Visions for Lake Calhouns future

Park Board leaders, residents consider options

LAKE CALHOUN — Change can be a scary thing. Building condos, landscaping parks, dredging lakes for development — many residents of Minneapolis have resisted these activities for decades. Don’t disturb nature, they say, it’s fine the way it is.

But you can only hold off for so long. Lake Calhoun, in particular, has been a major topic of debate since its inhabitance by European settlers in the early 1800s. Over the past few decades, traffic has increased around the area, and many recreation groups want to get a piece of the pie. Now, once the Park and Recreation Board finalizes its proposed Comprehensive Plan — which was just released for public review — the destination lake could face a whole new batch of changes.

The murky future
In 1997, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board received a packet of proposals about redeveloping the area around Lake Calhoun. Among other things, the Master Plan suggested constructing a pavilion at the north beach; extending the trolley line up to Lake Street; closing part of the parkway; and reconfiguring the pathway system.

The plan was shelved due to lack of support among commissioners, but it reappeared eight years later as multiple groups approached the board with ideas similar to the original proposal.

Commissioner Bob Fine, whose district includes most of Southwest, sent an e-mail to his fellow commissioners in support of reviewing possibilities for the lake.

“It’s clear to me that we have many options/opinions for use of this incredible park asset,” Fine wrote.

But the board still wasn’t interested in doing anything. The project went underwater for another two years until this past June, when the commissioners gathered to revisit the old ideas.

By this point, the board had already made several lakeside developments, such as adding a tot lot and improving the shoreline. Many items from the 1997 plan remained on the agenda, joined by a new set of ideas, including building a sailing refectory on the southeast shore; relocating the archery range; and removing the maintenance building from the east side of Richfield Road.

According to Fine, congestion around the Tin Fish refectory is the main problem facing Lake Calhoun.

During a recent interview, he suggested slightly altering the parkway to connect the western side with Excelsior Boulevard, incorporating the field into the lakeside area and increasing awareness of the free parking lot on the northwest corner.

Nearby resident Barb Woods lives at 32nd and Excelsior and agrees that traffic is a big burden on the area.

“We avoid Excelsior and come around the back side,” she said, as she pushed her granddaughter Kassidy in a stoller around the lake.

Woods, whose niece takes sailing lessons at Lake Calhoun, thinks that building a separate sailing refectory on the southeast shore could be a good way to reduce congestion around Tin Fish.

Another neighbor, Brad Wuotila, worries that changes made to the lake could backfire and end up increasing traffic. “Any initiative that’s geared towards attracting more people I would say ‘no,’” he said. Wuotila suggests moving activities to other parks, in an effort to funnel traffic out of the area.

There aren’t any changes planned for the immediate future, but many residents realize it’s only a matter of time before area around the lake morphs once more. “Before, we were responding to people who just wanted to know what was going on,” said Fine, who lives in Linden Hills. “Now, with a consultant, [Park Board representatives] are going to go out to the different neighborhoods and get their ideas.”

Commissioner Tracy Nordstrom, who lives on Lake Calhoun and represents the north and east shores, believes that the Master Plan may be readdressed next year. “My intention as the commissioner representing the area,” she said, “is that we are, in fact, going to dust off the earlier plans or earlier suggestions from staff and consultants, and that we are going to kind of start looking at them.” She noted that the recently released Comprehensive Plan for the entire park system is the Board’s main concern over the next few months, but “[the Master Plan is] definitely on my radar, and I think it’s on Bob Fine’s radar.”

The discovery of a city gem
According to newspaper clippings, library books and Park Board documents, Lake Calhoun has been evolving for almost two centuries. To most of us, the area around the lake has always been heavily developed, with houses pushed up against the shore and neatly manicured grass along the trails. It’s hard to imagine that 150 years ago, Lake Calhoun was virtually untouched, a swampy sea of fish and Native American artifacts. But as settlers moved in and Minneapolis began to take shape, they were plagued with the very question that continues to haunt us today: how much change is too much? One way of addressing the ever-present quandary is to look at the past.

In 1823, Lt. Col. Henry Leavenworth, founder of Fort Snelling, came upon several bodies of water while exploring Minnesota. He named one Lake Leavenworth, which is now called Lake of the Isles; another Lake Harriet, after his third wife, and the other Lake Calhoun, after his superior officer, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun.

