7250 France Avenue apartment tower has been redesigned several times, and it continues to draw opposition from surrounding ne

The proposed seven-story 7250 France Avenue apartment tower has been redesigned several times, and it continues to draw opposition from surrounding neighborhoods.  DJR Architecture.

Commentary

Miguel Otárol’s recent article tells a classic story of NIMBYism coupled with public ignorance of urban and transit history. It’s a story happening all over the country.

Victor Gruen, the architect of Southdale, the world-famous original shopping mall in Edina, Minnesota, envisioned a suburban future when people could walk and find “culture” with active street life.

Southdale Center exterior, Edina, MN c1956

Southdale in the late 1950s

He originally hoped to design such shopping centers in city neighborhoods with density and transit, but the 1950s/60s market did not support that.

Now it does.

The Southdale district today is a prime inner-ring redevelopment area where empty-nesters, the young, and the elderly can all live together…strengthening the district’s stores, and linking to Bus Rapid Transit or other options. Rather than creating more car traffic, such Transit Oriented Development is the best way to reduce it in the future. But some neighbors foresee doom. And, worse, declining property values.

Hidden Motives

Mixed-use, three-to-five story projects reduce sprawl, driving times, and create more tax revenue. So why the frenzied neighbor outcry?

They proclaim the looming threat of greater traffic. The loss of trees. Children read from written scripts at public meetings—claiming to like trees more than buildings.

But the real issue here is not traffic or any kind of greenery in a commercial area richly paved with asphalt. As this Star Tribune article documents, traffic has dropped “from an average of 14,500 vehicles a day on 70th Street west of France in 1996, to 9,200 in the same area in 2015, according to city numbers.”

Across the country, “traffic” is the argument of choice against any kind of change. It’s made by those with little knowledge of urban history, real estate economics, and planning innovations nationwide. For them, the only life worth living is the one they have.

But what these neighbors really fear is change itself.

They fear the social implications of greater density. They fear that people who don’t look like they do might move in close by. They fear the implications of economic access to their realm.

Urban Economics

In one of the most affluent metropolitan regions in the world, Twin Citians can no longer expect to live in close-in suburbs on large lots without any kind of added density.

When it opened in the late 1950s, Southdale lay right at the city’s southern edge, surrounded by farms and woodlands. Now, the region’s southern boundary is 20 miles to the south. That’s the real reason we have traffic.

Democracies and vibrant economies offer people choices—options in residential design, neighborhoods, and how to move around. Our free discourse concerning future growth breaks down when we use outdated claims to mask our deeper fears and prejudices.

We Like our Neighbors

I know many Minnesotans who actually want more neighbors. They’ve even formed an advocacy group here in Minneapolis appropriately named—Neighbors for More Neighbors.

With any luck, other towns will form their own chapters soon. And let’s hope that Edina, Minnesota—might be one of them.

 

Southdalelight

One of Southdale’s original Sputnik era light fixtures. Some of these vast parking areas can be filled in with new housing, creating the kind of suburban village that Victor Gruen envisioned.

 

[UPDATE: On June 5, the following day, the Edina City Council by vote rejected the housing project.]

Neighbors for More Neighbors:

https://medium.com/neighbors-for-more-neighbors

#n4mn

 

#Southdale

#Victorgruen

 

Design for Winter Character in Cities

 

Photo 2. Bryn Mawr South facing

…an expanded version of a Streetscapes article for the Star Tribune written during the winter spectacle of the Super Bowl in Minneapolis

 

Design for the Cold

Winter Streetscapes don’t have to be Bleak—Five strategies for winter character

FRANK EDGERTON MARTIN  February 17, 2018

Minnesota promotes itself as the “Bold North”. But our designs for winter streets and public spaces are weak and timid.

We have some of the most dramatic seasonal weather in the country. Summers can be steam baths and wind chills can fall to fifty degrees below zero. But you’d never know it from visiting many grocery store parking lots, bus and transit stops, and even high-design arts and civic projects.

All too often, civic landscapes like the Minneapolis Central Library on Nicollet Mall are designed for perfect weather. They photograph beautifully in the warmer months but are planned with little regard for winter color, texture, and the force of wind. Stepped back from the Nicollet Mall, the Central Library’s main entry plaza bakes in the summer sun. In winter, with its bosque of stark and leafless locust trees in front of Dunn Brothers, the entry is devoid of shelter from the wind.

You can find such bleak winter spaces throughout newer suburbs—in open treeless parking lots with no shelter from the northwest wind, exposed entries to new high schools, big box stores with no windows and the ubiquitous beige earth tones of houses and commercial buildings.

Why do Minnesotans let this happen? The sheltered practicality of Nordic farmsteads, towns, and cities has been lost to American wealth and technological prowess. It’s all too easy to build large climate-controlled settings and car-based cities where few people have to go outside to walk to a store or wait for a bus or train.

