Winedgo Park: a rare amphitheater design by William Gray Purcell


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.


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.


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).



Beauty Spots: The framing of nature and urbanity in Midwestern towns


Red Wing Broadway Park

Broadway Park in Red Wing Minnesota. Postcard circa 1925.

In 19th century midwestern and High Plains towns, there was a natural urge to create enclosed and urbane settings as an escape from the surrounding open landscape. The history of their city parks tells a story of the of the desire to create “beauty spots”—places of geographic fantasy and a kind of “paradise” on the plains.

A generation later, in the City Beautiful and Beaux Arts eras (1900-30), midwestern towns began to build even grander, neo-classically inspired settings with pergolas, performance halls, and amphitheaters. Surrounded by churches and the neo-classical Sheldon Auditorium, Broadway Park in Red Wing, Minnesota may be one of the most beautiful small civic spaces in the country.

Postcards show how towns wanted their parks to be seen by others. Though retouched with color and perhaps some early “photoshopping” to remove flawed elements—they document civic aspiration and pride.

The following images capture the range of town oasis parks from the very formal to the rustic. This page will continue to be updated.



Set on the edge of the transition to the tall grass prairie in western Minnesota, the city of Morris began as a railroad town with few trees and flat open vistas. They began building parks—as seen here with City Park still in its rough-cut early years. Postcard circa 1930.


Orklyn Park Lake City

City Park and Fountain Rice Lake, WI

Rice Lake’s City Park combines the European formality of a tiered fountain and symmetrical planning with the curvilinear shoreline and vistas of Rice Lake.


Litchfield Central Park



City Park Decorah, IA

City Park Decorah, Iowa. The “rustic style” of bridges and buildings relied on local materials and highlighted regional topography.



Poised on a hillside that was once the Lake Superior western bank, Duluth, Minnesota has a remarkable parks system with rustic beauty spots and trails following streams, ravines, and creeks.



Pine Walk at Monastery Dubuque, IA

Pine Walk at Monastery Dubuque, Iowa.  The Rule of Saint Benedict describes monks  as “lovers of the place.” Building on this appreciation of locality and the need for windbreaks, many monasteries, cemeteries, and campuses planted dramatic allees of pines for wind shelter and walks.


All titles, text, and captions copyright Frank Edgerton Martin, 2018.



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


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

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


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!”


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

Rethinking what “Downtown” really means



—Drawing by Gilbert Osmond, c. 1956


My recent article for the Star Tribune challenges the idea that “downtowns” must be a compact core of commerce surrounded by freeways.

To become a livable downtown, Minneapolis needs to return to its roots as a collection of neighborhoods

By Frank Edgerton Martin Special to the Star Tribune. November 10, 2017

The words we use to describe cities — such as, “downtown”, “central business district” or even “city center” — contain assumptions about what should happen there, who should live there, and how the area should look and feel. We rarely question what we mean when we talk about downtown, especially when it comes to Minneapolis.

It’s time to do so.

Our definition of “Downtown” is preventing us from creating a truly urbane, equitable and 24-hour city — a civic landscape where people live, work and play in the central city and surrounding neighborhoods


Loring Park’s downtown vista.  The Loring neighborhood was filled with pedestrian scale buildings, stores, residential hotels, and churches that flowed into the business and retail core. Linen postcard from the mid-1930s.

In the early 20th century, Minneapolis had a more connected, cohesive feel. You could live in a neighborhood like Stevens Square, which is close to the center of the city, and walk to work downtown.

Along the way, you’d pass from single-family homes to apartment hotels to clusters of small businesses and offices, with the buildings growing larger and more densely spaced the closer to downtown you got.


Historic apartment architecture in Loring Park

Now Stevens Square — like many other nearby neighborhoods — is cut off from downtown by a tangle of freeways. And while the city’s skyscrapers are visible for miles, the downtown area is disconnected from the rest of the city.

Cities across the country have been facing a similar problem and trying different tactics to keep their downtowns vital.

Portland, Oregon, for example, is celebrated for reintroducing streetcars downtown. Some planners, looking to invigorate Minneapolis, say Portland should be our model. But it’s not the streetcars that have made Portland so successful: It’s that city’s transit systems, which weave together the nearby neighborhoods and make car-free living possible.

There are no Downtowns in Europe


Downtown is an American term, coined in early 19th century Manhattan. The city started on the island’s southern tip. The only direction it could grow was northward (or “up” on maps). “Uptown” (or Upper Manhattan) became a primarily residential area, while downtown was all about commerce, an association that has stuck.

