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Historical Park Avenue

Note: The following excerpt is from “Historical Building Survey for the Minneapolis Model City, 1971,” a report commissioned by the Minneapolis Model City Housing Bureau, coordinated by Charles W. Nelson.


Today Park Avenue speedily channels thousands of cars down its one-way lanes to the Central City. If the motorists are lucky, they may not even have to interrupt their progress for a traffic light. It’s hard to imagine this busy thoroughfare in any other way. Yet this street holds the heritage of ninety years of Minneapolis history, encompassing the idyllic, elegant lives of some of Minneapolis’ pioneer aristocracy.


Park Avenue did not acquire its aristocratic status until the late 1880’s. Prior to this time it was more of a rural road than a city street. Reference is made to E.R. Barber who built a “big house in the country at 2313 Park Avenue in 1885.”(1) There was little settlement past this point. In fact William Dunwoody, who lived on Lowry Hill, had the neighborhood boys drive his cows from his estate to pasturelands at 25th Street and Park Avenue.(2)


The fine residential districts of Seventh, Eighth and Tenth Streets were gradually being overrun by Minneapolis’ growing business district, and Park Avenue eagerly took their place. The distinction of a Park Avenue address was actively sought and by 1889 a Minneapolis trade booklet boasted, “Park Avenue is noted for the many beautiful homes that adorn it and ranks as the finest residence street in the city.”(3) By 1890 heavy settlement had extended to Lake Street with scattered homes as far as 34th Street.(4) The area from 20th to 26th Streets commanded the greatest number of the large mansion-type homes.


What was life like on Park Avenue then? If you lived on Park around 1890 you shared the company of some of Minneapolis’ leading citizens. There was James E. Bell, valued cashier at Hennepin County Savings Bank, living at Park and 24th. His house was noted for its elaborately oil painted walls. E.J. Phelps, Secretary-Treasurer for the Minnesota Loan and Trust Company, had his home on Park adjoining J.E. Bell near 24th. Farther down Park at 26th lived A.J. Sawyer, the Grain Commissioner. The Sumner McKnight’s made their home at 2200 Park. Built in 1891, it held the dubious distinction of being insulated with the manes and tails of 20,000 horses.(6) Almost every major business of concern was represented on Park Avenue, from millers and lumbermen to newspaper publishers.


A view down Park around the turn of the century would have revealed a scene of fine velvet lined coaches or sleighs pulled by matched horses. Cyclers by the dozens would be darting down the street with a wary eye out for a policeman who might enforce the 10- mph speed limit. Children of the area might be walking down the boulevard on their way to the Geo. Peavey home at 2210 to attend dancing class, telling stories of how the artisans for Swan Turnblad’s strange castle at 2600 Park were led blindfolded to and from their jobs each day so they never saw the total product and could never be able to duplicate it anywhere in the world.(7) If a circus were in town the children would be lined up to see the elephants marching down the avenue. And if the year were 1899 you could see the grandstand Mr. Barber had built in front of his home to honor the parading 13th Minnesota Regiment after the Spanish-American War.(8)


The residents along Park Avenue were extremely public-spirited and socially conscious people. They had organized the Park Avenue Improvement Association around 1890 to deal with community problems. It was this organization which levied taxes of 10 cents per lineal foot, on themselves for the purpose of having the street swept each night. They were the people who originated the building set-back of 56 feet and made Park Avenue 100 feet wide (although they had once tried to narrow it to 36 feet to lower costs and widen and thereby beautify the boulevards). These citizens, much through their own funds, got Park Avenue asphalt paved for two miles in 1892. It was one of the first city streets to be so paved–even before Nicollet Avenue. The association was defunct from 1907 to Sept. 6, 1917 when it was renewed to repel damaging reports from outside real estate men and protect the interests of Park Avenue home owners therefore to “perpetuate the fame of Park Avenue as a fine residence district.”(9) At this time they suggested to the City Council several improvements to Park among them; better traffic controls, arc lights and more policemen. The organization acted as a community voice in public matters up until 1931 when it was dissolved.


When the automobile was introduced, E.R. Barber purchased Park Avenue’s first. He was not to hold the distinction long as soon fine horseless-carriages became another symbol of Park Avenue prestige and displaying them became a pasttime. In fact, in the early 1900’s, June 21st, the longest day of the year, was set aside as a day to parade one’s auto up and down Park Avenue.(10)


The advent of the automobile accompanied some other changes on Park. Some of the earlier frame houses were being replaced by large mansions of brick or stone. Some of the residents at that time were; J.H. Queal, a lumberman whose house at 2708 Park was known for its six car garage which had a turntable large enough to rotate his new Packard.(11) O.C. Wyman’s house at 2500 Park boasted eight baths and as many fireplaces. Wyman’s house and the C.M. Harrington home at 2540 Park were noted for their splendid wooden paneling and carving on the interior. The Anson S. Brooks family built the last great house on Park Avenue at 2535 in 1921. The grand era of Park Avenue was drawing to a close.


The deterioration of Park Avenue’s grandeur was a gradual process. The functionality of a large mansion for a single-family dwelling was being questioned as early as 1900. For reasons of economy or convenience, some residents of the larger homes were shared by more than one family. By 1910 almost half of the houses on Park between Tenth and 26th Street were being used as multi-family dwellings. Most of the houses from 26th on had been built on a more modest scale and continued to be used as single family houses until recent years when some were converted to apartment type dwellings.(12)


Today much of the Grand Style of Park Avenue architecture has been replaced by modern commercial structures. Only about a dozen of the old houses on Park between 20 and 28th exist today, and of these but a handful are single family residences. The others have been converted to business uses or taken over by social and community organizations. But regardless of their present use they stand today as living remembrances of the past and the grandeur that was once Park Avenue.



1- Minneapolis Tribune, article by Jane Thomas. Jan. 20, 1952

2- Ibid

3- Minneapolis Illustrated-published by the Minneapolis Board of Trade, Blakely Printing Co., Chicago, 1889, p. 36

4- 1889-1890 Dual City Blue Book, R.L. Polk and Co., Mpls., MN

5- Minneapolis Illustrated, p.32

6- Minneapolis Tribune, Jan. 20, 1952

7- Ibid

8- Ibid

9- Quote and other information about the Park Avenue Improvement Association taken from minutes of the Association’s meetings. Originals at the Hennepin County Historical Society.

10- Minneapolis Tribune, Jan. 20, 1952

11- Select, Twin City Review of Fashion, Travel, Arts and Society. Sept., 1960.

12- 1909-1910 Dual City Blue Book



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