Large trees in the foreground of this early photo helped consultants distinguish between preserved and planted vegetation.

Existing Conditions
Understanding the MHD's Legacy

Until the recent study, Mn/DOT had no comprehensive inventory of the historic roadside development facilities within its jurisdiction (i.e., within the rights-of-way of the 12,000-mile-long state trunk highway system). In 1965 the Highway Department identified about 385 wayside rests along the state highways, but little had been done since then to document historic sites or retain historical plans and files. Original designers were unknown, architectural plans were not accessible, and the landscape designs were not well understood. There were insufficient data and inadequate criteria to evaluate the historical and design significance of the properties.

While it might have been ideal for Mn/DOT to inventory all roadside development landscapes within its right-of-way, a limited budget necessitated that only a subset be inventoried. Mn/DOT chose to focus on roadside development facilities on current Mn/DOT right-of-way that contained at least one pre-1961 standing structure. Mn/DOT excluded properties that had left its jurisdiction for one reason or another or did not contain a pre-1961 structure.

 

This 1940 photo of Graeser Park shows one of the many parks designed and built along the 6.7-mile segment of Lilac Way , the only historic district evaluated in the research.

To begin the inventory a list of suspected sites was developed using historical MHD records, plans, photos, and other documents. This list helped Mn/DOT verify which sites it still owned and eliminate those that had been transferred to city or county governments or had been demolished. Mn/DOT’s consultants then conducted fieldwork to inventory the remaining sites on the list. If the fieldworkers found no pre-1961 structures standing, the property was dropped from the inventory.

Next, information was recorded about property location, each standing structure, plantings, other landscape features, the setting, integrity (alterations and condition), historical background, previous State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) reviews, discussion of the property's significance, references, and additional information where applicable.

In all, 102 properties were inventoried statewide. Most were individual properties, but one historic district with seven major facilities was included. In the case of the eligible historic district, the evaluation was based on conclusions and boundaries established in a previously completed Section 106 review.

The Garrison Pedestrian Underpass (1 of 43 different feature types) allowed for safe roadway crossing to a nearby rest area and lakeshore.

Existing Conditions
A Diverse Collection

The 102 properties are scattered across the state in 42 of Minnesota's 82 counties. They are concentrated in Minnesota's most scenic areas and near population centers where Depression-era federal relief jobs were most needed.

Mn/DOT did not inventory post-1960 properties and therefore did not evaluate sites associated with Lady Bird Johnson's beautification efforts of the 1960s or sites associated with the interstate highway system. Just as it once lacked comprehensive information about its New Deal era sites, Mn/DOT does not have an inventory of these facilities' potential historic attributes. If Mn/DOT decides to evaluate its post-1960 properties, it will need to amend the existing roadside context or write a new context document.



 

(top) Council rings, such as this one in Hewitt, were popular with local groups and travelers alike. Courtesy of Marvel Blaske. (bottom) The Garrison Rest Area's log and stone kitchen shelter strongly exhibited the Rustic style influences on roadside development.

The 102 properties, as they were originally designed, ranged from the very small — a .1-acre wayside rest with a simple pull-off road and an historical marker — to complex parks of more than 100 acres that had hiking trails and picnic areas.

The oldest property in the inventory is an 1889 state memorial that was inherited by the Highway Department. About 68 of the 102 sites were created during the Depression. The majority were designed in the National Park Service Rustic style. At least 41 are believed to have been designed by the landscape architect A. R. Nichols. 62 of the sites are believed to be the work of New Deal federal relief agencies.

Many of the properties are wayside rests or roadside parks that were designed to be visited by the motoring public. Others are retaining walls or bridges to enhance the aesthetics and experience of traveling a scenic highway but were not necessarily designed for stopping. Collectively, the 102 inventoried properties contain hundreds of council rings, historical markers, stone picnic tables, overlooks, trail steps, dams, and even sea walls, bathhouses, and rock gardens (in all, the consultants identified 43 different types of standing structures). These standing structures were individually enumerated on the site inventory forms. The properties contain numerous landscape features that were only generally described. These include parking areas, internal roads, foot trails, swimming beaches, softball fields, and smaller objects such as bollards, modern guardrails, garbage cans, and lighting fixtures.

The study found that many of Mn/DOT’s roadside facilities are in poor condition and threatened by highway expansion, suburban development, deterioration, neglect, improper repairs, vandalism, and land use changes. Because many are located in Minnesota’s most beautiful areas and near its largest cities, they face increasing pressure as population grows, traffic swells, and tourism increases.


High-volume traffic and noise make it increasingly difficult to stop and enjoy the Pine Bend Historical Marker.


Existing Conditions
The Facilities Today

Landscape features are being lost to wider shoulders and new turn lanes. Small sites are being dwarfed by expanding roadways and sometimes an entire wayside rest has been removed. The impacts sometimes have a very direct and adverse effect. For example, in the 1960s Mn/DOT added a new access ramp to Trunk Highway 100 west of Minneapolis, isolating portions of Lilac Park. Now virtually inaccessible, its ornate rock garden and picnic area with stone tables and fireplaces have become overgrown and deteriorated.

Higher traffic speeds are also taking their toll. A wayside rest built to accommodate the modest traffic of the 1930s, may now be difficult or unsafe to enter and equally awkward to exit. Once visitors are in a site, activities such as a family picnic may be hard to enjoy if speeding commuters are a mere 100 feet away. Site use may diminish and in time the site may no longer be valued. As a consequence, maintenance and repairs may be delayed and soon the site becomes a victim of benign neglect.

Design changes and improper repairs have also altered the sites. Changes include enlarging parking areas and covering flagstone walkways with concrete. In an attempt to protect them from water damage, stone walls have been capped with an icing of mortar, altering their rustic appearance. Other masonry repairs are equally obvious, of poor quality, and sometimes damaging.

 

An elaborate stone stairway that leads to the water at the Kenney Lake Overlook is now overgrown.

Historic vegetation has also been poorly managed. At nearly all the sites, overgrown turf and weeds cover stone curbing and threaten to damage stonework. The trees at the Willow Lake Overlook have become so overgrown that there is virtually no view of the lake from the immense CCC-built stone concourse. Not only has the original viewshed been lost, but the site now attracts vandalism and dumping.

The public’s needs have also changed. In the 1930s, wayside rest areas were among the few roadside amenities available to the traveling public. Today many other options exist, but little has been done to adapt historic roadside facilities to new use patterns. This is due, in part, to changes within Mn/DOT.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, most of the state's roadside development resources were directed to building the new interstate highway system. As investments changed, caring for roadside development properties became the responsibility of each of the nine MHD district offices, which were then being decentralized. Each office became responsible for repairing its roadside parking areas and maintaining the right-of-way landscaping. At the same time, long-standing personnel with direct ties to and knowledge of the sites retired. Mn/DOT no longer centrally oversaw the properties and they became a low priority.

In recent decades the challenges have continued, both in cities and in quiet rural areas. Because Mn/DOT had no statewide strategy to manage and preserve its historic roadside facilities, few people understood their beauty and significance nor realized they are becoming increasingly rare.


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