Some cities, including Philadelphia, never adopted the downtown moniker, retaining the more European Center City name for its core. But as newer cities emerged in the west, most embraced the commercial downtown idea, including Minneapolis and St. Paul.

After World War II, this concept of downtown shaped freeway planning across the country as well as in the Twin Cities. As a result, Interstate 94 cut off the State Capitol and surrounding neighborhoods from downtown St. Paul. And I-94 and Interstate 35W also severed several neighborhoods from downtown Minneapolis — and from each other. For both cities, the legacy of interwoven, walkable neighborhoods began to vanish.

Propaganda for Freeways. This circa 1958 flier promotes Jet Age transport wrapping downtown Minneapolis with monorails and freeways. Of note: All vehicles had fins. Minneapolis History Collection

Ironically, one of the fastest growing residential areas in Minneapolis today, the North Loop, would have been cut off from the core had the ring of freeways around downtown been completed.

Citizen protests stopped that final link, but as late as the 1970s, the city’s Metro Center ’85 plan assumed that the North Loop and much of today’s East Town would remain industrial.

According to that plan, downtown Minneapolis should become a “compact core” with skyways tied to surrounding parking ramps. However, seeing cities as fortresses and freeways as a way to bring workers and shoppers into the city from far-flung suburbs is outdated.

Rethinking the future

Rather than assuming that the car-based design of the city is here to stay, we should consider how we live — and how we want to live. Public subsidies for parking, roads, and expanding freeways should be a choice, not a mandate.

We don’t necessarily need to import a costly streetcar system like Portland’s or replace all cars and roadways. Instead, we need to ask: What kind of transportation system can restore the web of neighborhoods that once defined the core of Minneapolis and St. Paul?

In Baltimore, transportation subsidies now fund free circulating buses that are revitalizing a vast network of commercial, cultural and residential areas from the Johns Hopkins Medical Center to the Inner Harbor and Fort McHenry. A simple bus system has woven a larger area of the city together for residents and tourists alike.

We can make a choice to reintegrate relatively diverse and affordable neighborhoods like Phillips and Marcy-Holmes into downtown Minneapolis. The rich fabric of the city’s older neighborhoods — from Dinkytown to Sumner — creates an urban environment of greater choices and varied experiences available for downtown’s residents.

It’s time to determine what we want downtown to mean.

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



From Memory to Memorial—a review

Cover image for From Memory to Memorial: Shanksville, America, and Flight 93 By J. William Thompson


From Memory to Memorial: Shanksville, America, and Flight 93

By, J. William Thompson


This compelling new book is a model for narrative non-fiction writing about landscape architecture,  9/11—and specifically,  how the community of Shanksville, Pennsylvania moved from grief to building a lasting memorial.

As the former editor of Landscape Architecture magazine, J. William Thompson is one of the leading design writers in the country. Moving beyond a standard magazine feature style, he builds on the fact-based storytelling tradition of Truman Capote, John Hershey, and Tony Hiss to give readers the sense that they are part of the story unfolding around them—that they are rooted in a place and community.

Starting with that September morning in 2001 when United Flight 93 crashed deep into the ground on the edge of Shanksville, Thompson traces the years as the town and the families of passengers from all over the world forged a memorial of healing and long-term acceptance.

Ever since the controversies over Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial, we have known that creating memorials that satisfy everyone is almost impossible in an increasingly pluralistic nation. There are no longer universal symbols for honor, patriotism, and heroism. And this diversity and debate played out in Shanksville.

But, Thompson’s remarkable narrative also shows how— even though Americans interpret symbols and memory differently—there are moments when we find a process to overcome old divisions and to move on.

For this reason alone, Thompson’s book deserves to become a lasting part of college reading lists for courses in design, art history, architecture, and journalism—just to name a few.


J. William Thompson,

From Memory to Memorial: Shanksville, America, and Flight 93

Keystone Press/University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016

200 pages
5.5″ × 8.5″
26 b&w illustrations/3 maps

#memorials  #memory  #9/11  #landscapearchitecture

Parkways that Unite Us

Minneapolis city parks evolved from a master plan to link people, places

Our city parks were designed to be connected — to each other and to us.

Farview, Powderhorn, and Loring parks are keystones in a remarkable vision for the Minneapolis park system.

