BY CAM GORDON
The future of Hiawatha Golf Course took an interesting turn this January when the city’s Historic Preservation Commission and the Park Board weighed in on its past. Both formally responded to a nomination submitted last year to add the golf course to the National Register of Historic Places.
The Minneapolis Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) voted to support the nomination of the 140-acre site located at 4553 Longfellow Ave. The Park Board approved a letter expressing both support and concerns.
The nomination was submitted last year by the Bronze Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports preservation of the 18-hole golf course, which hired Hess, Roise and Company to draft the nomination. The Bronze Foundation also manages the Bronze Tournament, formerly called the Upper Midwest Bronze Amateur Open, that has been held regularly at the course since 1954.
The application was submitted to the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) on Nov. 4, 2022. They will submit their findings to the State Historic Preservation Review Board on Feb. 7. If it is determined eligible by the board, the matter will go to the National Park Service for a final determination and placement on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP).
Charlene Roise, from Hess, Roise and Company, said that she is “very confident” that the effort will be successful. “The nomination makes the case that the property meets National Register criteria,” she said.
“I believe the property has a strong case for designation,” said Claire VanderEyk, one of the HPC commissioners who voted in support of the nomination, “though I think including the Native history would make it stronger.”
Kathryn Kelly, who learned to golf on the course and whose family owns a house across from it, said she is also confident that it will go through. In a letter Kelly submitted supporting the nomination, she wrote, “I grew up across the street from Hiawatha Golf Course during the height of the Bronze Tournament in the 1960s and 1970s. I saw the importance of Hiawatha Golf Course to the Black community. The Bronze Tournament was, by far, the largest event of the year at Hiawatha Golf Course.”
Hess-Roise’s 129-page nomination focuses on the social, cultural and ethnic history from 1952-1972, including the struggle to integrate the clubhouse that was segregated until 1952 when Solomon Hughes, a Black golfer, was finally admitted after years of trying. In 2021 the clubhouse was named in his honor. The nomination application concludes that the course “is locally significant under National Register Criterion A, in the areas of Entertainment/Recreation, Social History, and Ethnic Heritage: Black, as a significant site for civil rights in Minneapolis.”
Following submission of the application, the SHPO requested comments from both the Minneapolis HPC and the Park Board.
“Our (the Commission’s) mandate was to offer support, or non-support, of the nomination with the added opportunity to provide some comments to accompany our letter,” said VanderEyk. “The HPC voted in favor of supporting the nomination and asked that SHPO consider extending the period of significance to include Native history.”
The Park Board’s response was shaped by the master plan for the area it approved last September. That plan attempts to improve water management, reduces the golf course to nine holes, adds other amenities and restores part of the area to wetlands. The Park Board letter, signed by Board President Meg Forney, notes the history of the area prior to the creation of the golf course and the changes made to what was then called Rice Lake (Bde Psin). “Though the MPRB largely agrees with the history represented within the Bronze Foundation’s application,” it says, “there are other histories on this site worth sharing, including Indigenous histories extending back thousands of years. The master plan represents a balance of nature and recreation, and a balance for Black golfers, where the golf course is modified but retained, and Indigenous peoples, where a process of healing and restoration is proposed to reestablish, as best as the MPRB is able, the ecology of Bde Psin.”
If the nomination is successful and the course is put on the National Register, it is unclear what benefits it will bring and how this will impact future changes to the area. National registration typically offers few protections, but is associated with preservation incentives, including rehabilitation tax credits that could be used by private property owners.
“The National Register of Historic Places creates a written record of the history of the site, which I think is very valuable for future reference,” said Vander-Eyk. “It also adds a layer of potential consideration if or when proposals of redevelopment or major renovations occur. The listing does not preclude changes, but it allows an added layer of oversight, which I believe will benefit the process and ensure a better, more holistic approach to any future changes.”
Kelly served on the Community Advisory Committee for the Hiawatha Golf Course Master Plan and is now a member of the SaveHiawatha18 group, which is trying to keep the 18-hole course. “Our hope is that the Park Board would think twice about what they are doing,” she said. “We are trying to save all 18 holes.”
Kelly sees bigger risks to the restoration project and about how possible changes to managing storm water may affect the homes in the area, and her family’s home in particular. “My main goal is to save my family’s house,” she said. “Lots of the golf courses flood and there are other solutions. The watershed district could do more than just dump water in the creek.”
“I see no reason the registration will impact the master plan,” said VanderEyk. “NRHP nominations are honorary and symbolic. They do not afford protection of the nominated property. Local historic designation is the process with which communities can protect historic properties with specific design guidelines.”
In Minnesota, local historic designation is made through a city’s Heritage Preservation Commission under rules spelled out in a city ordinance. Minneapolis’s ordinance is clear that a nomination may only be made by an HPC commissioner, a member of the City Council, the mayor, the planning director or a person with a “legal or equitable interest in the subject property.”
When asked if she thought that some or all of the area might qualify for local designation, Roise had no doubts. “Yes,” she said, “virtually anything that qualifies for the National Register qualifies for local designation.”
Roise, Kelly, VanderEyk, and city HPC staff all reported that there are no plans that they are aware of for local historic designation at this time.