Nye’s Four Years Later: The puzzles of preserving valued places

Here’s a 2015 article I wrote on losing our much-loved Nye’s Polonaise lounge and polka bar in Minneapolis. It’s updated with new photos that show what happened four years later. This article originally appeared in the May-June 2015 issue of Architecture MN

Keeping Bar: Nye’s Polonaise Room

Four Years After Demolition: Revisiting Nye’s Polonaise Room

How can we save valued places whose value is more social than architectural?

By Frank Edgerton Martin

In December 2014, many Minneapolitans were shocked by news that Nye’s Polonaise Room—Northeast’s venerable piano lounge, Polish supper club, and polka bar—would be closing in 2015.

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Many of us have indelible memories of singing Christmas carols with Lou at the piano bar, ordering our first jumbo martini straight up with a twist, and dancing to the polka band with the blind drummer. And suddenly, the Nye’s site was slated for a 189-unit apartment tower with average monthly rents over $2,000. This is not the immigrant Northeast Minneapolis of old.

Why does historic preservation often save districts like Minneapolis’ North Loop but seem powerless to protect the individual places we most remember?

Preservation focused on buildings more than memory

Early American preservation efforts focused on grand landmarks, often homes and workplaces of the rich, designed by well-known architects.

There was little concern for vernacular architecture, factories, or farms. Nomination to the National Register of Historic Places and local designation were, and still are, largely tied to association with a period of architecture or a significant person. It still shapes a lot of policy today.

 

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Nye’s Polonaise Room, Minneapolis, circa 2015 with auction announcement signs.  Photo by David Bowman |  Bowmanstudio.com

 

Ironically, because preservation law is so geared to architecture, the best legal tool we had to save the Nye’s block was to protect two of its least important buildings in terms of social memory: the 1905 harness shop (at left) and the storefront bar building that  shown above on the right.

Nye’s was originally constructed in four buildings. These structures were listed as contributing to the St. Anthony Falls Historic District (SAFHD)—the city’s first such designation, listed in 1971. The wonderful Nye’s interior wasn’t listed as contributing, because it was too young to be considered officially “historic”.

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The old Nye’s bar building survives as a re-branded new Nye’s.

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Above and below. The Nye’s new interior is filled with “Meta”  self-conscious references to the original Nye’s Polonaise along with exposed brick walls. Something the original Nye’s would have never had. Nye’s never had to seem “cool”. It was loved for being itself.

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Five Strategies to think anew

With the puzzle of Nye’s and so many other local public places, the following are preservation strategies to consider for future planning.

1. Preserve History the Way It Was

Developers sometimes attempt to bend preservation guidelines by proposing to save only the facades of historic structures, as a kind of compromise solution. To make room for the tower on the Nye’s site, the developer, Schafer Richardson, working with Nye’s owners Rob and Tony Jacob, proposed demolishing the two newer buildings and moving the harness shop westward to sit next to the other older structure—the old home of the polka bar.

This approach creates a false history—an odd rearrangement of the past guided primarily by the need to win project approval.

2. Consider Interiors and Design from the Recent Past

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A byproduct of historic preservation being too narrowly focused on exteriors is that distinctive interiors are often overlooked. So are valued places under 50 years old—buildings ranging in scale and character from Porky’s drive-in restaurant in St. Paul to early examples of modern curtainwall glass buildings.

If studied today for inclusion in an historic district, Nye’s Polonaise Room, with its unique interior and rich social history, might be considered “contributing.” But soaring property values in the area are a real threat.

3. Support Affordable Homes for Valued Businesses

Even neighborhoods as lushly historic as Georgetown in Washington, DC, are dulled by uniformly high-end retail—an almost certain outcome for the redeveloped Nye’s block despite renderings that show the old “Chopin Dining” and “Nye’s Bar” signs remaining.

Character-filled legacy businesses like Nye’s and Kramarczuk’s add to the economic value of nearby properties, but rising property values make them an endangered species. There are tax credits for rehabilitating National Register buildings and others certified as contributing to an historic district. Should we also create tax incentives to retain these businesses and encourage new ones?

4. Manage Scale

National Register listing is important for developers’ preservation tax credits, but the legal power to preserve the character and affordability of local historic districts resides with local governments.

Developers and owners have the right to close valued businesses like Nye’s in buildings that they own. But cities have the right to landmark old buildings and limit building height through spot zoning in historic districts. Massive new projects can overwhelm the legacy buildings around them—even if they are “restored”.

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Above. The original proposed development placed the two historic buildings together as a kind of ornament on a tall tower and base. Fortunately, after much neighborhood opposition the owner and ESG architects developed a much better, smaller mid-rise solution shown.  Image ESG Architects

The real issue here is whether Minneapolis will enforce its own laws. If it doesn’t, developers will set the terms of the debate.

The current thinking assumes that large buildings are needed to preserve some of the old ones. “You need [to build] a tall building to have the scope to move and preserve the small buildings,” a leader of the Nicollet Island–East Bank Neighborhood Association told the Downtown Journal during the Nye’s debate around 2015.

Wrong. Recent urban history shows that any sound historic building in a booming area in Minneapolis or most cities will eventually find new life. And unique places like the old Nye’s add character and value to new residential developments.