In 1883, landscape architect H.W.S Cleveland designed these three Minneapolis parks in his master plan. He also he designed parkways to connect the parks, which were then on the outskirts of the city. The names of those parkways will undoubtedly surprise you: Lake Street, Lyndale Avenue, Hennepin Avenue, and 26th Avenue N.


horace-clevelands-map copy1883 parks plan following the existing city grid. Farview Park is shown located on the northwest corner of the proposed parkways. From the collection of the Hennepin History Museum.


Farview, which Cleveland located on one of the city’s highest points, formed the northwest corner of his park system, at the junction of 26th and Lyndale Avenues N. The park was worthy of its moniker: Farview’s vistas of downtown and the riverfront are still spectacular today.

Because it was then a remote location, and had hilly terrain, the Minneapolis Park Board was able buy the 21 acres for Farview at one-third of the cost per acre of the land for Central Park (later called Loring Park), which Cleveland also designed.

Finding lower-cost land was a smart strategy for building a citywide park system. As park historian David C. Smith noted, “ … Cleveland often said that some of the most desirable land for parks — hills, ravines and riverbanks — were often those parcels that were ill suited to other uses.”

Powderhorn Park 1892 original plan

From the collection of the Hennepin History Museum.

Cleveland’s elegant watercolor plans of his designs for Loring and Farview parks, as well as a rendering of Powderhorn Park, represent some of the finest American park designs of the 19th century. But it’s Cleveland’s concept for the parkways connecting them that created a model for tying together people and green spaces across the entire region.

In the late 1880s, Cleveland’s vision expanded to St. Paul, combining the Twin Cities in a region he called “the United Cities.” He planned for parkways on both sides of the Mississippi River and stronger connections from West River Parkway to Summit Avenue.

Cleveland’s plans set the foundation for one of the world’s finest city park systems. Over the decades, the parks have changed and adapted, but they continue to unite what has become a sprawling metro region of more than 3 million people.

Parks and Recreation

Originally, Cleveland had intended that Lyndale and Hennepin avenues be park connections. But by the early 1900s, commercial growth along those thoroughfares eroded their parkway character. By 1905, the Park Board shifted to new connecting parkways — along Minnehaha Creek, the Mississippi River, Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles.

The parks themselves also changed.

In 1906, Theodore Wirth was named superintendent of Minneapolis parks. Wirth, who was born in Switzerland, grew up playing winter sports and hiking in the Alps. He thought the parks needed to welcome more physical activities all year long.

He created recreation centers, which lured city residents, many of whom were first- and second-generation immigrants who spoke a range of languages. Then and now, the parks are places where cultures blend.

Take Farview Park as an example. The neighborhood around the park was once largely Jewish, later African-American. Over the past 30 years, new immigrant groups have continued to move into the neighborhood, including Mexicans and Ecuadorians, Hmong families, and most recently East Africans.

Despite its hills, Farview’s northern edge is flat enough for a large sports field. Once upon a time, kids played baseball and football there and skated on the ice rinks in winter.

These days, you’ll still find kids playing flag football, soccer and basketball.

“You see a lot of different groups playing sports,” said Farview’s recreation director, Huy Nguyen.

What gives Nguyen the greatest satisfaction is when kids from different cultures start to play together, to share their varied games.

Too many of us, however, have never been to Farview Park, even though it’s arguably Cleveland’s best designed park in the city. We rarely travel beyond our own neighborhood parks and the popular Chain of Lakes. In a relatively segregated city, we too infrequently interact with communities of other cultures. Farview lies in the middle of the North Side, which has been a minority community for more than 50 years.

Cleveland had a vision of a park system that tied people, as well as green spaces, together. Well planned, well maintained and well programmed parks set the stage for cross-cultural experiences — no matter what the cultural makeup of the city’s residents might be.

We need to support the park system that Cleveland envisioned, so that it continues to provide a connection to nature and a vibrant connection to one another.

Frank Edgerton Martin is a Minneapolis-based writer and landscape historian.

Regional History and Public Design—before designing for the future, it helps to know the past




Above. Two contrasting views of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, June 2017


Impact Design in the Twin Cities

June 7, 2017

Link: Impact Design Hub

by: Frank Edgerton Martin

The following is a story that I just completed on the new idea of “public design”. This idea is hard to define—and I think needs to be. Like “Sustainability” and so many other words, good ideas can be watered-down. So it’s essential that well-meaning design trends and ideas be placed in historic contexts. You can’t do any kind of service design in any city without knowing its history…. 

