Bridge Square

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Bridge Square

City Hall at Bridge Square between Nicollet and Hennepin Avenues. Minneapolis Collection, Special Collections Dept., Hennepin County Library.
Location of Site: Convergence of Hennepin, Nicollet, and Washington Avenues
Neighborhood/s: Gateway District, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Hennepin County, Minnesota
State/province: Minnesota
Country: United States
Year Established: 1855
Year Ended: 1915
Historic Function: Commercial district

Gateway District Minneapolis Hennepin County

Bridge Square, currently known as the Gateway District, is the area located south of the Hennepin Avenue Bridge in downtown Minneapolis, at the crossroads of Hennepin, Nicollet, and Washington Avenues. It was aptly named for its proximity to the Hennepin Bridge. The original Hennepin Avenue Bridge was a toll bridge built in 1855. It was later replaced by a suspension bridge, constructed in 1876. By then, Minneapolis had absorbed St. Anthony, the town located on the east bank of the Mississippi River.


Site History

Urban planning of the area was non-existent in the 19th century. A wide variety of buildings, such as government structures, residential spaces, and retail stores, were cluttered together along the streets. There were no sewers or sidewalks, and on rainy days the streets were filled with thick mud.

Bridge Square in 1867. Minnesota Historical Society.
Bridge Square in 1867. Minnesota Historical Society.

In its early years, Bridge Square was a convenient location. Its proximity to the bridge allowed it to become the city center in the 1850s. This trend continued throughout the rest of the 19th century. In 1875, Bridge Square contained all four of the city’s architectural firms, eight of eleven banks, ten of twelve clothing stores, half of the restaurants, and forty-seven of fifty-nine saloons. This monopoly of businesses is also observed in the classified advertisements of the day. On a single classified ad page in 1880, twenty-one of twenty-seven businesses with addresses listed are located in the vicinity of Bridge Square.

Bridge Square was also home to the first city market, and in the early 19th century served as a gathering place for farmers to sell their hay harvest.

Most of early Minneapolis’s important structures were all located in Bridge Square. Buildings such as the courthouse (built in 1857), First National Bank (1865), and the Minneapolis City Hall (1873) made their home in the square. The City Hall was constructed at the convergence of Nicollet and Hennepin Avenues, in a triangle shaped area. Other important buildings included the Pence Opera House (1867) and the Academy of Music (1871), both of cultural importance to the city.

The lightmast in 1883. Minnesota Historical Society.
The lightmast in 1883. Minnesota Historical Society.

The 1880s marked Minneapolis’s foray into electric lighting. In 1882, the Minnesota Brush Electric Company built a hydroelectric generating plant at St. Anthony Falls. This led to the installation of streetlights along Washington Avenue, as well as a curious structure, a light mast constructed at the south end of the Hennepin Bridge in 1883. The purpose of the 257-foot mast was to replace the 200 or so dimly lit gas lamps that lined the streets. As an article from the Minneapolis Tribune put it, “A flood of light is also thrown upon all that portion of the city within the above radius, making it light, while with gas lamps there is but an occasional patch of dim illumination.” The mast however, did not last long; it was taken down in 1892 due to unsatisfactory results.

Other institutions were making headway during this time period. The Union Railroad Depot was built in 1885, and the area along the west bank of the Mississippi river housed the major lumber and flourmills. The mills, along with the railroads, provided many job opportunities for men in the area, including migrant workers. Migrant workers were constantly recruited for railroad, harvest, and lumberjack jobs, a trend that would continue throughout the early 20th century. From the 1870s to the 1920s, these migrant industries were highly important to the Midwest economy. Demand was highest during the summer and autumn months, when construction and farming industries would ship men out to build railroads and harvest crops. Employment offices, better known as hiring halls, were prominent in Bridge Square around the turn of the century. These storefronts advertised temporary job opportunities for farmhands and other migrant workers, and were an essential part of life in Bridge Square. By 1913, there were at least 40 hiring halls in the lower loop area.

Due to its function as the city center and its proximity to the railroad station, Bridge Square served as a prominent gathering place for migrant workers. A distinct population of these transients was the lumberjacks. Drawn by the massive timber industry up north, lumberjacks temporarily settled in Minneapolis before and after the logging season. During this stay in Minneapolis, the lumberjacks would often spend their earnings liberally. Bridge Square was an area where a seasonal worker could enjoy amusements not offered in harvest or lumber camps. Bridge Square had evolved into such a place, offering alcohol, gambling, and commercialized sex. This was the beginning of the infamous “skid row” which characterized the area for the first half of the 20th century.

