The history of Lake Harriet’s park architecture

Also designed by Milo Thompson, the refectory has three serving windows and modern restrooms all in a similar Shingle-style of architecture. Photo by Linda Koutsky

When you imagine a lakeshore in Minnesota, you probably think of fishing, sailing, swimming, sandy beaches covered with kids, towels, and toys, and sparkling blue waters reflecting a burning, hot sun. Architecture probably isn’t the first thing on your mind. But when I visualize Lake Harriet I think of Harry Wild Jones, one of Minnesota’s legendary architects.

Before I get to Jones though, you need to know a little about Minneapolis and our city lakes’ history. The Territorial Legislature incorporated Minneapolis in March of 1856. The first settlers lived near Hennepin Avenue and the Mississippi River. As the city grew, residents moved further away from the center of town. Our lakes were known for their healthful benefits and as an escape from heat and pollution in other parts of the country. Henry David Thoreau even visited the area in 1861. By the 1880s a large hotel had opened on the east shore of Lake Calhoun as a premier vacation destination. A few years later streetcars were taking city visitors and new residents a little further, to Lake Harriet, named for the wife of Fort Snelling’s first commandant. The first dirt road “parkway” was built around the lake in 1886, which brought even more pleasure-seekers to what is now the Linden Hills neighborhood.

Harry Wild Jones was born in Michigan in 1859, studied architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, worked for Boston’s famed architect H. H. Richardson, then made Minneapolis his home. Besides opening his own practice, he was a professor at the University of Minnesota and a commissioner for the Minneapolis Park Board. In addition to designing many local landmarks such as Butler Square, Franklin Avenue’s Scottish Rite Temple, and Lakewood Cemetery’s lovely mosaic filled chapel, he was known for ecclesiastical architecture built around the world. His own home, “Elmwood,” near 51st and Nicollet, was built in 1887. Jones lived there until he died in 1935.

In 1885, Harry Wild Jones opened his Minneapolis architectural firm. That same year Colonel William King (of King’s Highway) donated Lake Harriet to the Minneapolis Park Board. Three years later, what had been a small concession stand blossomed into the lake’s first-of-many pavilions: a long and low hip-roofed building designed by Long & Kees. Streetcars dropped riders off right at the building where they could have a refreshment, hear a concert or opera, tour the lake on 40-foot gas-powered launch, or rent one of the 175 rowboats or three sailboats. Locals and weekenders flocked to the new recreation area. The first pavilion didn’t last long though, it burned to the ground in June of 1891.

Since the first pavilion was also a busy neighborhood streetcar station, the Minneapolis Street Railway Company decided to separate the two functions when it rebuilt. Harry Wild Jones was chosen to design a new pavilion with a streetcar depot a short distance away. Jones’s two-story pavilion was built out over the water with overhanging roofs like a Chinese Pagoda but covered in patterns of wood shake in the Shingle-style architecture popular on the East Coast. A large dining room on the first floor overlooked the lake while the upper level was used for Vaudeville shows, Shakespeare plays, operas, and concerts. Bands also played on a floating bandstand for both levels to enjoy. Though it was smaller than the first pavilion, it was built in what seems like record time—two months! The following year, in 1892, Jones designed the historic restrooms that are still in use at Lake Harriet today. Unfortunately, like so many wonderful wood structures, the pavilion went up in flames in 1903, just 12 years after it was built.

Jones was chosen again to design the third pavilion built in 1904. The Classical Revival-style one-story building had two wings that extended over the lake. A neat row of white columns supported a roof with a small bandshell for outdoor concerts. Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra members played throughout the summer. The structure wasn’t strong enough for the growing crowds though so concerts were cancelled by 1923. Ice and wind also damaged the building over the years and it collapsed in 1925.

A fourth pavilion with a separate refectory was built by the Park Board in 1927. Though it was intended to be a temporary structure, it ended up with a long life and lasted until the early 1980s. It was designed by Downs and Ead, architects of the Linden Hills fire station. Slightly reminiscent of Jones’s second pavilion, a large cafe and rooftop bandstand provided summer entertainment for many.

Today’s Lake Harriet Bandshell and Refectory was designed by Milo Thompson and built in 1986. Using Harry Wild Jones’s personal sketchbooks and photos of his first pavilion, Thompson created a lasting piece that complements the park’s architectural history. Wood shingles cover the bandshell in patterns like fish scales, steeply pitched roofs cap the towers, and an undulating roof eave marks the stage. It’s one of the greatest places in town to enjoy a concert.

While you’re there, catch a ride on the historic streetcar just up the hill on West 42nd Street. Though the depot’s new, the cars are fully restored working streetcars more than 100 years old. Fares and time table at

For more information on Lake Harriet’s pavilions and Linden Hills history, pick up a copy of the lovely book “Down at the Lake,” published by the Linden Hills History Study Group.

We are lucky to have so many lakes in the metro area, but we’re even luckier to have exemplary lake-style architecture clustered together in one location.

LUNCH TIP: You can’t go wrong for lunch with a Seared Walleye Sandwich and a Sailor Salad overlooking Lake Harriet at Bread & Pickle.