You can explore more about “public design” at Impact Design Hub where this piece is posted along with other profiles of the Twin Cities. Thanks to David Dewayne—IDH’s competent editor.

Minneapolis and St. Paul share rich legacies of innovation in public interest design. They lie at the center of a geographically immense and low-density metropolitan region spanning roughly ten counties and seventy miles to the north and south. One reason for this sprawl is that many residents moved to “the Cities” from rural Minnesota. They preferred the large lots of the post-war suburbs that were booming at the time. And land was cheap.

The region is home to one of the highest capita numbers of Fortune 500 companies in the country. Some of them, like General Mills, served national and international markets as early as the 1890s. Almost all of them—3M, Medtronic, Ecolab—require highly trained workforces; and they have a history of supporting education.

One of the most remarkable civic stories here dates to 1946 when the Dayton family, owners of the department store chain that would grow into Target, began to donate 5% of their pre-tax profits to local charities ranging from healthcare to the arts. Within a few years, many other leading businesses, including large banks and insurance companies joined “the 5% club” too. The result was a burgeoning of the art and history museums, grants for artists, theatre groups, and other non-profits groups that continues today.

Yet, there’s a hidden regional history here too—narratives dating to 1819 when the federal government established a strategic fort at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers to control the new “Northwest” frontier. Fort Snelling was designed to anchor federal military operations for “Indian Removal” across the Upper Midwest. It was from here that George Custer launched his expedition that met a fatal end at Little Big Horn in 1876.


Early 20th century romanticized view of Fort Snelling.

Fourteen years earlier, after the Dakota-Indian War of 1862, over 1500 women, children, and elderly tribal members were incarcerated on the floodplain below the fort during a brutal winter. Roughly 150 of them died in captivity.

These are narratives of inequity, class conflict, and prejudice that we rarely tell. Owning up to the fullness of this past offers powerful insights for public design in the region today. They remind us why, in this relatively isolated and often cold place, we have distinctive social challenges—and perhaps, a special flair in solving them.


New Designs for Storytelling

G4144.T89E63 1899.S75 2F

1899 bicycling routes in the Twin Cities. Today the region is a national leader in bike travel—despite the winters. 

Public designers in the Twin Cities are varied in their training, audiences, strategies, and tools to create social impact. They include architects, public artists, a state employee seeking to end homelessness, and a narrative designer seeking to write new pathways to racial equity.

What unites them is that they help people to tell forgotten stories or share new ones. Through participatory design and conversation, they empower others to find a home for their particular voices.

Today, in a state that is 80% white, Voices for Racial Justice exposes hidden structures. VRJ works with communities of color not just “be at the table”—but to “lead the way toward a more inclusive and equitable Minnesota.” But you can’t lead a conversation if you can never share your unique experiences.

Ashley Fairbanks makes this happen as VRJ’s Director of Narrative and Network Building—a title that she created to convey her purpose. In a superbly-written 2016 article for the Twin Cities Planet—“What one Native woman thinks everyone should know about Native people,” Fairbanks sheds light on her distinct perspective as a member of the White Earth Nation. She brings to life the challenges and the sense of burden that many Native Americans face in explaining their cultures:

“In organizing circles, there is a commonly accepted idea that you never have to be anyone’s teacher. As an Anishinaabe woman trying to do change-making work, I’ve never felt like I have that option. There are so few of us, that if we don’t share our narrative, who will? If only half of us graduate from high school, how do we get our stories out there? If only 13 percent of us graduate from college, how much burden do we have to rely on that 13 percent to always be the ones to tell our story? To always be the ones at the table?”

The role of being a “spokesperson” for a misunderstood culture is something that most Euro-Americans never know, or even consider. Yet Fairbanks is a gifted communicator who does just that. Having received grants and fellowship from both arts and policy organizations, Fairbanks describes herself as a “public artist” and “interdisciplinary designer”. She designs activities and public events for VRJ that foster idea sharing, writing, and expression. She crosses disciplinary boundaries to build social connections and to reveal participants’ stories of structural exclusion along with future pathways to overcome it.

One message for public interest designers across the country is that it’s good to have groups like Voices on your team. As advocates for neglected viewpoints, they can make projects from public art events to neighborhood planning much richer. Storytellers like Fairbanks can teach both practitioners and their public clients how to communicate through stories. In this way, they can build more personal bridges of communications in their work together.

