Many people travel to Summit Avenue in St. Paul to admire its extensive collection of historic stone mansions. Good luck doing the same in Minneapolis.
Minneapolis’ comparable mansion street, Park Avenue, is today known largely as a high-speed roadway into downtown. But it was once the posh address of the city’s elite, dubbed by a newspaper in 1901 as “the original fine residence street of Minneapolis, the avenue of broad walks and extensive lawns.”
Why did one survive while the other did not? A reader asked the Star Tribune for answers as part of Curious Minnesota, a community-driven reporting project fueled by great questions from inquisitive readers.
At its peak, about 36 mansions lined Park from Franklin Avenue to 28th Street, once known as the “Golden Mile.” Most of them were owned by boldface families of the era like Peavey, Heffelfinger, Bell and McKnight. Now the area is largely peppered with nonprofit offices, health clinics and a university campus. Just a handful of the mansions remain.
Few have researched the area as extensively as Ryan Knoke, who began leading popular walking tours on Park after buying and renovating a house there about 15 years ago. He draws gasps from tour groups when he holds up photos of long-gone mansions, juxtaposed with what stands there today.
“Close your eyes and imagine Summit Avenue just being completely blown away. All but eight houses, tomorrow,” Knoke said. “It’s hard to fathom because there’s so much pride in it.”
Knoke’s primary explanation for Park’s decline is that the street’s proximity to downtown — without the hill that separates Summit from downtown St. Paul — and its connection to growing suburbs ultimately brought loads of traffic that drove away residents. It also made it an attractive spot for the commercial development that replaced the homes.
“I think numero uno, it was the traffic,” Knoke said. “Because it was the traffic that drove the families out. They spent years fighting it unsuccessfully.”
He added that Summit Avenue experienced its own decline, but benefited from a more aggressive push in the 1960s and 1970s to save the old buildings there.
Architectural Historian Larry Millett, author of “Once There Were Castles,” said Park Avenue had lost its cachet by the 1920s and 1930s.
“I think the big money families moved out to Lake Minnetonka or the [Minneapolis] Lake District,” Millett said. “Big houses in general are hard to keep. That’s what makes Summit so unusual is so many of the big houses have been kept.”
Millett said Summit benefited from its geography.
“It sat up on the hill,” Millett said. “Downtown was never going to expand up that bluff … It had that natural barrier. And I think Summit maintained its cachet for quite a while.”
A paved spectacle
Minneapolis’ wealthy families first built their mansions downtown, but moved further away as the city’s core developed. Mansions began rising in the 1880s on Park Avenue, which then sported a much narrower roadway and wide green boulevards.
By the early 1890s, its residents had formed an improvement association and paid for it to be converted into the city’s first asphalt street. An 1895 paving map shows most streets were still paved using cedar blocks at the time. Park quickly became a hot spot for racing bicycles and parading automobiles.
“Even now, in its uncompleted state, Park Avenue is daily visited by pleasure seekers, wheelmen and grand aggregations of tented baby carts, all anxious to take a whirl over the new pavement,” the Minneapolis Tribune reported in 1890.
But having the nicest street in town came with its downsides. In the early 1900s, Park residents asked the city to convert it into an official parkway to “exclude traffic wagons from this handsome avenue.”
“Under present conditions drivers will go blocks out of their way in order to make use of the asphalt paving on Park avenue,” the Minneapolis Journal reported. By the 1920s residents of Park and Portland avenues were demanding that the city bar heavy trucks from rumbling up and down the streets.
The traffic grew worse as Richfield developed to the south and commuters streamed downtown, spurring what Knoke considers two fatal blows to Park Avenue. In 1946 the city converted Park and Portland into one-way streets to speed traffic. Then in the mid-1950s the street was widened by 20 feet, several years before the opening of Interstate 35W.
“It was a slow process of people moving away, but the final blow to the mansions came with these [roadway decisions,]” Knoke said, noting that many moved to their summer homes near Lake Minnetonka.
The book “Legacy of Minneapolis: Preservation Amid Change” notes that starting in the 1910s, descendants of Minneapolis’ original industrialists had grown interested in moving to more rustic areas. This was made easier by private Minneapolis clubs with rooming facilities, which offered commuters a place to stay if they couldn’t drive home. The older homes were then no longer needed.
“Thus began the process of decline for many of the older parts of the city that had been rather substantial and impressive when first built (for example, Park Avenue),” the book said.
Some mansions were first partitioned into apartments. But many ultimately met the wrecking ball starting in the 1950s and continuing for several decades. In came insurance companies, a youth center, senior facilities, and a blood bank, among other uses.
Upon news that a grain magnate’s home would be demolished in 1956, the Minneapolis Star lamented that “Park Avenue, once Minneapolis’ most fashionable street, where pioneers of grain, milling and lumber industry built their mansions, is speedily losing most of its grandeur.”
Millett said the demolitions were gradual.
“There wasn’t a single clear sweep of the old houses,” Millett said. “It occurred over time.”
The last of the major demolitions occurred in 1983. Unlike Summit Avenue, Park is not part of a historic district. But four of the remaining mansions are now considered local historic landmarks, which gives them additional protections from demolition.
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