Driving down Park Avenue S. today, it’s easy to see it as just a big, wide street for getting into downtown when Interstate 35W is backed up. But slow down, and you can see remnants of the street’s glamorous past, when a Park Avenue address signified affluence and luxurious living.
“A lot of people aren’t aware that Park, from Franklin to 28th, was ‘The Golden Mile,’ ” said architectural historian Ryan Knoke. During the Victorian era, “the wealthiest people were hiring the top architects and showing off their money” — building elegant mansions along the wide boulevard and creating a prestigious neighborhood that rivaled St. Paul’s Summit Avenue.
South of the Golden Mile and its uber-rich residents, upper middle-class Minneapolitans wanted their own piece of prestigious Park Avenue. Doctors, lawyers and business owners hired the same prominent architects to design smaller versions of the grand mansions. “They were keeping up with the Joneses,” said Knoke.
Knoke will lead two back-to-back walking tours on June 16, to share lore about the avenue, its history and architecture and its early residents.
The first tour covers the Golden Mile and the prominent Minnesota families that made their homes there at the turn of the century — until urban renewal initiatives in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s led to the avenue’s decline. “It’s fascinating and melancholy — so many of the mansions are gone,” said Knoke, who will bring along historic photos of those lost landmarks.
Tourgoers will get a look inside one of the surviving mansions, a Renaissance Revival structure now owned by St. Mary’s University. Its original owner, Charles Harrington, moved from New York to Minnesota as a poor teen and rose to become president of a grain firm. In 1902, he hired architects Kees and Colburn to design a brick mansion, and later hired John Bradstreet to design the first-floor interior, which features original Tiffany lighting, hand-painted murals, mosaics and carved mahogany. “It’s Bradstreet at its best,” said Knoke.
The second tour focuses on the 10 blocks south of the Golden Mile where most of the turn-of-the-century homes still stand. That stretch of Park Avenue also fell on hard times in the later part of the 20th century, when many of the houses became rundown and vacant. Today, it’s on the upswing, with people buying and restoring the Victorian-era homes. Tourgoers will get an inside look at two restorations, an 1898 Queen Anne with magnificent woodwork (featured in this section) and a 1905 Colonial Revival designed and built by a master carpenter.
Knoke is part of Park Avenue’s story. In 2004, he and his partner, Montana Scheff, bought a 1905 Colonial Revival house on the avenue. The seller was a 101-year-old man who had lived there since 1930. He told stories that piqued their interest in learning more. “That was the catalyst for this fascination with Park Avenue,” said Knoke.
As they restored the home, they researched its history and that of nearby houses. In 2008, they started the walking tour, which has now become a regular event.
Knoke and Scheff no longer live on Park Avenue; in 2013, they bought a Clarence Johnston-designed house in St. Paul, but Knoke still leads the tour. “It just feels like part of our history, too,” said Knoke. “We grew so attached, and saw so much positive change. Park Avenue had a bit of a hard time, but people are restoring houses, and it’s only continued that upward trajectory. It’s so rewarding to walk down the street.”