During this time, the Mdewakanton tribe of the Dakota Sioux had a village near the Southeast shore of Lake Calhoun, or Mde Medoza (“Lake of the Loons”), as the lake was known to them. Fort Snelling’s Indian Agent, Lawrence Taliaferro, was sent to mediate conflicts between the Dakota and Ojibwe, a group of Native Americans also living in the area. Taliaferro taught Mdewakanton Chief Cloudman how to farm, and they started an agricultural village named Eatonville on the land where Lakewood Cemetery currently stands.

Taliaferro’s presence among the Native Americans marked the beginning of a landslide of changes at Lake Calhoun. In 1834, Gideon and Samuel Pond, a pair of missionary brothers, arrived at Fort Snelling. They built the first private house in Minneapolis near the present-day 35th Street using oak logs and bark from trees around Bassett Creek. The brothers learned to speak the Dakota language and proselytized to the natives. Their home was torn down to provide defensive materials during a 1839 war between the Dakota and Ojibwa.

In 1851, representatives from the Sioux and United States government signed the Mendota Treaty and Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, which gave the U.S. control of most of Minnesota and relocated the Native Americans to reservations.

During the decades that followed, many new developments popped up around Lake Calhoun. The first sailboats cut through the placid blue water in the 1860s, and author Henry David Thoreau spent time recuperating from tuberculosis in a boarding house on the corner of 38th Street.

In 1858, Colonel William King arrived in Minneapolis from New York and began purchasing land near the lakes. He helped found the Minneapolis Street Railway Company and Lakewood Cemetery and built the first pavilion on the lake. It was huge and extravagant, with a dining room and concert hall, and eventually became the Lyndale Hotel. The elegant, gas-lit resort was destroyed in a fire around 1888.

Lake Calhoun becomes official
The newly formed Park Board began to acquire pieces of Lake Calhoun in 1883. Two years later, a temporary bathhouse went up on the north shore, allowing men to swim. The following year, women were granted permission to take a dip, but they had to wear full-length outfits and have male escorts after 5 p.m.

The late 1800s and early 1900s were a time of rapid growth and development around Lake Calhoun. The Minikahda Golf Club was built on the west side in 1898, and all around the shore, men constructed icehouses and docks for fishing. On July 4th weekend in 1911, the city held a commemorative ceremony to celebrate the joining of Lake of the Isles and Lake Calhoun. Paved parkways began to appear in the early 1920s.

Despite complaints from residents, Theodore Wirth, the superintendent of the Park Board who is largely credited with designing the parks system used today, had Lake Calhoun dredged to make beaches.

Construction on the six-story Calhoun Beach Club began in 1923. According to Joan Berthiaume, co-founder of Minneapolis Parks Legacy Society, Wirth was upset about the beach club because he felt it intruded on the park. “People get very concerned about disturbing nature. We need to preserve the habitat,” she explained. “We don’t need to disturb the artistry of the design.”

A combination of bathhouses, lake dredges, refectories, high dives and lagoon proposals later, Lake Calhoun remains a vibrant destination spot in the bosom of Minneapolis. But, to no one’s surprise, residents have protested every step of the way.

“The use of the lakes by the general public as well as keeping up and development of the adjacent properties will be seriously affected by this change in the character of the lakeshores,” wrote J. Armin Poehler, president of the Save the Lakes Association, in a 1956 letter to the Minneapolis Star.

Forty-two years later, Lynn E. Levine, a DFL candidate for the state Legislature, sent a letter to the editor opposing the construction of Cub Foods at the intersection of Excelsior Boulevard and Lake Street. Today, the area holds a grocery store, several restaurants and a name: Calhoun Commons.

Now, neighbors around the lake are fretting over the Calhoun Master Plan. “If it’s change in the right direction, then it’s fine,” says Florian Wettstein, a transplant from Switzerland who lives a few blocks from the lake. “Who knows what it’s going to look like in 10 years?”

CORRECTION: Three dates were listed incorrectly in the print version of this story: Gideon and Samuel Pond arrived at Fort Snelling in 1834, not 1934, and their home was torn down in 1839, not 1939. In addition, the Mendota Treaty and Treaty of the Traverse des Sioux was signed in 1851, not 1951.

Contact Mary O’Regan at moregan@mnpubs.com or 436-5088.