Gateway District

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Gateway District

Gateway Park, 1922. Photo by C.J. Hibbard. Minneapolis Collection, Hennepin County Library Special Collections.
Location of Site: Bound by the Mississippi River and 4th Street South and Hennepin Avenue and 3rd Avenue South
Neighborhood/s: Downtown, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Lower Loop, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Hennepin County, Minnesota
State/province: Minnesota
Country: United States
Year Established: 1915

Downtown, Lower Loop Minneapolis Hennepin County

Gateway District
(44.981089° N, 93.266809° WLatitude: 44°58′51.92″N
Longitude: 93°16′0.512″W

The Gateway District is located in Downtown Minneapolis, between the Mississippi River and 4th Street South. It is also bound by Hennepin Avenue to the west and 3rd Avenue South to the east. Originally the location of Bridge Square, the area was renamed in 1915 to reflect the transformation to the area, including a new park.

The park, which opened in 1915, was christened Gateway Park. This “Gateway” referred to the park’s prime location next to the railroad station. When passengers got of the train, the park was the first thing to be seen, effectively serving as the gateway to Minneapolis. The “Gateway” stamp has remained on the area ever since. The park sported a neoclassical pavilion influenced by the Beaux-Arts style of architecture. Larry Millet, author of several books on Twin Cities architecture, describes the Gateway Pavilion in his book, Lost Twin Cities:

“The pavilion, faced in smooth stone, consisted of a one-and-a-half-story central section flanked by low, curving, colonnades that extended outward in a welcoming gesture. The central part of the pavilion was quite ornate, with large Palladian windows and entry arches, carved panels, and a balustrade around a low domed roof. The colonnades to either side were treated more simply, employing the modest Tuscan order and a minimum of decoration.”

The pavilion had public restrooms, and space used by the Minneapolis Tourist Bureau. Carved on the front of the pavilion was “The Gateway: More than her gates the city opens her heart to you.” The unveiling of the Gateway Park and Pavilion represented the effective end to the area known as Bridge Square. From then on, it would be referred to as The Gateway.


Site History

Citizens of Minneapolis responded enthusiastically to the new park. In some cases, other public works were donated to the area. Two recorded examples of this are water fountains donated by the Daughters of Veterans of Minneapolis, and the George Washington flagpole, given to the park by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1917. While the water fountains, which served as a memorial to Civil War veterans are now gone, the flagpole still exists on the corner of Hennepin Avenue and 1st Street South, in front of the Towers Apartments.

In the first five years that Gateway Park existed, the area saw a decrease in its previous characteristics. This may have been caused in part by the absence of saloons in the immediate area surrounding the park. When the park was built, 27 saloons had to close due to restrictions on a saloon’s proximity to the park. This effectively rid the immediate area of some of its previous problems. For more information on the characteristics of Bridge Square, please see the Bridge Square page here .

The Other Minneapolis, by David L. Rosheim, is a prime secondary source on the history of the Gateway District. Rosheim brings together a variety of sources to contribute to the history of the area. While his written history is extensive, Rosheim paints a not-so-pretty picture of the Gateway as a general “skid row”. While some of these descriptions are quite accurate, Rosheim attempts to mark the Gateway as a general area of decay and derelicts.

The passage of Prohibition in the early 1920s further contributed to the attempted cleanup of the Gateway District. The saloons were effectively closed, but other institutions sprang up in their place. Former saloon owners reopened their businesses as soft drink bars. Gambling joints and speakeasies were not lacking. Dance halls, where men could pay a dime to dance with a girl, also became increasingly popular during the 1920s. Vice saw a resurge, with brothels disguising themselves with cigar stand and candy shop storefronts.

With an increase in business during this decade, the city’s skid row population began to decrease. This, however, was reversed during the Great Depression, when the city was on an economic downturn. Transients returned to the Gateway District, which once again saw itself as a gathering place for the down and out, according to Rosheim.

Prior to the stock market crash of 1929, city planners were once again brainstorming ways to transform the Gateway District. They planned to build a post office facing the river at 1st Street South, as well as a bus terminal, a passenger train terminal, and a new municipal court building. This renovation was to take place over the next decade, but was never fully enacted due to the Great Depression.

What ground was made in terms of transient population during the business boom of the twenties was lost in the thirties. According to Rosheim, as unemployment rose, so did the hobo population. A new demographic of this drifter population was youth, driven away from home by poverty, or perhaps in pursuit of better opportunities.

