In August 2008, the Winona City Council voted unanimously to hire a landscape architect to finalize redesign plans for Levee Park. The park plan was the work of a committee that spent months coming up with ideas that would rejuvenate the city’s riverfront—an area that was once known as one of the most beautiful parks on the Mississippi River.
The architect was never hired. The committee plans joined dozens of similar proposals for Levee Park, collecting dust in city file cabinets and fading on yellowed newspaper pages. The proposal called for the park to be completely regraded and raised for a view of the river over the levee wall, for winding trails and vine-draped arbors, an amphitheater-style seating area and space for art events. The problem, like so many Levee Park proposals in the past, was a lack of money.
Now, a new committee has been formed to look at what might be done to Levee Park. (See story page 1a.) As that committee renews efforts to redesign the riverfront, a look to the park’s past—both its successes and failures—may offer ideas that could pave the way for a new future for Levee Park.
Before the Levee
For generations it was the heart of Winona. Levee Park, before the levee, was where people flocked to greet steamboats, where youngsters played and lovers met.
The park was originally designed in 1903 by former city attorney William Finkelnburg, inspired by landscapes in Europe he had visited. The High Wagon Bridge, constructed in 1892, rose up from the riverfront and looped along the shoreline, where people gathered by the hundreds to watch speed boat racing, or just enjoy the view.
Looping trails curved around mature trees and picturesque gardens. Benches lined the park from Johnson to Walnut streets; arbors were hidden beneath thick green vines. Two old-world cannons the city acquired sometime before 1910 were a centerpiece of the old park, often used as a backdrop for photographs before the city sold them during WWII for scrap iron.
“Winona the Beautiful,” published by Joseph Leicht Press, said this about the park: “Winona was the first city to transform an unsightly narrow strip of river bank, the catchall of tin cans and dead cats, into a beauty spot.”
The mid-1960s brought “urban renewal plans,” and included a proposal that would have added a promenade deck to link the park with the downtown urban renewal area, but money ran out. A year later, plans were made for a two-deck park concept, in which half of the park would have been elevated for a river view, but once again the ideas were also never funded.
After the flood of 1965, plans for a dike began to take shape. While the wall would protect the city from river flood waters, it would also hinder the view of the river and would forever change the famed park location.
Redesign plans were debated for years. The final plans centered around what was planned to be a River Interpretive Center, planted on the concrete half-moon patio that surrounded the former Wilkie Steamboat Center. The Interpretive Center was to be the focal point of the new park. The $3 million proposal would have included a building that would be cooled by river water pumped onto the roof, from which it would cascade down grooves and make a pseudo waterfall into a reflecting pool below. Solar panels in the roof and wind generators were planned to provide energy, along with a hydroelectric generator on the river. Amphitheater seating adjacent to the center was planned as space for park events, and an observation platform north of the Wilkie site would have provided a river view.
The Winona County Historical Society was proposed to run the center, and the first phase of fundraising was completed. By 1979, a change in expected state and federal financing ended the Interpretive Center plans, and the new Levee Park was built without a centerpiece.
By 1981 the new park was under construction, including 1,940 cubic yards of concrete dike and another 3,460 of pavement through the remainder of the park. When the park was dedicated in 1983, some had given it a new name: concrete park.
Another River Interpretive Center plan began to take shape in 1991, with the city awarded a grant to study a similar building at the site that would house the U.S. Fish and Wildlife headquarters. The $7 million project was expected to be funded with federal dollars, and would have included a river sky walk that would have jutted out over the river for a view. After funds fell through, the project was shelved.
In 2004, the city explored the idea of docking the William A. Thompson Dredge at the Levee to house a river museum. The idea, like so many others, was never realized.
The Riverfront Committee studied the redesign of Levee Park in 2008, producing a list of ideas that could transform the space, including the looping trails and vine-covered arbors of the old park. Art and performance space were to be added, along with an arbor from Center Street eastward that could provide space for vendors and events.
A system of grading and fill would have divided the park into three levels to create views from the entire park. The area from the former Wilkie site to Center Street would have been filled to the height of the Levee wall. Terraced landscaping would have connected the levels and produced seating for park events. A stage was to be erected, and the brick patio area to the east of the Wilkie site would have been used for historical and cultural interpretation. The committee suggested Will Dilg and John Latsch be honored with statues and other features that commemorated their conservationist roots in the region.
While the Riverfront Committee worked on plans for the entire park, the Levee at Main Committee studied ideas for what might replace the Wilkie on the concrete patio at the foot of Main Street. A new replica museum boat that would include interactive displays about the history of the river and steamboats was developed, but later rejected by the Winona City Council.
This time, armed with the history of plans for Levee Park that have failed, the committee for a rejuvenated riverfront may find an answer. “The time may not be far distant when the banks of the Mississippi from St. Paul to St. Louis will be a continuation of these garden spots, the direct outcome of the lesson taught by Winona,” the Joseph Leicht Press predicted of Winona’s famed old river park. That lesson, of lush gardens and a welcoming, busy riverfront, may be relearned by Winona, if the newest committee is able to make Levee Park dreams a reality.