Nicollet Island is perhaps the most unusual park in a city known for its parks.

The 48-acre sliver of land in the Mississippi River beside downtown is home to a secluded enclave of historic homes sitting atop public parkland. But that’s just one of the oddities of this place, an often-overlooked landmark of early Minneapolis that looks radically different today than it did half a century ago.

So how did Nicollet Island get to be this way? Paul Kopnick asked the Star Tribune for answers as part of Curious Minnesota, a new community-driven reporting project fueled by great questions from inquisitive readers.

“It’s different than everywhere else in the city. It’s parkland with houses on it,” said Kopnick, a Bloomington resident who sometimes bikes around Nicollet Island. The only other occupied house in a Minneapolis park is rented by the park superintendent.

The short answer: The city’s Park and Recreation Board bought most of Nicollet Island about four decades ago, including the land beneath just over 20 historic homes. Long-term land leases ensured the homes were restored and preserved by their owners, after local government agencies had already demolished a dense collection of industrial and commercial buildings on the island.

More broadly, the island looks how it does today because local governments several decades ago were flush with cash for demolishing buildings and buying land for parks, while a burgeoning historic preservation movement ensured not everything was leveled.

The roughly six-block-long island has often captured the imagination of dreamers and planners over the city’s history. People pitched grand plans including a sports stadium worthy of the Olympics, a large exposition center, a “Museum of the Mississippi” and even a hotel topped by three massive helicopter landing pads.

“No city has a greater opportunity,” said the landmark 1917 “Plan of Minneapolis” — a European-style vision for the city that never materialized — citing the island’s proximity to downtown and key transportation corridors. The plan called for making the island a park replete with a stadium and an “aeroplane field.”

“[Given] its proximity to downtown, it evokes a lot of dreams,” said Chris Hage, an island resident who co-wrote “Nicollet Island: History and Architecture” with his wife Rushika.

Explorer Zebulon Pike camped there on his journey up the Mississippi in search of its origin. Henry David Thoreau carefully documented its foliage during a visit near the end of his life. The First Minnesota Regiment enjoyed a farewell party there before heading into the Civil War.

The first bridge across the Mississippi River connected downtown with Nicollet Island in 1855. And an attempt to bring water power to Nicollet Island nearly destroyed St. Anthony Falls in 1869.

By the mid- to late-1800s, many prominent families called Nicollet Island home. They included those of Charles Loring, Joel Basset and William King — a founder of this newspaper.

“In its heyday, pretty much the ‘who’s who’ of Minneapolis was living here,” said Rushika Hage. “These were the people who were shaping Minneapolis.”

Fast-forward to the 1960s and the island was packed with industrial buildings, a strip of commercial storefronts around where the Hennepin Avenue bridge is today, DeLaSalle High School and the historic homes. Hippies had begun to put down roots there, as had the drunks — and flophouses — displaced by the demolition of downtown’s “skid row.”

“Murder victims were sometimes dumped on the Island, and there were persistent bread-line suicides off the Hennepin Avenue Bridge that led the public to view the Island as an insidious Hell-hole,” read a 1973 essay in Earth Journal, “where a stout family could go for an exciting drive on Sundays, providing all doors were kept locked and windows were rolled up.”

Flush with money for urban renewal, city planners grew intent on leveling most of the buildings after the island was designated an urban renewal area.

“There was a lot of disagreement about what ought to happen to the island,” said John Chaffee, who has lived on the island for more than four decades. “There were 10 or a dozen different plans, all with their proponents. But it was generally agreed that it shouldn’t be industrial anymore.”

The commercial buildings along Hennepin Avenue were razed during a road widening in the early 1970s, and the many industrial buildings later came down in phases after that. But residents put up a fight when the wrecking ball began to topple historic homes, and the city backed off after a consultant said the properties — many dating to the 19th Century — were a rare collection. By 1971, the island was part of the St. Anthony Falls historic district, one of the first in the state.

The debate over Nicollet Island’s future in the 1970s coincided with a push to buy more parkland for a regional parks system, following the creation of the Metropolitan Council years earlier. After a fight with the city’s redevelopment authority, the Park Board ultimately acquired much of the island and the city sold the historic homes via a lottery system to owners who could restore them. Several homes were also moved there from elsewhere in the city.

The Park Board owned the land beneath the homes, which was leased under 99-year agreements. 

Chaffee said the Park Board’s ownership was meant to ensure the historic homes were preserved and maintained. “It was never intended for park use,” Chaffee said. “The Park Board’s ownership is ... intended to allow them to control what goes on here.”

While most of the island is technically a park, the primary park area surrounds an amphitheater on the south end that was constructed to celebrate the country’s bicentennial in 1976. The Park Board acknowledged in its latest master plan for the area that there is not enough public signage about the history of the island, that there is limited public access to the Nicollet Pavillion — a popular event space in one of the only remaining industrial buildings — and that trail connections to the island are unclear.

At least one person, Devin Hogan, is already planning a “2080 plan” for the time when the leases on the homes expire. Hogan, who earned the DFL endorsement in his unsuccessful 2017 bid for Park Board, would like to see the homes moved south to allow for denser development on the island’s north end.

“I see no reason why the urban center of the state can’t have urban development on it,” Hogan said. “And I say that specifically because it’s surrounded by a ring of parks.”

Chris Hage said living on Nicollet Island is like being in a “small town in the city” that developed organically. The area had a serene feel one recent evening as the Hages led a reporter on a tour amid the white picket fences, period architecture, backyard chickens and brick-lined streets.

“For sure, people would ruin it with ambition,” Hage said. “It’s something you polish. You don’t try to fix.”

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Correction: This article has been updated to clarify how the homes were sold.