Public Design for Everyone: Works Progress and ThreeSeven

Whereas narrative designers like Ashley Fairbanks help people share their own stories, ThreeSeven helps people to interact with public architecture and even to help build it. As an architecture student at the University of Minnesota, Troy Gallas, ThreeSeven’s co-founder, had a late night epiphany in the design studio. It was sometime around 2003 and he was thinking about the depth of the great architectural works he was studying. “I realized that there was more to architecture than beautiful forms or functional spaces, it was about bringing people together and creating environments where a community can be fostered and strengthened,” he recalls.

Although this insight is a basic tenet within the Impact Design community, it can be a striking revelation for a young student inundated with the Beaux Arts paradigm that architecture is essentially aesthetic—and that the visual realm of forms and spaces matter most.

Gallas was one of the early members of Works Progress and more recently, ThreeSeven. Both community design groups grew out of a cultural buzz in the Twin Cities around in the early 2000s when students began to embrace the idea “service design” and an expanded sense of “design” itself.

Gallas explains that these early conversations “eventually grew into Works Progress where we were able to explore new and unique ways of showcasing and building community through exhibitions, events, and community spaces.”

Ten years later, Gallas still thinks beyond traditional professional roles and established definitions of beauty in architecture. “We honestly haven’t really defined specific goals for ThreeSeven as our work is always evolving based on the projects that come our way. We’re constantly shifting between public art, placemaking, architecture, and design.”

Working with ThreeSeven’s co-founder Patrick McKennan, Gallas describes the following three projects and their impact:


The C/Arts: Mobile Art Carts we designed for Springboard for the Arts. One is a cart for artists to sell their work, another is a cart for social practice artists, and a third is a stage for performance artists. The carts can be checked out for free and wheeled around Lowertown St Paul.



The “Living Bus Shelter” that we created for the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District and Metro Transit aimed to activate transit stops with high ridership and no amenities by reimagining what a bus shelter can be.



The “Water Source” was designed as an interactive installation at the River Balcony Prototyping Festival in St. Paul. The project encouraged participants to participate in the installation by tracing in yarn the path their drinking water takes from the Mississippi River through a network of channels and treatment facilities and eventually to their neighborhood. “Water Source” was aimed to educate about the journey St Paul’s tap water takes, reconnect participants to the Mississippi River, and create an opportunity for them to engage in creating the sculptural work itself.


Most people in metropolitan regions rarely notice the ecological systems all around them or the potential beauty of streets that they visit every day. Through projects like “Water Source” ThreeSeven sheds new light on the landscapes and public spaces where we live. In doing so, they help to build a broader public interest and commitment to their stewardship.

Private Practice/Public Interest Architecture

Founded in 1953 and based in Minneapolis, HGA is one of the largest architecture and engineering firms in the country. Over the last twenty years, the company has expanded to eight offices across the country in regions ranging from San Francisco to Washington, DC.

During this time, the firm has grown to 850 people; and across all the offices—and most of the new hires are relatively young.Jessica S. Horstkotte explains that many of them want more from their careers than a salary and promotions. Like Troy Gallas, many of them went to school in the early 2000s during the Iraq War and the Great Recession of 2007. Many of these graduates choose where to work today based on opportunities for life-long learning and community service.

Jessica S. Horstkotte explains that many of them want more from their careers than a salary and promotions. Like Troy Gallas, many of them went to school in the early 2000s during the Iraq War and the Great Recession of 2007. Many of these graduates choose where to work today based on opportunities for life-long learning and community service.


HGA Community Action began in 2015 as a grassroots effort. In 2016, firm leadership began to actively support their work and by the end of that year, 237 employees had contributed across all offices.

The following are three Twin Cities examples as described in HGA Community Action’s 2016 annual report:

—West Broadway Public Plaza Demonstration Area. HGA partnered with artist Emily Stover and contractor Field Outdoor Spaces on a proposal for a new public plaza in North Minneapolis. Our concept for a flexible gathering place was designed to improve public access, decrease the perception of crime, and enhance aesthetics along West Broadway Avenue in Minneapolis.

—The HGA Minneapolis office provided short-term design services to four local organizations that we selected through an RFP process. Each group worked with a team of 5-6 HGA employees, coming together to explore their needs and co-create solutions during an intensive, eight-hour workshop.

