They were born nearly 25 years and 400 miles apart in different pockets of the Midwest. But when Leslie Park and Edward Baker came together in Minneapolis more than 60 years ago, they changed the face of downtown — creating the city's first skyways.
The son of a general store merchant, Park was born in 1901 in Balsam Lake, a northwestern Wisconsin town of a few hundred. Baker was born in 1926 in bustling Chicago, the son of a Russian-born Jewish traveling salesman.
Park moved from Wisconsin to Minneapolis in the 1920s and eclipsed his father's business success back in Balsam Lake. By the early 1960s, he had emerged as a major downtown real estate developer and forged a partnership with Baker, an architect who had moved as a boy with his family to Minneapolis in 1932, graduating from West High School and the University of Minnesota.
Today Park and Baker are considered the fathers of Minneapolis' skyway system — downtown's nearly 10-mile human hamster maze response to the climate-controlled suburban malls that first sprang up in the 1950s.
As the pandemic casts doubt about the future viability of workaday downtowns, it's fitting to flash back to this pair of downtown boosters who spawned the largest contiguous system of enclosed second-story bridges in the world.
When Southdale in Edina became the nation's first indoor mall in 1956, Park grew worried. The year before, General Mills had bailed out as one of downtown Minneapolis' major employers, relocating to a new campus in Golden Valley. "He knew that downtown had to compete with the suburbs … or go down the tube," Baker said later.
So Park began touting covered walkways to try to offset the weatherproof advantages of suburban malls, despite concerns they would dampen street-level commerce. Baker's sketches turned Park's idea into glass-and-steel reality in 1962: a pedestrian bridge spanning Marquette Avenue, connecting Park's new Northstar Center development with Northwestern National Bank across the street.
"Leslie Park was more so the designer/visionary and Baker was the one who executed the projects," said Katie Thornton, a Minneapolis historian and Fulbright-National Geographic digital storytelling fellow. Her 47-minute podcast explores the good, the bad and the ugly of skyways (99percentinvisible.org/episode/beneath-the-skyway).
That first glass-sheathed walkway was razed in the late 1980s during construction of the Norwest Bank (later Wells Fargo) tower. But on June 12, 1963, Park opened a second skyway that still spans 7th Street, linking Northstar Center to the Roanoke Building.
The name "skyway" came from the Campbell Mithun (now Mithun) advertising agency, one of Park's tenants; other cities called their pedestrian bridges skywalks or skybridges. Minneapolis' skyways eventually grew to connect 80 downtown blocks.
Park "was really my Medici," Baker told the Star Tribune in 2004 (referring to the powerful Italian medieval bankers), two years before he died at the age of 80.
Baker was especially proud of his design contributions to the 57-story IDS Tower, which opened in 1972 as the tallest skyscraper in Minneapolis and the first major downtown development with skyway connections on four sides. By then a dozen skyways had been built, prompting boosters to hail downtown's growing national reputation as "a 'second-floor' city of the future."
In a 2002 interview with Skyway News, which he had purchased in 1990, Baker said: "Before the skyways, second-floor space wasn't too desirable. So much of it was pawnshops, watch and eyeglass repair, and sewing and seamstress shops." Calling the skyways "a network, rather than as individual bridges," he said they revitalized Minneapolis' core: "People can live downtown and also be connected with it."
More than just skyway pioneers, Baker and Park each were deeply involved in civic causes. Baker was president and founder of the Hennepin Center for the Arts, among other contributions, and Park was a charter member and president of the Downtown Council and a founder of the Citizens League of Minneapolis.
When Park died at 76 in 1977, the Minneapolis Tribune lauded his civic role and said "he combined a rare ability to envision what might be done and the business skill needed to turn visions into reality."
That reality now has morphed into "a giant octopus reaching its tentacles ever deeper into downtown," according to historian Iric Nathanson, who has written about skyways for MinnPost and MNopedia.com.
It was just as downtown retailers had predicted in 1972, just as the IDS Tower kicked the skyway system into hyperdrive: "Government and business leaders throughout the nation and from foreign countries have come to downtown Minneapolis to see Les Park's dream become a reality, this major new way of life for downtown Minneapolitans."
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.