But there are time-tested solutions to thrive in winter. Architect David Salmela is a third-generation Finnish-American based in Duluth who combines older ways of building with modern materials for northern climates. Salmela is one of Minnesota’s most celebrated architects—yet he never received a formal architecture degree. His training happened while growing up on the Range.

“My father was born in a sauna,” he says when talking about design for the North. “The biggest lesson from Nordic architecture is to break a building into parts.” Finnish farmsteads consist of many buildings because people build as time and money allow.

“My father was born in a sauna because that was the first and most essential structure the family put up on their land in Vermillion Lake Township. By making several small buildings over time, you can have more windows and sunlight.” Salmela says. Oriented to the arc of the winter sun, such incremental farmsteads also grow to shelter interior courts and work areas. They offer powerful lessons for cities today.

The Twin Cities don’t need to tear out skyway systems to bring more people to the streets. We need more reasons to walk along them such as shops and stores made possible by affordable rents. We also need to learn how to design winter streetscapes as a celebration of all of the senses.

Here are five strategies to consider…..

1. Understand the Movement of Sun and Wind

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The sunny steps at Senate Square. Photo by David Salmela.

Salmela describes how Finnish towns and cities are filled with buildings wrapped around interior courtyards and protected passageways, accessible from the street. In the Twin Cities, we can’t change the orientation of our downtown streets, but we can create sheltered outdoor rooms for a retreat from gusting winds.

Sometimes simple wind-blocking walls or glass panels can do the trick to optimize solar gain. Ideally, sheltered microclimates can be located on the north side of city streets where they catch the low winter sun. At the civic scale, Salmela cites Senate Square in Helsinki as an example where all of these elements come together. Set atop a hill, the Helsinki Cathedral looks south and into the harbor. University buildings shelter the plaza below. With their vistas, sun, and shelter, the Cathedral’s broad front steps are a nationally-known place for gathering.

Senate Square by Salmela

A national gathering-place. Senate Square in Helsinki. Photo by David Salmela.

 

2. Plant for Winter Character

Photo 1. Cedars and red twig dogwoods

Cedars and red twig dogwoods on the new Nicollet Mall

 

Forget the locusts, the re-design of Nicollet Mall shows a wealth of trees and shrubs that are beautiful and rich in winter character. Field Operations, the landscape architects from Philadelphia introduced several plantings, such as indigenous Eastern Red Cedars and Red Twig Dogwoods rarely seen downtown. Winter color and berries can often come from understory plantings such as tall native and ornamental grasses and a variety of berry-retaining viburnums.

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Belgian landscape architect, Petra Blaise, planted red pines—the state tree—at Walker Art Center

 

3. Create Beacons of Light for Long Nights

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Postcard detail of ore boat entering Duluth Harbor, circa 1915

In cold climates when it gets dark by mid-afternoon, fire and light are an ancient lure. Salmela describes the welcoming quality of glowing storefront windows and displays along Nordic streets. Warm glowing colors in signs, spotlighting, and illuminated public art can also highlight architectural detail and create variety block to block.

 

4. Winter Fragrances and Atmosphere

Dehn Central park

Central Park in the 1930s. Print by Minnesotan, Adolf Dehn

 

Think of the moments when you discover the smells of wood smoke while on a neighborhood walk or visiting a city park. They wake us up and change our mood. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire have such a memorable effect that they merited a song. From food trucks to street vendors, we can bring these winter scents to cities.

5. Color is our Winter Friend

Phoro 4. mural and colored dentelles in Uptown

Mural and colored dentelles at the Rainbow Building in Uptown

Why are we so afraid of color? In the Powderhorn neighborhood, several Mexican-American businesses are painted in bold yellows and reds. In Finland, David Salmela notes the presence of architectural color too, “but with more subtle ochers and orange tones.” On the southern edge of to Gold Medal Park, Salmela designed the headquarters for Izzy’s Ice Cream as a counterpoint to the Guthrie Theatre. Izzy’s is a mostly white low-slung building punctuated with bold patches of color that not only help to meet city code for façade variation but also visually sparkle—especially in winter when we need it most of all.

 

 

  

 

Winedgo Park: a rare amphitheater design by William Gray Purcell

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Circa 1930 postcard showing the complex shade canopy system that Purcell designed based on Roman precedents. The fabric could extend over the much of the seating area.

On the banks of the Rum River in Anoka, Minnesota, lies the long-neglected Windego Park Amphitheater designed by the celebrated Prairie School architect William Gray Purcell (July 2, 1880 – April 11, 1965). My story below for the Winter 2018 issue of Minnesota History outlines a remarkable design and the influential music educator behind it. 