Men sitting by the fountain at Gateway Park, 1937
Men sitting by the fountain at Gateway Park, 1937

Public relief rose drastically during this period. In 1930, an estimated $215,000 was spent on Minneapolis Poor Relief. Charities such as the Union City Mission continued to serve free meals if the visitor listened to a sermon. The Minneapolis City Council raised funds through bond issues to begin construction on public projects, in hopes of making a dent in the massive unemployment rate. In 1931, work began on the previously proposed post office, situated between the river and 1st Street South. More green space was planned for the front of the post office. An entire block of buildings was demolished, and Pioneer Park was created.

The Great Depression had a great affect on the area. By the time the Depression had ended, little had been done to renovate the old buildings in the Gateway District, creating an even shabbier space. No money was available to enact the construction plans of the twenties, besides the post office. Flophouses continued to flourish, and saloons made a comeback after the repeal of prohibition. The “skid row” would exist for another twenty years, until post World War II, when urban renewal would pick up speed.

In 1939, 36% fewer cases were added to the city’s relief population compared to the previous year. This signified an end to the Great Depression, but also a beginning to the WWII economic boom. Wartime production allowed the once unemployed to again earn a steady paycheck. During World War II, the skid row population decreased once again, but not entirely. There was still a small population of elderly pensioners and homeless men in the area, but they did not have as much of an impact as those in previous years.

The immediate post-WWII era impacted the population of the Twin Cities greatly. The rising popularity of the suburb and the generosity of G.I. benefits allowed many to leave the immediate city in favor of a more spacious, clean home. In the 1950s, Minneapolis’ population decreased by as much as 40,000.This serious change gave city officials another reason to plan a revitalization of the city. This time, the government was able to afford a mass “urban renewal”.

The 1950s are the Gateway’s most documented time period. As plans to raze the area were being made, newspapers, sociologists, and even current tenants zoomed in on the culture and people that distinctly marked the Gateway District. Because of this intense scrutiny, more has been revealed about the skid row that once existed.

Unemployed men sitting on the steps of the Gateway Center Building, as photographed by the Minneapolis Tribune in 1950. Minneapolis Collection, Hennepin County Library Special Collections.
Unemployed men sitting on the steps of the Gateway Center Building, as photographed by the Minneapolis Tribune in 1950. Minneapolis Collection, Hennepin County Library Special Collections.

By the time serious changes to the Gateway District were being discussed, the Gateway was at the lowest point in its history. Most buildings were old and decaying, with renovations were too expensive to complete. Not a single building in the area met the housing code, and rat infestations were common. Old housing ordinances made it difficult to convict landlords of flophouses. For example, it was technically legal to only have one toilet per floor. However, if there were a hundred tenants living on a single floor, as per some hotels of the period, sanitation would be practically impossible. In a report from the health department, it was noted that in the entire skid row area, there were only 82 bathtubs, 84 showers, and 220 toilets.

Besides flophouses and cage hotels, there were also single sleeping rooms and apartments. In addition, there were approximately fifty bars, twenty liquor stores, sixty restaurants, fifteen pawnshops, plus a multitude of service businesses and retail shops.

By the late 1950s, there were approximately 3,000 people who called the Gateway their home. The group was almost entirely male. While some still fit the homeless/transient stereotype, others were aging pensioners who turned the Gateway into their retirement home. The median age of area residents in 1958 was sixty.

The park in the 1950s, as photographed by the Minneapolis Star. Minneapolis Collection, Hennepin County Library Special Collections.
The park in the 1950s, as photographed by the Minneapolis Star. Minneapolis Collection, Hennepin County Library Special Collections.

The desire for complete renewal was motivated even greater by the downturn of Minneapolis in a newly suburban era. The first sign of this expansive renewal was the demolition of the Gateway Pavilion in 1953. For the past thirty years, Gateway residents- men leaning on the fences, sitting around the park, drinking in public- had used the park as a hangout. Once lauded for its public restrooms, the pavilion was renamed “the pisshouse” by locals. The Gateway Park could not serve as a prominent gateway to the city, so the best option was demolition. After the razing, the park board put a four-foot high fence around the grassy interior to prevent further loafing on the once-picturesque area.

Demolition of Gateway Park Building, Washington Avenue South, Minneapolis. Photographer: Minneapolis Star Journal Tribune, 1953. Minnesota Historical Society.
Demolition of Gateway Park Building, Washington Avenue South, Minneapolis. Photographer: Minneapolis Star Journal Tribune, 1953. Minnesota Historical Society.

In 1955, talks began to take place concerning the future of the rest of the area. By then, almost 70 acres were under scrutiny, from First Avenue North to Third Avenue South and from First to Fourth Streets. In 1957, the Minneapolis Housing and Redevelopment Authority secured a federal grant totaling over $13 million dollars from the Urban Renewal Association. It was to be the nation’s largest downtown renewal effort.

