Passersby don’t notice the wooden shack tucked away in a shady corner of Theodore Wirth Park. No placard exclaims the origin of its lonely benches or ornate peak roof, which faded into obsolescence many years ago.
This is the last streetcar shelter in the Twin Cities.
“I don’t know why it survived,” said Aaron Isaacs, vice chair of the Minnesota Streetcar Museum, of the nearly 80-year-old structure. “Let alone be reasonably maintained. It’s not falling down or anything. It’s structurally sound.”
The only comparable structure is the much-larger streetcar station in St. Paul’s Como Park, which Isaacs said has always functioned as more than just a shelter.
The Wirth shelter, located off Glenwood Avenue just across the Minneapolis border in Golden Valley, was constructed as a Works Progress Administration project in 1937. The streetcar stopped there largely to pick up picnic-goers waiting near Wirth Lake at the tail end of the Glenwood line, which was extended into the park in 1916.
Above: The Glenwood line stops at the shelter in 1952,
a year two years before Minneapolis streetcar operations halted. Courtesy of the Minnesota Streetcar Museum.
Unlike modern day bus shelters, streetcar shelters were somewhat rare. Isaacs, who co-wrote “Twin Cities By Trolley,” said there were probably about a dozen of them altogether. “They were just simple wood structures and they were just torn down when they took the streetcars out,” Isaacs said.
Larger than some of its contemporaries, the Wirth shelter has caught the attention of Park Board project manager and landscape architect Andrea Webber, who was suprised by its interior architecture. “The roof structure is like a little Japanese temple,” said Webber, adding that the shelter is “definitely is on my radar to try to get some more TLC.”
Despite its public anonymity, carvings in the wood show the site has had some visitors over the years: “Esther + Joseph 4 Ever,” “Ryan 94,” “Lazy 03,” “Kal-e Yani ’94-5,” “R.I.P. Joe / Thank You,” “Marquise + Deanna,” and “PAWK.”
Another indicator? Empty bottles of Vodka and Prozac lying nearby.
The MPLS blog learned of the structure while searching for "Thomassons," an architectural phenomenon recently described in the podcast 99% Invisible. Thomassons refer to obsolete components of the built environment that are nonetheless maintained.
Precisely how the shelter has been maintained over the years is relatively unclear. But it was saved from harm several years ago when the rapidly widening trunk of a Cottonwood tree started inching into the foundation. The Park Board had to rent a special piece of equipment to have it removed.
Webber said it needs a new roof and perhaps a paint job, not to mention some interpretive signage explaining its history.
The Minnesota Streetcar Museum asked to move the shelter to the Lake Calhoun stop of its historic Como-Harriet streetcar line several years ago. But the state historic preservation office denied the offer, saying it would take the structure out of its historical context. “We’d be happy to take care of it, but not where it’s sitting,” Isaacs said.
The building is not historically designated, but Webber said it would be a contributing feature of the Grand Rounds – which has been nominated. “It deserves a little more attention than it’s gotten in the past,” Webber said.
Two other old-fashioned train stations around the city are actually relatively new. The "Linden Hills" station beside the Como-Harriet line is a reconstruction based on original plans. And the "Linden Yards" building beside the Cedar-Lake Trail was constructed when that trail was built in the 1990s.
Know of another Thomasson in Minneapolis? Tell us in the comments.