In the fall of 2014, MnDOT will begin reconstructing Highway 100 in St. Louis Park Park in the vicinity of Highway 7 and Minnetonka Boulevard. This will bring an end to the existence of the only portion of the original “Lilac Way” or “Beltline Highway” constructed by relief labor in the 1930’s that has managed to survive to the modern day without being fully rebuilt. The project will remove and replace four historic bridges, all of which date back to the original construction. In anticipation of this work, I headed out in early May to photograph this stretch of highway before its demise.
The Highway Then…
This stretch of Highway 100 has survived as long as it has becuase it was designed from the get-go as a fully grade-separated and divided highway. In fact, the section between 28th and 36th Streets in St Louis Park was essentially a mile-long freeway, likely the first in Minnesota (see map above for an overview). Constructed between 1936 and 1939, the roadways that carried Highway 100 were originally 30 feet wide each, and paved with asphalt. The freeway section featured a cloverleaf interchange with State Highway 7 (among the first in the state), as well as a primitive diamond interchange with Minnetonka Boulevard. Towards the freeway’s southern end, two closely spaced bridges carried the rails of the CMStP&P and Soo Line over the highway.
This stretch also featured two of the beltline’s famous roadside parks, built in 1939. The awkwardly named St Louis Park Roadside Park (SLPRP) was located at the southeast corner of the Highway 7 interchange, while Lilac Park was located within the northeast corner of the Minnetonka Boulevard interchange. Both featured picnic areas with stone tables, benches, and fireplaces. The SLPRP featured a council ring, while Lilac Park featured one of the famous beehive fireplaces, as well as two rock/water gardens. The St. Louis Park Historic Society has a wealth of information on these roadside parks available here: St Louis Park Historical Society – Hwy 100 Roadside Parks.
The Highway Now…
Over the years, the road was repaved several times, the shoulders were widened, and modifications were made to the merging lanes at Highway 7. The biggest change was in the late 1960’s when the Minnetonka Boulevard interchange was rebuilt to its current configuration (minus the carpool ramp). The new interchange disrupted the old Lilac Park roadside, and the surviving structures were left to ruin.
From the 1960’s on, the remainder of Highway 100 was expanded into the modern freeway we know today. However, the old freeway section remained virtually intact with only two lanes each way, creating a major bottleneck for traffic. In lieu of sufficient funding for a complete reconstruction, MnDOT was able to complete interim work in 2007 that expanded the shoulders to provide 3 lanes northbound and an auxillary lane southbound. Also, the Highway 7 interchange was partially rebuilt into a folded diamond interchange. Shortly thereafter, funding and laws to replace structurally deficient bridges became available in the wake of the collapse of the 35W bridge in 2007. This finally gave MnDOT the impetus to rebuild the old freeway as part of the replacement of the aging Highway 7 and Minnetonka Boulevard bridges. See MnDOT’s project page here for a wealth of information: “Hwy 100 Project – MnDOT”
At Lilac Park (Old St Louis Park Roadside Park)
I started my visit to Highway 100 at the recently restored St Louis Park Roadside Park, now renamed “Lilac Park” to honor the other roadside parks lost to the shovels of progress. The park sits isolated at the southeast corner of the Highway 7 interchange at the end of the service road on the south side of County Road 25 (Old Hwy 7), accessible from Beltline Boulevard.
The highlight of the park is the restored beehive fireplace, moved here from the Old Lilac Park at Minnetonka Boulevard. Check out the St Louis Park Historical Society article on it here.
One of the other major features of the park is the restored council ring. The walking trail in the background follows what was once a circular driveway the encircled the picnic area, now closed to automobile traffic.
In this second image of the ring you can see both the beehive, and the historic Peavey–Haglin Experimental Concrete Grain Elevator, now painted with the logo of “Nordic-Ware” (see wikipedia article on this structure here).
Rail Overpass Bridges (5308 and 5309)
The rail overpass bridges at the south end of the old freeway section are easily visible from the restored Lilac Park. The above image shows the northern-most of the bridges, #5309, which now carries the Cedar Lake Regional Trail over Highway 100. Construction of the closely spaced pair of bridges was started in 1936 and completed in 1937. The bridges feature three striking art-moderne pillars on both faces, giving them a very substantial and imposing air. Between the pillars, the bridges are faced with distintive green-painted steel girders. The openings for the highway below have never been widened, and have thus restricted Highway 100’s width since the mid 1930’s! The Saint Louis Park Historic Society calls these bridges a “notorious bottleneck” (I personally remember being stuck in traffic at these bridges as a boy in the 1980’s while on errands with my father, getting car-sick listening to the “Cannon Mess” on WCCO).
