Laying the Tracks: Hennepin County explores Train Museum concept on the Greenway

In its former life, the Midtown Greenway was a bustling railroad corridor that connected south Minneapolis to regional commerce. For a hundred years, the trains were the main mode for commercial transportation. Conflict between the trains and neighboring residents led to the excavation of the railroad trench in the early 20th century, but the trains continued to serve commercial and industrial shipping customers for decades thereafter. One of the largest commercial shippers in the corridor was Sears Roebuck.

Kodet Architectural Group, Ltd.’s rendering of the proposed Hennepin County Train Museum

Kodet Architectural Group, Ltd.’s rendering of the proposed Hennepin County Train Museum

Kodet Architectural Group, Ltd.’s rendering of the proposed Hennepin County Train Museum

Sears closed its Chicago and Lake location in December 1994, and as local officials work to redevelop the giant complex, reconnecting the site to the Greenway and its railroad history has surfaced as a means of creating a renewed relationship between neighborhood residents, trains, and regional commerce. Hennepin County is exploring the possibility of building a train museum in the Sears train shed. While the proposal is still in its infancy, the County recently commissioned a feasibility study from Kodet Architectural Group on the idea. As Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin points out, the location stands at the junction of past and future transportation use, which helped to inspire the idea of building a train museum there. “The train shed is immediately adjacent to the Greenway, with its history as a former major railroad corridor, its present-day service as a pedestrian and bicycle route, and its future role as a corridor for mass transit that will serve neighborhoods along the Greenway.” says McLaughlin. “And a future Metro Transit hub at Chicago and Lake will be just steps away from the proposed train museum site.” McLaughlin also believes that a train museum could serve other important purposes. “The museum would create a destination attraction in the area,” he says, “and be a great supporting use for a re-developed Sears complex.”

Open spaces of a bygone era

The architect’s proposal, which was finalized late this summer, highlights the train shed’s many attributes that would support this creative reuse and redevelopment. The shed’s large open spaces suggest the cavernous train stations of a bygone era, while the existing loading dock along the tracks would render display cars more accessible to the public. The shed also has sufficient space for classrooms, archives, and workrooms. The building already has skylights, as well as other features that would allow for the ready addition of more natural lighting. A series of bricked-in arches could convert to windows, and the existing openings at the either end of the tracks could also become windows to give the appearance that the tracks continue to the outside. The proposal also calls for street level access via an elevator, and includes a coffee shop or snack bar with restrooms on the Greenway level, so that the Museum could also operate as a “comfort station” for the Greenway’s bicyclists and pedestrians.

The lobby would resemble the main waiting room of an old train depot, while the display area would replicate a depot’s loading platform. The existing 300 feet of track inside the shed would provide an ample expanse for the placement of the historic train cars, which might include a sleeper car, a first class coach, and a small steam locomotive.

Potential partnership

The County has explored the possibility of partnering with the Minnesota Transportation Museum, which operates the Lake Harriet Trolley and the Jackson Street Roundhouse in St. Paul. MTM has been involved in the preparation the preliminary feasibility studies, and has expressed interest in overseeing the museum’s operations. According to MTM executive director Don Meyer, “We have identified three wooden passenger cars that would be ideal candidates for exhibition in the museum, should the project go forward. Each is different in its heritage and design, and represents a different railway that once had operations in the Twin Cities. We would welcome an opportunity to display these cars, which are too fragile to operate, but which are truly some of the gems of our collection.”

Peter McLaughlin describes the proposal as promising, but emphasizes that the train museum plans are very much in the preliminary phase. “We have not come to an agreement that a train museum would be the highest and best use for the train shed, much less allocated funding for the project,” he notes. “But the proposal does illustrate the type of historically meaningful, high-quality amenity that could be included in the re-development of the Sears complex. Even as we move forward with plans to reinvent the role of transportation along the Greenway, we are committed to ensuring that the Corridor preserves a meaningful connection to its complex, century-old transportation history.”