Ryan Knoke can rattle off historical facts at lightning speed about the homes along Park Avenue S. in Minneapolis.
"Did you know that Reinhold Zeglin [an early Park Avenue resident] owned the Coney Island Hotel on Lake Waconia?" he said. Another fun fact: "Everyone has seen that row of gingerbread Victorians rising up along 35W. They were designed by [master builder] T.P. Healy, who did many homes on Park."
Knoke caught Park Avenue fever in 2004 when he and Montana Scheff bought a 1905 Colonial Revival at 36th Street and Park. After visiting the 101-year-old man who had lived there and hearing his stories, "we became fascinated by the history of our own house and Park Avenue, too," said Knoke.
As they extensively restored and refreshed their century-old home, which was designed by Barclay Cooper, Knoke and Scheff researched Park Avenue home histories.
They pored over faded photos, newspaper clippings and census records at the Minnesota Historical Society, Hennepin County Public Library, Hennepin History Museum and other resources, often unearthing intriguing trivia.
They discovered that Park Avenue was once an elegant tree-lined boulevard with stately mansions and architecturally eclectic homes, in styles ranging from Queen Anne to Italian Renaissance.
"After a lot of digging we knew the street had been something special with its huge mansions and lovely Victorians designed by prolific architects," said Knoke. "We wanted to share it with the public and hope it will change their perception."
Since 2008, Knoke and Scheff have organized and led walking tours of Park Avenue's single-family homes, describing architectural details and their significance, as well as sharing anecdotes about residents and designers.
"Some stories read like a 1910 People magazine," said Knoke. "People roar with laughter when I tell them about some of the architects' personal lives."
The tours also focus on the rejuvenation of Park, thanks to the rising number of homes being lovingly restored by owners. "People are rediscovering Park Avenue and the great architect-designed houses on par with Lowry Hill at a fraction of the cost," said Knoke.
This summer, the men have expanded the popular event into a two-part series. It's the first time they'll tell history buffs about the eight remaining mansions along the "Golden Mile" north of 28th Street.
"I had already done the research, so why not share it?" said Knoke. The tour will depart from the swanky Art Deco lobby of 2615 Park Av. S., and participants are invited inside the John Cowles and Anson Brooks mansions.
"It's such a rare opportunity to get into the Cowles and Brooks mansions," said Knoke. "I'm the Park Avenue architectural historian, and even I have never been in those mansions until this tour."
A century ago, Park Avenue was graced with more than 30 stately mansions. Knoke, inspired by Larry Millett's book "Once There Were Castles: Lost Mansions and Estates of the Twin Cities," will honor the bygone beauties during the tour.
"I'm going to stand in a parking lot and hold up a photo and say, 'This was here,'" said Knoke. "I think people will react with a mixture of sadness and awe."
Lynn Underwood • 612-673-7619