Ironically, the green space that was once part of the heart of the city is now practically walled off from the heart of the city.
We’re talking about Mayo Park, which determined explorers can find behind the Mayo Civic Center-Rochester Art Center complex. The park comes alive for the popular Down by the Riverside concerts in non-COVID summers, but as a site of family outings, recreation and special events, Mayo Park has been all but forgotten.
As recently as the 1980s, Mayo Park offered pedestrians a wide, tree-lined, 700-foot pedestrian mall running east from downtown to the Mayo Memorial. Mayo Clinic visitors and locals seeking a quiet place in the downtown area had Mayo Park within easy strolling distance.
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Subsequent expansion of the Civic Center, construction of the Art Center, and the flood-control project along the Zumbro River have chewed up much of that green space. The former pedestrian mall is nowhere to be found, and the amenities residents enjoyed for generations, including a zoo and a bandshell, are long gone.
The park was donated to the city in 1904, like so many other amenities, by the Mayo family. The 11-acre plot of land along the river included an island popular with courting couples on Sunday afternoons and summer evenings. Pedestrian bridges, built between 1904 and 1908, crossed the river and offered opportunities for leisurely walks.
Park visitors could enjoy several attractions:
- The band shell, donated by Dr. Will Mayo, was built in 1915, and hosted concerts for decades. Benches arrayed in front of the band shell could hold up to 2,000 concertgoers. The band shell was torn down in 1950 to make way for the Mayo Memorial and amphitheater — which today, minus its grand mall, sits forlornly looking for a purpose.
- Soon after the park was established, a bear cage, wolf den, deer pen and buffalo wallow were built. There was also a monkey enclosure, with primates borrowed each summer from the Institute for Experimental Medicine. The small zoo was located in the southeastern corner of the park along what is now Fourth Street Southeast. The zoo was closed in 1941.
- A Civil War-era cannon, which had been fired in battles by local troops, was returned to the city after the war and eventually placed at Mayo Park. The cannon was fired each year on the Fourth of July. When World War II came, a 1943 drive for scrap iron claimed the cannon.
- In 1932, First Nations people from Vancouver Island, Canada, gave the city a totem pole, which in turn was erected in Mayo Park. It was taken down at a later date and put in storage.
- The island, which included a picnic area and dining hall, disappeared in 1918 when the east channel of the river was filled in.
This is not to say that the flood work was unnecessary, or that the greatly expanded Civic Center is useless. But the popularity of the ice rinks this winter at Soldiers Field shows that, with effort and creative planning, parks in the central area of the city can be activated rather than forgotten.
Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.