On June 11, 1921, more than 30,000 people lined a parkway in northwest Minneapolis to commemorate lives lost in World War I. In a stunning example of forward-thinking urban planning, the Park Board planted 568 Moline elm trees and placed markers-one for each Hennepin County soldier and nurse who died-along the three-mile route.

Almost a century later, people lined up once again. This time, they were celebrating the unveiling of a new-and-improved war memorial. Thousands of people from all over the country attended the parkway’s June 11, 2011, rededication.

Designated a state historic district in 2003, Victory Memorial Drive is part of the city’s 40-mile Grand Rounds, which is itself part of the Federal Highway Administration’s National Scenic Byway Program.

In 2004, the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board released a master plan for preserving and improving the parkway. Two years later, the state legislature created a task force comprised of legislators, the state historical society, Minneapolis and Robbinsdale city councils, Hennepin County Board of Commissioners, residents, and the local veteran’s organization to help refine and implement the plan. The state provided $2.7 million for the $6 million project; the county, $3.5 million.

Construction began in 2008. The two-lane asphalt road was resurfaced, bike trail widened, sidewalks added, intersections streetscaped. Almost 200 street and pedestrian lights were installed. Dead and dying trees were replaced. Gateway monuments clearly delineate the two entrances.

“It’s a good feeling when you develop something that people really appreciate and you create a  memory that can’t be erased,” says Dean Michalko project engineer for the Hennepin County Public Works Department who was the project’s lead.

Mastering a memorial

Memorials can be crafted of stone, metal, bronze, and/or wood. Victory Memorial Drive’s original wood markers had long since been replaced with granite because of the material’s durability, flexibility, and low maintenance requirements.

One of the hardest natural materials in the world, granite’s an igneous rock, meaning it formed when volcanic lava cooled during formation of the earth’s crust. Much denser and homogeneous than marble and other types of stone, granite doesn’t decay and isn’t greatly affected by environmental elements such as sun or rain.

Memorials are made by cutting down large blocks that come from quarries in California, Minnesota, New York, South Dakota, Texas, and Canada. The stone can be polished for engraving and etched with photographic images.

Park preservation

The Park & Recreation Board retained Minneapolis-based LHB to redesign the parkway in 2007. The landscape architecture firm assigned the challenge of integrating the new with the old to Jason Aune. Since the project was completed, Aune opened Aune Fernandez Landscape Architects in St. Paul, Minn.

“The drive’s historic status dictates that you can’t copy what is already there; you must use something new,” he says.

The parkway’s flag plaza is a major focal point. Aune replaced existing red granite elements with Lake Superior Green, a dark green quarried in Isabella, Minn., that meets the state’s native material requirement. More than 4,500 square feet were used to fabricate balustrade walls, benches, and new flagpole base. To preserve the integrity of the previous structures, the 80-foot-diameter plaza was repaved with Carnelian granite.

During renovation, some of the individualized crosses and stars along the drive were refurbished with the green granite and raised at an angle to be more visible. The county plans to refurbish the rest within the near future.

All granite was supplied by Coldspring USA, a national supplier based in Cold Spring, Minn., that’s been in business since 1898.

Minute maintenance

The Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board spends roughly $100,000 of its $8 million maintenance budget every year caring for the drive.

Granite memorial elements are hand-washed once a year with warm water to loosen dirt, remove dust, bird droppings, and other debris. Benches are regularly cleaned to remove stains and/or defects.

Bronze lettering incised in granite panels is treated with a sacrificial anti-graffiti coating that’s reapplied every five years. All paved areas, such as the flag plaza, are inspected annually for cracks and holes. RG+ Polymeric sand, a mix of ASTM C-144 graded sand and binder made by Canadian company Techniseal, is swept into granite joints every year. Applied dry, the mixture sets within minutes of being wetted to block weeds and maintain stability.

After three years of design development and construction, the updated parkway paves a historic path that educates, honors, and respects all those who served and died for our freedom.