 

Landmarks: Windego Park Open-Air Theater

By, Frank Edgerton Martin

Completed in 1915 on the banks of the Rum River in Anoka, Minnesota—the Windego Park Open Air Theater is a rare work of open-air design by noted Minneapolis Prairie School architect William Gray Purcell. Gracefully set into a thirty-foot hill, Purcell’s design accommodated audiences of up to 1600 people on curving tiers cascading down to an orchestra pit and elevated stage. Beyond Purcell’s design and role, Anoka’s amphitheater is nationally significant in a larger story of City Beautiful planning and the drive for universal arts education in the Progressive Era.

Windengo Sheet 1 top

Purcell & Elmslie Plan View for Amphitheater. Northwest Architectural Archives.

 

In Ojibwe belief systems, the “Windego” was a terrifying cannibalistic giant who could never be satiated. From the late 19th century into the 1920s, there were rumors of Windego sightings in Roseau, Minnesota, possibly an influence on the naming of Windego Park. The ensuing amphitheater was the brainchild of Anoka resident Thaddeus P. Giddings, one of the most important American music educators of the twentieth century. As music department supervisor for the Minneapolis Public Schools, Giddings believed that “community singing” could bring music to all through participatory learning. Just as he was promoting funding for the amphitheater in Anoka, Giddings was also working with Theodore Wirth and the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners to bring live performances and “community sings” to the Minneapolis parks and schools. By the 1920s, parks across the Minneapolis including Riverview, Logan, and Farview were holding evening sings—often attracting thousands of people.

But Giddings’ vision for arts engagement at Windego was his first large-scale success. When it opened over an August 1915 weekend, the outdoor theater proved to be an instant hit—and continued to draw thousands of visitors over the decades to come. In a 1916 talk to music educators, Giddings described the amphitheater on a summer night:

The stage is very lovely when lighted for a performance, or when the moon is glittering on the river beyond…. It is one of the most graceful places imaginable in which to sing or speak…. The steepness and curve of the seats, the orchestra pit, the river behind. Many well- known singers and speakers have appeared here and all praise the perfect acoustics. The softest tone is heard in the most distant seat.

Beyond Purcell’s intimate canopied design, it was Giddings’ ability to plan musical and theater events that made the open-air theater so popular. Here Giddings honed his skills as a community organizer for the arts—a talent that led him, in 1936, to become the founding director of the Interlochen Music College in Traverse City, Michigan—now one of the most celebrated arts camps in the world. Giddings’ departure left a void in Anoka and interest in Windego Park events declined, largely coming to a halt in the 1940s. Despite several restoration attempts by the non-profit Windego Park Society (founded in 1997), the amphitheater continues to deteriorate and is now fenced off—an unfortunate condition for a rare historic resource rich in stories of education, design, and populism in the arts.

Windego

Fenced off and deteriorating, the Windego Park Amphtheater, summer 2017.

 

Frank Edgerton Martin holds a BA in Philosophy from Vassar College and an MSLA from the University of Wisconsin in Cultural Landscape Preservation and Landscape History. He is a design and preservation journalist, a historic landscape planning consultant, and specialized writer for architectural firms.

References:

Gebhard, David, and Patricia Gebhard. Purcell & Elmslie: Prairie Progressive Architects. Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, 2006.

P. Giddings, “An Experience in Community Singing,” MNSC Journal of Proceedings (McKeesport, Pennsylvania: The Conference, 1916), pp. 78-81. (Archives Anoka County Historical Society).

 

@Interlochenarts

Streetscapes: Cemeteries were America’s first public parks and public landscape architecture

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Above: the gateway and chapel at Montefiore Cemetery in south Minneapolis.

Two Twin Cities Cemeteries document Minnesota’s waves of immigration and regional history.

By, FRANK EDGERTON MARTIN

Special to the Star Tribune, December 16, 2017

 

Cemeteries tell stories of social change, urban growth, and design history. Many pastoral 19th century cemeteries—such as Lakewood in Minneapolis and Oakland in St. Paul—are living narratives dating back to the founding of American landscape architecture and how cemeteries became the first public parks.

The first Jewish cemetery in Minneapolis grew out of a crisis. After the Civil War, German, Bohemian and Hungarian Jews began settling in Minneapolis. In the 1850s, a small Jewish community had already been established St. Paul—building synagogues, schools, and burial grounds. When a death occurred among the newer Minneapolis settlers, families had to travel across the Mississippi River by horse-drawn carriage for Jewish burial at Mt. Zion cemetery, north of the state capitol.

Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman, senior rabbi at Temple Israel, tells the story of a winter night around 1875 when a Minneapolis funeral procession to St. Paul got stranded in a blizzard and the entire party (including the deceased) had to seek shelter overnight. Jewish tradition requires that burial occur as soon as possible after death; and because of the storm delay, the mourners had to wait another day.