After the City Council approved the renewal plan in February of 1959, the project went into full swing. As the HRA began to buy up land to carry out its plans, it was met with backlash from businesses and concerned citizens in the community. Not all property owners wanted to sell their buildings, but they were eventually overtaken by the city.

Perhaps the most significant fight between the city and its inhabitants was for the Metropolitan Building. Originally known as the Northwestern Guaranty Loan Building, it was constructed in 1890 on Third Street and Second Avenue. It was 12 stories tall, built in the Romanesque Revival style, and was considered to be an architectural masterpiece. Although the building was slated for destruction, historical preservationists rallied to save the building. It was argued by the HRA that the building’s renovations would be too costly to bring up to current standards. The HRA won a legal battle to purchase the building, and in 1961 it was destroyed. Although the building was lost, it paved the way for better legal tactics for the protection historical buildings in the future.

From 1959 to 1965, the HRA razed over 200 buildings in the district. Over 450 buildings were closed, and 2,500 residents were displaced. Twenty-two blocks were completely or partially leveled, about 1/3 of the entire downtown area. The Gateway District would never look the same again.

After the complete demolition, buildings began to spring up in place of the shabby flophouses and saloons. City planners wanted to incorporate businesses and residential buildings into the area, to create the civic center that was always desired. Early buildings in the new Gateway included the Sheraton-Ritz Hotel, the IBM building, a Northwestern National Life Insurance Building, and the Towers Apartments. Parking lots occupied much of the space, and as much as 40% of the area had not been developed as late as 1971.

Today, parking still takes up a considerable amount of space in the Gateway District. The post office, built in 1931, still stands, but several buildings from the immediate aftermath of the razing have long since been razed themselves, such as the Sheraton-Ritz and the IBM building. A small scale “Gateway Park” exists where the Gateway Pavilion once stood, though it often goes unnoticed. The George Washington flagpole, in front of the entrance to the Towers Apartments, looks strangely out of place among the sixties-era architecture.

In November of 2011, the Star-Tribune reported the need for more green space downtown. The Downtown Council has considered ideas to, once again, transform areas of the Gateway. This plan, however, only consists of converting blocks of parking lots into green space.

For over one hundred years, the area now known as the Gateway District was viewed as a problem to be fixed. After the mass urban renewal of the fifties and sixties, however, the Gateway had effectively been cleansed of its previous skid row tendencies.

Preceeded by

Bridge Square

Memories and stories

Photo Gallery


Some images courtesy of: The Star Tribune historical archives, the Minnesota Historical Society, and Lileks, James “Long Gone: The Gateway.” The Gateway Reconstruction Project. 2009. Web. 20 Oct. 2011. <>.

Other Sources:

Anderson, David. Downtown: A History of Downtown Minneapolis and Saint Paul in the Words of the People Who Lived It. Minneapolis: Nodin Press, 2000.

Hart, Joseph. Down & Out: The Life and Death of Minneapolis's Skid Row. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.

Sherman Hasbrouck, "History of the Minneapolis Lower Loop" (1956-1961), 6-7, Bridge Square: Folder 2, Minneapolis Collection, Hennepin County Library, Minneapolis, MN.

Hennepin County Library, Minneapolis Special Collection, Neighborhoods: Bridge Square, Gateway Park.

Kane, Lucile M. The Waterfall That Built a City. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1966.

Millett, Larry. Lost Twin Cities. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1992.

—. Twin Cities Then and Now. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1996.

Minneapolis Star . "Gateway's 'Beauty' Treatment Complete." July 9, 1954.

Nathanson, Iric. Minneapolis in the Twentieth Century. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2010.

Norfleet, Nicole. "Downtown, Little Green to be Seen." Minneapolis Star-Tribune, November 28, 2011.

Plank, Lisa, and Thomas Saylor. "Constructing Suburbia: Richfield in the Postwar Era." Minnesota History, Summer 2008: 47.

Rosheim, David L. The Other Minneapolis or The Rise and Fall of the Gateway, The Old Minneapolis Skid Row. Maquoketa, IA: The Andromeda Press, 1978.

Schmid, Calvin F. Social Saga of Two Cities: An Ecological and Statistical Study of Social Trends in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Minneapolis: The Minneapolis Council of Social Agencies, 1937.

Smith, David C. "Parks, Lakes, Trails and So Much More: An Overview of the Histories of MPRB Properties." Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. 2008.

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