Along with the mass influx of migrant workers, other factors determined the evolution of Bridge Square from a bustling city center to a skid row. Around the turn of the century, major businesses made a sizeable move farther south, to the downtown area that could be considered the city center today. The cause of this shift may be attributed to the movement of the city hall to a new Romanesque structure built in 1888. Another reason could be the mass exodus of retail stores to newer, larger buildings, made possible by the invention of cast iron.

With the mainstream institutions absent from Bridge Square, the needs of migrant workers were more readily addressed, creating a culture complete with saloons, brothels, and flophouses. A “flophouse” was a low-grade hotel of sorts. Also referred to as “cage hotels”, flophouses consisted of small rooms built out of plywood, with chicken wire nailed over the tops of the rooms to prevent theft. There were sometimes as many as 100 of these rooms on a single floor, with one bathroom. These Spartan accommodations came as cheap as 5 cents a night in the early 1900s, a cheap bargain for a transient worker who would rather spend his money on food and drink.

This high concentration of men and saloons in one area led to a large uptick in crime, according to David L. Rosheim in The Other Minneapolis. Rosheim provides examples of newspaper stories of muggings, drunken vagrants, and in some cases, murders.

This problem did not go unnoticed among city officials. Attempts were made to “purify” the city. One news article from 1897 reports an effort being made by police to clear the area of unwanted men, and the article also brings light on another population of inhabitants of skid row:

“SHOWN NO MERCY…Police Arresting Every Drunken Man And Suspicious Person…The records show an unusual number of ‘drunks’ and vagrants taken into custody, while the number of robberies and attempted robberies is greater than for several months previous. The vicinity of Bridge Square had become so infested with tramps and beggars of all descriptions that it had become actually unsafe for a woman to attempt to cross the river on front…It should not be supposed that it is the honest harvest hand, just arrived from the West, whom the police are hunting. It is the tramp who will not work if he can secure employment…The harvest hand seems peculiarly susceptive to these parasites and if they are not boldly robbed of their earning, these fellows get it in a more stealthy manner…”

Architect's drawing of a plan for a proposed plaza in the Gateway District. By Jules Guerin, 1917. Minneapolis Collection, Special Collections Dept, Hennepin County Library.
Architect's drawing of a plan for a proposed plaza in the Gateway District. By Jules Guerin, 1917. Minneapolis Collection, Special Collections Dept, Hennepin County Library.

Despite these efforts to rid Bridge Square of its typical inhabitants, Minneapolis’s skid row still flourished. In the first decade of the 20th century, city planners began brainstorming an entire renovation of the area. In 1906, a plan was presented in the Minneapolis Tribune for a complete makeover of Bridge Square. This plan, in line with the City Beautiful movement, aimed to “make Minneapolis notable among the beautiful cities of the country.” This plan called for an entire razing of the area where Hennepin and Nicollet converged. In place of the old saloons and shop fronts, a new “civic center” was proposed, including a new post office, a new railroad station, a fine arts museum, and a building for occupational clubs. These neoclassical-style buildings were to be built along both sides of a grassy area, similar to the national mall in Washington, D.C.

This plan was never enacted, though it is a prime example of ways in which the city was trying to solve its skid row issues. The real changes came in 1908, when the Minneapolis Park Board purchased two blocks of land between Nicollet Avenue, Hennepin Avenue, Washington Avenue, and 2nd street. The board planned something similar in style to the civic center, but on a lesser scale. After much debate over how Bridge Square would best serve the area, the old city hall building was razed in 1911, along with over a dozen other buildings, and construction of a new park began in 1913.

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.”

Gateway Park in 1922. Photo by C.J. Hibbard. Minneapolis Collection, Hennepin County Library Special Collections.
Gateway Park in 1922. Photo by C.J. Hibbard. Minneapolis Collection, Hennepin County Library Special Collections.

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.

Superseded by

Gateway District

Memories and stories

Photo Gallery

Related Links


Griffith, H.L. Minneapolis, The New Sawdust Town. Minneapolis: Bolger Publications, 1968.

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

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

Minneapolis Tribune. "Classified Ad No. 2." September 25, 1880: 7.

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.

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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