5. Preserve Smaller Businesses and Affordable Retail Rents

The Nye’s puzzle calls for a new chapter in historic preservation, one that aims to better preserve affordability for small businesses and social memory for their customers and neighborhoods. Sometimes that means saying no to the next big tower—and working to ensure that the city does not become completely gentrified, as is happening in Manhattan, Seattle, and San Francisco.

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The original Nye’s supper club interior with glitter booths and chunk glass wall sconces. 

 

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Northeast Minneapolis is now thriving as an arts district. Many old businesses, like this bar, survive—creating a sense of layered history that themed projects can never have. Photo by the author. 

We need to create long-term economic and architectural preservation policies for historic districts that encourage legacy and small businesses to live on within future developments. Great cities find a way of weaving old and new.

Only then can we give one-of-a-kind polka bars the chance to survive—and future generations the opportunity to create new valued places of their own.

 

 

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.

 

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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

 

 

 

Small town parks—Rusticity

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Many 19th century midwestern towns created their own “beauty spots”—interpreting and highlighting the landscape according to the aesthetic ideals that they brought from the east coast and from Europe. This Rustic Bridge in Davenport, Iowa brings the 18th century English ideal of the “picturesque” to the American prairie. 

The circa 1910 postcard is from a book project that I am working on concerning the imposition of Euro-American landscape aesthetics on midwestern landscapes as Native American cultures and their understanding of the land were systematically displaced. 

Also picturesque, Chester Park preserves the northern Minnesota boreal forest in Duluth.

Chester Park Duluth

Humble Buildings Shape the City

Fewer than 5% of American Buildings are designed by architects. Here is a 2018 story I wrote on why these vernacular buildings are so important.

 

In praise of the humble midsize buildings that make the Twin Cities special

Ordinary, midsize buildings don’t often draw praise, but they make
our cities lively, livable and adaptable. 

Urban skylines are defined by soaring skyscrapers and landmark buildings visible from afar, but it’s really the smaller, humbler buildings around them that shape a city.

The IDS Center in Minneapolis and the State Capitol in St. Paul are civic signatures, designed by celebrated architects. But far more important in our daily lives are the commercial buildings — the stores, apartments, warehouses and offices — that originally filled out our downtowns and lined our main corridors like Lake Street and University Avenue.

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University Avenue NE in Minneapolis 

Urban planners call these structures “fabric buildings,” a term largely unknown to the general public. It’s time we learned what they are and just what they offer.

Virtually all of St. Paul’s Lowertown and the North Loop in Minneapolis are filled with two- to six-story buildings. Some are nondescript, but many were designed by architects and exquisitely detailed. Their real beauty is apparent when you see them together on the streets they frame. Although these commercial buildings were originally designed for manufacturing and warehouses, they have proved highly adaptable.

Lake Street in Minneapolis is a multigenerational case study in fabric buildings and their lasting importance.

Starting around 1890, Lake Street’s stores, offices and, eventually, car dealerships grew to create a rich architectural ensemble, which made the stretch from Uptown to the Mississippi River a great place for car “cruising.”

By the 1950s, young people found an evening of magic in Lake Street’s continuity of neon, bright storefronts and sidewalk vitality — all stemming from the perfectly ordinary buildings, theaters and small businesses that thrived there. Taken alone, these buildings were nothing special, but together these fabric buildings became a destination.

(The same could be said for Grand Avenue in St. Paul, which remains a shopping, business and restaurant hub today.)

But in the 1960s, places like Lake Street and University Avenue began to lose buildings to parking lots that fronted gas stations, muffler repair shops and banks — all of which were set back from the street, creating eerily exposed environments for pedestrians. On Lake Street, some blocks had so many parking lots that the street lost its unique draw and urban feel.

In the 1980s, cities encouraged economic revival through drive-up, one-story office and business parks, also with front-door parking. St. Paul transformed the Midway area with big-box stores such as Target, which was set even farther back from the street. This new chapter in commercial architecture ignored the lure, the continuity, the sense of community created by fabric buildings.

Catching up with the past

Fortunately, during the past 20 years, planners in the Twin Cities have grown to appreciate fabric buildings as affordable locations for small businesses, and their collective density draws visitors and enriches the pedestrian experience.

Both Minneapolis and St. Paul now encourage developers to learn to re-use fabric buildings and build new structures up to the sidewalk, just as they were a century ago.

There’s also a wave of new multiunit residential projects in the cities and older suburbs that function like fabric buildings. Because building codes allow less expensive wood construction up to five stories, many new apartments and condos are four to five stories tall, creating areas with buildings that are consistent in height and form.

And because of the need for housing, parking lots are being filled with new buildings that complement the older surviving buildings. The North Loop, Central Avenue NE., the 29th Midtown Greenway and Lake Street are filled with new examples.

American cities are starting to grow in population for the first time in 50 years. Thousands of old fabric buildings can be repurposed for the digital era, offering millennials an alternative to the postwar suburbs where many of them grew up.

But even more important, these buildings offer variety — in architectural period and style and in adaptability.

Great cities will continue to preserve and build architectural landmarks. But we also need to preserve and build a humble kind of architecture. We can never try to save all, or even most, of the fabric buildings in our cities. We are, however, finally learning how much they matter as cities evolve with every generation.

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

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. 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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