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A Twin Cities philanthropist and telecom mogul is trying to raise $1 million in private funding to build a first-of-its kind tribute honoring military families on the state Capitol Mall.

Capitol mall memorial to military families planned

Architectural drawings and illustrations from the Hammel, Green and Abrahamson (HGA) firm show how the planned military families tribute addition to Minnesota’s Capitol Mall will tie together the area’s monuments to veterans of America’s many wars. (Image courtesy of HGA Inc.)

Architectural drawings and illustrations from the Hammel, Green and Abrahamson (HGA) firm show how the planned military families tribute addition to Minnesota’s Capitol Mall will tie together the area’s monuments to veterans of America’s many wars. (Image courtesy of HGA Inc.)

Sky-themed promenade will connect other war memorials

A Twin Cities philanthropist and telecom mogul is trying to raise $1 million in private funding to build a first-of-its kind tribute honoring military families on the state Capitol Mall.

Bill Popp – who, in 1991, famously gave $50,000 to end a grandmother’s three-week vigil atop a highway billboard to raise money for the Vietnam War memorial in St. Paul – is the driving force behind plans for a tribute that includes a tree-lined walkway and stones from all Minnesota’s 87 counties etched with  excerpts of wartime correspondence between soldiers and families.

“It’s about saying thank you to the military families for the sacrifices they make,” said Popp, whose telecommunications company is based in Golden Valley. “When you get down to it, it’s the families that sacrifice more than the soldiers.”

The tribute is planned for the south side of the mall in front of the Department of Veterans Affairs building. The state Capitol Area Architecture and Planning Board has chosen Minneapolis architecture firm Hammel Green and Abrahamson (HGA) as the winner of the design competition.

For Theodore Lee, an associate vice president at HGA, assembling the design was a very personal endeavor. That’s because his son Andrew is a member of the U.S. Army 1st Cavalry Division and spent last year in Iraq.

“I try not to get choked up when I talk about it,” Lee said. “It is personal. When I look back on my career, it’ll be the proudest project I’ll have worked on.”

The project’s design is unique among the memorials on the mall. The military family tribute won’t be an isolated plaza with artwork, a style that’s referred to as a “jewel on the necklace.”  Instead it’s an east-west walkway that will feature special monuments and connect other memorials dedicated to veterans of World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Monument to the Living and a planned future memorial to the special forces that fought in Laos.

“We wanted it to be a promenade and not an object. We wanted it to unify,” Lee said.

The project draws on themes of family, celestial sky and changing seasons.

“We searched for design themes that were personal and transcendent. The most powerful metaphor for us was that the sky, the moon and the stars are what connect military families when their solders are deployed,” said Ross Altheimer, the design leader of HGA’s landscape architecture studio.

The walkway will be laid down in an arc. Pedestrians will stroll under trees that change colors in the fall and past beds of flowers in the spring.

A bronze star-shaped table will be placed on the western end of the walkway that represents the Gold Star Families who have lost loved ones while serving in the military since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The constellations of the northern hemisphere shine through the table to create a guide to the night sky. The North Star in the constellation provides both a reference to the state’s motto and represents a navigational guide home for soldiers.

On the eastern side of the promenade, the plan envisions stones with inscriptions from all 87 Minnesota counties. Etched on the stones, which will be arranged to mimic the constellations of the northern hemisphere, will be letters written between soldiers and their family members.

The most recent projects on the mall have been more traditional plazas. The Minnesota Memorial Workers Garden was recently completed. The stone monument pays tribute to workers who have died while doing their jobs.

The state Department of Administration is also preparing to take bids for the Hubert Humphrey memorial that will be located across John Ireland Boulevard from the Minnesota Department of Transportation building. The Minnesota Historical Society is housing the statue of Humphrey while the plaza is constructed.

Although he was too young to get drafted in the Vietnam era, Popp has friends who died in the war. He responded in 1991 when Sally Adams, a grandmother of a disabled veteran, climbed a highway billboard in Forest Lake and refused to come down until money was raised for a Vietnam memorial on the Capitol Mall. On the first night that a frost was forecast, he went to the billboard and delivered Adams, who became known as Billboard Sally, with the $50,000 needed to complete the project. Adams spent three weeks on the billboard.

In 2004, Popp traveled with a Minnesota delegation that included Gov. Tim Pawlenty to greet Minnesota National Guard troops stationed in Kosovo. Popp said he started thinking about a tribute to military families about a year and a half ago during a welcome-home event for returning soldiers. He was moved by the reaction he got when he mentioned the family of soldiers in his speech. That got him started down the path of creating a monument that recognizes the sacrifices that military families make.

“Everybody is thanking the soldiers,” Popp said, “but nobody is thanking the families.”


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