200 E 24th St.
Minneapolis, MN 55405
Nearby Recreation Center: Whitter Recreation Center
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Public Art: Statue of George Washington
Name: The park was named for the William Washburn family’s estate “Fair Oaks” that once occupied the land. William Washburn was a representative in Congress from Minneapolis and then a United States Senator 1889-1895. He was the brother of Cadwallader Washburn, who founded the Washburn-Crosby Company, the largest milling company in the world at one time and the predecessor of General Mills. Washburn was an advocate of creating parks in Minneapolis when the park board was created in 1883. He donated some of the land for Minnehaha Parkway and is remembered today in Minneapolis because Washburn High School is named for him.
Acquisition and Development
Washburn Fair Oaks was one of the first sites considered for a city park long before the park board was created. In 1869 Richard Mendenhall offered to sell forty acres in the vicinity to the city to create a park. The city council declined that offer and eventually two of the city’s wealthiest men, Dorilus Morrison and William Washburn, built homes there.
In 1911, Morrison’s son, Clinton, offered to donate his family’s estate, eight acres south of East 24th Street between Stevens and Third avenues, to the park board for the express purpose of creating an art museum. The park board accepted that offer and the former Morrison estate, Dorilus Morrison Park, now holds the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
The donation of the Morrison estate to the park board generated interest in the Washburn property just to the north. And later in 1911 William Washburn made an offer to the park board that it accepted. He would sell his land to the park board for the appraised price of the land alone—not counting the value of the buildings on the land. It was a generous offer considering that Washburn’s enormous mansion, the largest in the city, the barns, stables and greenhouses were valued at about $400,000 by themselves. (The property even included a small lake fed by an artificial water supply.)
So the park board purchased Washburn’s land in 1911 for about $250,000 on the condition that Washburn and his wife would retain possession of their home until they died. The land passed to the park board upon the death of Mrs. Washburn in 1915.
The stables and greenhouses were demolished soon after the park board acquired the land, but Fair Oaks, the mansion, stood for another nine years. The park board never knew what to do with the enormous home and it fell into disrepair. It was used as a meeting place by civic groups during World War I and after, especially the Women’s Welfare League. The park board even considered at one time making the huge home its headquarters.
In 1916, park superintendent Theodore Wirth wrote that he believed the grounds could be developed “to become useful as a small children’s playground, without destroying, to any appreciable extent, the present attractive features of the park.” The next year, in the 1917 annual report, Wirth provided a drawing for how an outdoor amphitheater with a seating capacity of 1,100 people could be laid out in the park. Wirth noted that the park had been used already for several “small plays” by children and included a photo of one such production in his annual report. (Judging by the photo, the “small plays” were likely forerunners of the later playground pageants staged at Lyndale Park.) But none of these suggestions were pursued.
While the mansion deteriorated, the grounds around it became an informal playground for neighborhood children. However, neither a dilapidated mansion nor children’s ball games were appreciated in the neighborhood. The building deteriorated to the point that in 1923 Helen Law and others offered to give the park board $25,000 to buy a new playground in the neighborhood if it would demolish Fair Oaks. (Earlier in the year Law had asked the park board to ban baseball in the park and to build two tennis courts there instead.) The Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts, the operators of the Institute of Arts, favored the demolition so that a suitable setting and approach to the Institute could be created.
The park board accepted the offer and Fair Oaks was demolished in 1924 in the hope that the entire park could be transformed into a beautiful landscaped plaza in front of the Institute of Arts. Park commissioner Phelps Wyman, a landscape architect, and Theodore Wirth collaborated on the design of a plaza for Washburn Fair Oaks Park, which was published in the park board’s 1923 annual report, but never built. Wirth proposed in 1926 that the plaza should be the start of an esplanade that would extend from the Institute of Arts to the Minneapolis Auditorium a mile to the north.
The beautiful approach to the Institute of Arts that both the fine arts society and the park board wanted instead of the mansion or the playground, never was developed. Washburn Fair Oaks has remained instead a beautiful open green space in the center of the city. Land to replace Washburn Fair Oaks as a playground was not purchased until 1926 and it was much too small to serve as a full-service playground.
(See Clinton Field Park for more on the creation of a playground for the neighborhood.)
In 1931, the Daughters of the American Revolution erected a statue of George Washington in the park across from the entrance to the Institute of Arts.
Park history compiled and written by David C. Smith.