—Rochester, Minnesota Community Design Workshop. “Activating the Alley” 
HGA helped to re-envision a prominent alley in downtown Rochester in collaboration with key city stakeholders. Our contributions included overall strategy, guidance on grants to fund the project, and design concepts that could support a safe, attractive, and business-friendly experience year-round.

For many large national design firms like HGA, supporting public design within their corporate structures is good for business and attracts new talent. International firms such as HOK and Gensler have community design programs of their own. As public impact design is further defined and implemented, it is likely that firms of all sizes will soon follow. Impact Design Hub can become a forum where design firms share ideas and stories of success.

Systems Design puts Housing First

Like ThreeSeven’s design to visually express city-wide hydrology and HGA’s work with neighborhoods, public interest policy designers in the Twin Cities are connecting and revealing complex social systems. As Minnesota’s State Director to Prevent and End Homelessness, Cathy ten Broeke entered the housing field in 1993 and today explores the structural systems that cause and perpetuate homelessness. By stepping back to find the overall connections between public policy, funding sources, public health, and design—she is public designer of long-term systemic change across Minnesota.

“Ending homelessness does not mean that no one ever again will have a housing crisis,” she says. “It means that we will put systems in place to ensure we can prevent the crises from leading to homelessness whenever possible. When someone does become homeless, we must ensure that it is rare, brief, and only happens once.”

Safety, improved job skills, and looking beyond immediate barriers are all connected in ten Broeke’s planning. “I believe in the ‘housing first’ approach, which means ensuring people get connected to housing first—regardless of their particular barriers – mental illness, sobriety….” Then clients are given the varied support they need to sustain that housing.

It all starts with having the security of a home place. “Everything is much easier and more successfully addressed when someone has a safe and stable place to live.” In this sense housing is both a human right and a foundation for public health and wellness. The lesson for impact designers nationwide is to meet with and collaborate with planners whose skills and backgrounds are very different from one’s own. Artists and architects can learn from environmental scientists. Policy planners can work with groups like VRG to understand in a more personal way the experiences of people facing challenges of poverty, mental illness, and homelessness.

Overcoming Barriers: Connected Parks and Public Art

Public designers like Cathy ten Broeke cross disciplines and agency boundaries to address to ask new questions. Over the last 140 years, the Twin Cities region has built its most successful public designs by doing just this, by casting aside old barriers and taking a larger view.

In 1883, the landscape architect Horace Cleveland convinced Minneapolis business leaders to build a new kind of park system for an emerging city—one that linked natural resources such as lakes, rivers. A few years later, Cleveland’s vision for parkways and regional design expanded to the rival (and sometimes loathed) city of St. Paul.

Cleveland saw the two cities not so much as competitors—but as a greater region that he called “the United Cities”. He planned for parkways on both sides of the Mississippi River and stronger connections parkway connections between them.

In the early 1970s, progressive state leaders created one of the first regional governance systems in the country. Guiding planning for five counties, the Metropolitan Council checked leapfrog sprawl and protected ecological systems throughout the region. As an echo of the work of Cleveland, they hired renowned landscape architect, Ian McHarg to create a regional plan identifying sensitive ecological areas and critical groundwater recharge zones. Today, parks and nature preserves throughout the region are sited in such places to preserve them.

In Saint Paul today, public artists continue to address such ecological systems and public spaces city-wide. But their tools are more than parks and boulevards. They embrace the public arts of performance, storytelling, exhibits, and festivals that spark new conversations. Over ten years, Public Art Saint Paul has supported artists through fostering new roles for them community and ecological planning.

Colleen Sheehy serves as the group’s Executive Director. After working with the relatively static object-based collections of art museums, she grew fascinated with public arts planning where space itself becomes a stage for gathering and meeting others.

Sheehy believes that the most pressing issues for public artists in St. Paul relate to social equity and climate change. Her team addresses equity through community engagement with deep listening to the history and cultures neighborhoods. For example, Sheehy says, “In our work on the food plans for the Frogtown and Rondo neighborhoods, it’s been critical to collect the food stories and to understand the cultural assets of the communities….”

To address the global threat of climate change, Public Art Saint Paul involves artists in transforming civic infrastructure. Sheehy is encouraged that agencies like city water and parks departments, along with expansive watershed districts, are involving artists in helping to rethink storm water infrastructure. Environmental artist Christine Baeumler serves as Public Art Saint Paul’s Artist in Residence in the Capitol Region Watershed District. Recently, Public Art Saint Paul’s “City Artist” Aaron Dysart joined a team to think about artistic treatments of storm water in a city park.

