Street scenes

New exhibit ‘Right on Lake Street’ explores one of the Twin Cities most dynamic corridors

A century ago, Schatzlein Saddle Shop began harnessing horses and making repairs in wide-open fields that covered what eventually became known as Lake Street.

The saddle shop, located near what is now the intersection of Grand Avenue and Lake Street, acted as a farmhand for the farmers who were, at the time, just a field or two away. Today, you can’t find the "great wide open" anywhere along Lake Street, but the well-traveled thoroughfare is lined with histories stretching just as far and wide. Schatzlein’s recently celebrated 100 years of business.

Forming a six-mile corridor that runs from Lake Calhoun to the Mississippi River, Lake Street is currently showcased in an exhibit at the Minnesota Historical Society. "Right on Lake Street," a crafty and colorful chronicle of the developments that have decorated Lake Street for well over a century, will be on display until March 9.

What began as 12 classes at Macalester College resulted in a rich exhibit of a city treasure. In 2004, the Minnesota History Society heard that Macalester College was working on a semester’s worth of urban studies projects. The two organizations saw a value in working with the other, and they formed a collaboration that would last three years.

Ellen Miller, the Minnesota Historical Society exhibit developer who joined the team in 2006, explained that the vision of the project was to incorporate the interpretations and flavor of students instead of the usual scholarly viewpoints used in developing exhibits. The interest of the students included film, history and political science, and the display strongly encompasses those aspects.

Miller took it upon herself to coach the students on their research and reporting to get a fresh angle of what it really is that makes Lake Street so dynamic.

The Minnesota Historical Society was initially interested in how Macalester was working with the community and connected with public life. The typical academic assistance that museum exhibits often require was modified for the project. Urban studies professors at Macalester are familiar with researching Lake Street. Paul Schadewald, associate director at the Civic Engagement Center with Macalester College, said that explorations for the exhibit were fashioned around the idea of students portraying Lake Street through prolific pieces and interactive media.

"It started in a small room with poster boards," Schadewald said. "Then someone at the history center decided it called for more expertise and graphics, and that is how it turned into what it is today."

In 2006, In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, with its own Lake Street residence in the old Avalon Theatre, got on board the project with hopes to contribute some spice to the design. The alliance powered the team visually, and it shows. The exhibit has a funky, homemade look that is undoubtedly one of a kind.

"The history center had never worked with them before," Miller said. "Heart of the Beast did a bang-up job. The exhibit is like a tiny town."

The exhibit begins with a video screen projecting the frequent-stop 21A bus line. The viewer takes a right into the exhibit and comes face to face with a mini skyline lined with posters, showcases and flags representing the countries of origin for the people who diversify the Lake Street corridor. The displays of Lake Street’s local establishments exude a simplicity that helps in understanding the district’s development. The Town Talk Diner display includes a booklet made up of the memories of the diner’s regulars from the mid-1900s. The coming of Patrick’s Cabaret is told through video form. Old, multicolored loafers depict soles as the soul of Roberts Shoes, which withstood the hardships of the 20th century on the corner of Lake Street and Chicago Avenue.

The western stretch of Lake Street has exploded commercially in the last decade, but the area is still occupied with rich historical accounts. Lake Calhoun was formerly Lake Medoza, named after the U.S. Secretary of War in 1817. It opened for official recreational use in 1911. Today, right up the street from the lakes, Lake and Hennepin in the heart of Uptown has become one of the corridor’s most popular shopping and entertainment hubs. Once known for its prostitution, "Eat Street" helped to clean up the crime and congestion on Nicollet Avenue and Lake Street. And a Lake Street favorite to many is Bryant-Lake Bowl, which happens to be celebrating its 14th anniversary at the end of this month.

The exhibit moves its viewer to remember that the history of the street enhances the very essence of the district.

"For the suburbanite visitors that never go on Lake Street," Miller said, "I hope it will intrigue them. It’s just nice to see people being happy and reaching out."