A cemetery closer to home was clearly needed. Thus, in 1876, a group of Minneapolis Jews founded Montefiore Cemetery on Third Avenue and 42nd Street South. “It just shows the power of community to meet a need,” Zimmerman says. “That was two years before they even founded Temple Israel!”

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In 1888, Montefiore hired Septimus Burton to design an elegant Richardsonian Romanesque-style chapel and arched gateway. Built of red brick with a rusticated brownstone base and accents, Montefiori’s chapel reflected high-style gatehouse design from the time for estates, colleges, and cemeteries. In 1950, the rolling 4.5 acre cemetery was renamed Temple Israel Memorial Park.

The “Rural” Cemetery

In the decade before the Civil War, crowding in city churchyard cemeteries sparked a new “rural cemetery” movement focusing on scenic hilly country sites with long views and trees. In 1853, St. Paul civic leaders founded the non-denominational Oakland Cemetery on 40-acres of rolling oak woodlands just north of today’s state capitol. A year later, they developed the first ten acres in a geometric and formal layout typical of the time.

 

Monuments set amid Oakland's oak woods

Oakland’s historic pastoral landscape expresses the topography and has become an urban arboretum for hundreds of mature trees.  

In the winter of 1872, landscape architect Horace Cleveland visited the Twin Cities to promote a transformative vision for new cities on the frontier—arguing that gridded and ornamental landscapes were unsuited for the open landscapes and progressive spirit of the Midwest. Rather than mimicking the formal public spaces of Europe, new cities, parks, and cemeteries should become organic expressions of midwestern ecology. Cities should be planned at a regional scale with parkways following topography and parks spread out along rivers and sited in hilly areas and ravines.

With their formal ten-acre landscape nearly filled up, Oakland’s trustees heard the message and awarded Cleveland his first Minnesota commission to create a master plan for the rest of their land—by then totaling 80-acres.

Bob Shoenrock at Oakland Cemetery

Robert Schoenrock at Oakland Cemetery. His family has run a monument business across Jackson Street from the Cemetery for four generations. Like his father, Schoenrock serves as the Cemetery’s Director. 

“Horace Cleveland absolutely hated straight lines,” says Oakland’s Director, Robert Shoenrock. Cleveland’s original site plan, now archived at the Minnesota Historical Society, called for a rolling landscape with lanes curving along the topography and leading through a series of outdoor rooms framed by tree canopies. Over the next 25 years, Cleveland would go on to design the renowned park systems of the Twin Cities based on these principles—at a much larger scale.

New Generations

During the 19th century, Oakland Cemetery became the burial place for the city’s elite including the state’s first governors Henry Sibley and Alexander Ramsey, senators, and leading families such as the Driscolls, Wilders, and the Weyerhausers. They built impressive marble monuments that stand out today under Oakland’s dense canopy of oaks, basswoods, and maples. There are many spots where the surrounding neighborhoods completely disappear.

Although many cemeteries like Oakland appear natural, they are intentionally-designed landscapes. Preserving their character requires long-term management of roads, iron fences, urns, and tree plantings. In the 1960s and 70s, these features at Oakland were threatened as new burials and cemetery maintenance declined. Fortunately, in the 1980s, Hmong families brought new revenue and life to Oakland by purchasing hundreds of lots each year.

Oakland's new generation of Hmong graves

Reflecting Minnesota’s recent immigrants, Oakland Cemetery now has hundreds of Hmong burials and tells a history of the “Secret War” in Laos.

Shoenrock says that today, dozens of Hmong families visit the graves of family members every weekend, leaving food for the deceased having a family picnics of their own. Every Monday, Oakland’s grounds crews dutifully gather up these offerings before they spoil or blow away. The newer gravestones are etched with portraits of the deceased—some of whom were prominent generals in the “Secret War” in Laos supported by the US. There was also an area set aside for African American, Civil War veterans, and the city’s early firefighters. 70,000 people buried at Oakland today—and its diversity will continue to grow.

The Firefighters Memorial at Oakland Cemetery

The Firefighter’s Memorial at Oakland Cemetery

Although just five acres in size, Temple Israel’s Memorial Garden is a living cultural landscape in the city. Rabbi Zimmerman notes that, “every year we take our 7th graders there to study Jewish burial traditions, the inscriptions on the stones, and the Temple’s history.”

Now engulfed by urban growth, such older rural cemeteries bridge the past and future with headstone birthdates dating to the 18th century and reserves of plots for coming generations. Looking ahead, Rabbi Zimmerman say she recently purchased two plots at Temple Israel’s Memorial Garden. “I gave them to myself as a present for my 50th birthday,” she happily explains.

All photos by Frank Edgerton Martin