Regarding social equity and ecology, Sheehy cites the all too obvious fact that “the greatest challenge is the automobile. It has dominated urban design for at least 60-70 years. Streets and highways have divided communities and make it harder for people to connect on a face to face basis.”

After generations as dividing walls, arterials and freeways can be rethought as public spaces where such events can happen. “I think we need bold new ideas rather than working around the edges of what exists. We’re talking not only about design issues but about cultural and behavioral change.”
Sheehy believes that artists as facilitators can make the biggest social impact through working in such public spaces and with communities. “When I think of design, I don’t think of just the built, physical environment, but the process that generates the physical design.” This is a scope far beyond creating object-based statements.

Environmental advocates across the country can find examples in their own communities when urban renewal, public “plop” art, and fortress-like buildings desiccate downtowns. It’s time to think about how this all happened—and how public interest design can overcome top-down vision behind it.

Lessons from a Complicated Regional Past

At its best, The Twin Cities have historically planned for the greater whole—and for the long-term. At our worst, we have shown the arrogance to believe that we know the answers now—who can live here and who should not, who can be a “designer” and a planner and who cannot, what stories, cultures, and historic places merit recognition.

But, as Colleen Sheehy argues, we can no longer afford to be so confident and narrow. “We are at a point in human history when all professions need to have relevance and impact on making a better society so that we can address the unprecedented and urgent issues and conditions that we face.”
Fortunately, a new generation of Twin Cities professionals in design firms and allied fields are pushing for greater public involvement. For them, reaching out to others and learning along the way is part of satisfying career. They are intentional about reaching out to people overlooked and considering the long-term effects of policy, transit planning, and education on their communities.
Speaking of the unintended consequences of his own work, Troy Gallas hopes that, “as the placemaking trend continues to grow, it won’t turn into another form of gentrification. We need to be careful about showing up and telling a community what they need. A lot of damage has been done ‘in the public interest’.”

This is a powerful lesson. In a region where public policy once sought erase entire cultures, restricted for Jews and anyone of color from moving to new neighborhoods, spurred explosive and segregating urban sprawl, and destroyed much of the historic fabric of its downtowns, we should be humbled by the lessons of our history. Gallas notes that what we “need to listen, engage, and think critically about what we’re doing as designers.”

The message is that so single era has all the answers for public design. Minneapolis and St. Paul are still more relatively isolated and homogenous than most American regions of their size. We should remain aware of our limited regional sphere of discourse, questioning, and cultural exposure. Yet, there is also an extraordinary tradition of charitable generosity and long-term thinking. There are more stories and cultural histories in the Twin Cities than anyone can never know. Public designers here today are helping to reveal these stories, to identify our lingering predispositions, and to consider what solutions we might be missing.


Author’s note:


During the last week of May 2017, as this article was being edited for posting on IDH, the world-renowned Walker Art Center in Minneapolis found itself in a major a public relations crisis over public art. It stemmed directly from the Walker’s and an artist’s lack of knowledge of Dakota history in Minnesota. As described in my article above—in 1862, Minnesota was home to the brutal US-Dakota War.

At the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, the Walker commissioned a large wooden sculpture, “Scaffold” by Los Angeles artist, Sam Burton. Resembling a children’s play structure, the work actually depicts various gallows used in hangings throughout American history. One of them is a replica of the gallows used for the hanging of the “Dakota 48”—48 men from the Dakota tribe hanged in Mankato, MN during the US-Dakota War of 1862—the largest mass execution in American history.  Neither the Walker’s curators nor Burton had any sense of the ongoing impact and pain associated with these hangings. No Indian tribes in Minnesota had been consulted. The Walker and Burton thought the sculpture would be “instructive”.

By May 26, as the Walker promoted and described all of the new works in the Garden set to open on June 3,  the true meaning of “Scaffold” was revealed. Then, a week-long protest ensued, plunging the Walker into perhaps the largest and most embarrassing controversy in its history.

After a May 31 meeting at the Walker, tribal leaders, city, and Walker staff agreed on the demolition and possible burning of the piece. The possible burning may take place on Pike Island below Fort Snelling. This is the site where of the 1862 concentration camp for Dakota women, elders, and children. They were incarcerated there immediately after the Mankato hangings.

For more information

June 1, 2017 coverage by the Star Tribune (Minneapolis):

June 1, 2017 coverage by the Los Angeles Times:

May 30, 2017 coverage by the New York Times: