Amid the historic Minneapolis maps temporarily on view at the downtown library is one from 1959 that is a cry for help.
The streetcar system had been ripped up, bulldozers were leveling an entire downtown neighborhood and freeways soon would plow through thousands of homes when Joseph Zalusky devised his Hail Mary attempt to preserve the city’s history.
The local historian’s idea, splashed atop the front page of the Minneapolis Star, was simple: Gather prized artifacts and move them to Washburn Fair Oaks Park.
The so-called “Park for Posterity” in front of the Minneapolis Institute of Art would have been quite a spectacle. It was to contain the city’s oldest surviving house, the first house built west of the river, the last streetcar, the Father of Waters statue, the Pioneers statue, the statue of Col. John Stevens, an old steam locomotive and the Gateway Park flagpole.
The threats were everywhere, as Zalusky outlined in a letter to the Park Board. The Ard Godfrey House was in danger of being removed “to make way for progress” as a parking lot, while vandals were prevalent at the Stevens House. The demolition of the Gateway District made the future of the George Washington flagpole and Pioneers statue uncertain. There also had been discussion of removing the Father of Waters statue from City Hall.
“During this transitory period, there are many items of historical value that could and should be kept for those who will come after us,” wrote Zalusky, executive secretary and a co-founder of the Hennepin County Historical Society. Attached was his hand-drawn map of the park, likely the same one now on display.
The location was fitting, since the historical society (now the Hennepin History Museum) had just moved to its present location beside the park in an old mansion. It had tried unsuccessfully years earlier to build a permanent location on Chute Square beside the Godfrey House, with plans to move the Stevens House there.
Zalusky was more than just a prominent local historian, however, as one learns after sifting through his files at the Minneapolis Central Library.
He was one of thousands of schoolchildren who, back in 1896, helped physically move the Stevens house from near Cedar-Riverside to its present location in Minnehaha Falls Park. A former city planner, he had in the 1930s proposed the name “Pioneers Square” for a park built in front of the city’s new downtown post office — where the Pioneers statue was ultimately erected. He rode on the last streetcar trip in 1954, an eight-car train with table lunch service traveling from Minneapolis to St. Paul in 1954.
Zalusky also spearheaded the purchase and subsequent public ownership of the land where Father Louis Hennepin became the first European to spot St. Anthony Falls in 1680. His personal collection of local artifacts — from fire helmets to 10,000-year-old ferns — was so extensive that they were put on display at the city auditorium.
So what became of the Park for Posterity? It appears that like many big ideas that slowly fizzle away, rather than die in a deciding vote, that the precise reason for its demise was never publicly recorded.
The matter was referred to a Park Board committee in 1959. Records show it later garnered formal support from the American Swedish Institute and the Minnesota Historical Society, the latter of which had been conducting a survey of the state’s historic sites.
“One of the findings of this survey which has struck us with considerable force is that Minneapolis has allowed virtually all of its major historic sites to either disappear or fall into neglect so that their future is highly uncertain,” the society’s director, Russell Fridley, wrote to the park superintendent. “Therefore, it does seem that efforts to safeguard historical places in the city do merit consideration.”
In 1961, the historical society advised the Park Board that the steam-driven locomotive recommended for the park “was not truly representative of the old style locomotives and that there are no further antique engines available.”
Four years later, the Park Board was mulling where to relocate the Pioneers monument after receiving $50,000 to move it as a part of the Gateway redevelopment. The decision was somewhat controversial, as the statue itself had only cost $20,000. A news story at the time said Zalusky was still pushing for it to be moved to Washburn Fair Oaks Park. It would later end up at 5th Avenue and Main Street NE, before one more move to nearby B.F. Nelson Park in 2010.
After that, the trail goes cold.
Zalusky, who died in 1970, would be happy to know that the artifacts he was trying to preserve all survived — one of those last streetcars even still makes trips beside the Chain of Lakes. Today, the thought of destroying any of them would prompt a public outcry and likely run afoul of state and local preservation laws that were developed soon after Zalusky’s death.
But the map, which is on display until the end of the month, lives on as a reminder of an era when nothing appeared sacred in the name of redevelopment.