Builder’s plaque on Bridge 5309 giving its completion date of 1937.
Looking north across the east ends of Bridge 5308 (foreground) and 5309. Bridge 5308 is still in use as a rail bridge. You can just make out the builder’s plaque of bridge 5309 (from the previous photo) in the distance, just right from center.
Close-up of the south eastern column of bridge 5308, showing weathering. Also note how several tracks on the bridge have been removed and replaced with a dirt trail. The apartment buildings across the bridge were constructed in what used to be an industrial area.
Another view of the gap between the bridges, the time looking southeast from bridge 5308.
Highway 7 Overpass (Bridge 5462) and Interchange
A view to the north from bridge 5309 of the Highway 7 interchange, with bridge 5462 just visible in the distance on the left. The original cloverleaf interchange was opened in 1939 as the second of its kind in Minnesota. The first was apparently the cloverleaf at the junction of Highway 100 with U.S. 12 (now 394) a few miles to the north, which opened a few months earlier (according to the Highway 100 timeline from the St Louis Park Historical Society).
View Larger MapFor safety reasons, I didn’t walk onto the Highway 7 bridge for a closer view of its structure. Instead, see the above Google Streetview, which gives a good high-definition view of what crossing the bridge is like. Note the circular design on the metal railings, which is original to the 1938/39 construction.
Minnetonka Boulevard Overpass (Bridge 5598)
The Ruins of Old Lilac Park
Lilac Park at Minnetonka Boulevard was one of the premier roadsides along Lilac Way. As such, it featured not one, but TWO rock/water gardens, one at both the north and south ends of the park. The large picnic area at the south end of the park was anchored by the famous beehive fireplace. It was surrounded by many stone picnic tables and benches, all on flat stone bases. Also included were a few trash recepticles and another more traditional fireplace. A small semi-circular parking area was built on the crest of the short steep hill overlooking the park along Toledo Avenue. The parking area was surrounded by a short stone wall. Flagstone walks connected the parking area with the various parts of the park.
In 1968, an exit ramp for northbound Highway 100 was constructed directly through the north end of the park, cutting off the north rock garden and eliminating the parking area and part of the old stone wall. Essentially cut off to pedestrians, the park fell into disuse and ruin. A survey made in November 1997 by MnDOT noted the poor condition of the park. By then only a few of the stone picnic tables remained, and the beehive was falling apart. An effort in 2008/2009 by the “Campaign to Restore Lilac Way” succeeded in saving the beehive, and it was moved to and restored at the new Lilac Park at Highway 7 (the old St Louis Park Roadside Park). The remaining features at the Old Lilac Park have become overgrown, and are difficult to see most of the year. They will certainly be wiped out by the upcoming construction.
A view to the north from the Minnetonka Boulevard overpass. On the right, you can see the flat green lawn that was once Lilac Park. Note the northbound exit ramp that disrupted the park in 1968. The street light on the right side of the highway sits approximately where the south rock garden used to be.
This view to the north shows the ramps at the northeast side of the Minnetonka Boulevard interchange. The small grove of pine trees on the left marks the location of the remains of the north rock garden. I was a bit too nervous to cross the on-ramps to investigate it.
Links and Sources
Highway 100 “Lilac Drive” Documentary (from the TPT Video Archive) – This must-watch documentary was made in 2001 and gives a full overview of the construction of Lilac Way / The Beltline and its historical significance.
St Louis Park Historical Society – The SLPHS has several pages dedicated to Lilac Way and its roadside parks.
Highway 100’s Roadside Parks – Scroll down for individual park page listing.
The Beehive and the New Lilac Park
The Campaign to Restore Lilac Way – Site created to raise awareness for restoration and preservation of Lilac Way. Responsible for restoring St Louis Park Roadside Park and one of the famous beehive fireplaces.
Other Sources Used:
Construction Plans Reviewed:
Bridges 5508 and 5509, 1936.
Bridge 5462, 1938.
Bridge 5598, 1938.
SP #2735-34, 1952.
SP #2735-38, 1968.
MnDOT Construction Project Log Record: Control Section 2735.
Kerr, Drew. “On Highway 100, relief finally in sight”. Finance & Commerce. August 12, 2012. url: http://finance-commerce.com/2012/08/on-highway-100-relief-finally-in-sight/