Denis P. Gardner was Minnesota’s National Register Historian. It was a role that was perfect for him because he was so passionate and particular about documenting Minnesota’s historic places.
I had the honor of getting to know Denis by serving on the State Review Board, which reviews nominations of Minnesota properties to the National Register of Historic Places. The State Review Board and National Register Historian fall under the auspices of the State Historic Preservation Office.
I started on the State Review Board in April 2014, with my final meeting being February 15, 2022. Denis was part of that meeting, as he always was at the four meetings held per year. During meetings, he would present summaries of properties under consideration by the board with a mellifluous voice that would have been at home on Minnesota Public Radio’s classical music station. It was with shock that I learned of his death a few weeks later. I still find it hard to believe he is gone.
Denis became the National Register Historian in November 2011, but he had already shown his talent and interest for historic places through his book, “Minnesota Treasures: Stories Behind the State’s Historic Places” which was published in 2004 by the Minnesota Historical Society Press. In it, he wrote about the histories of 75 distinct Minnesota places. From water towers to bridges to houses to business buildings to shipwrecks to the Jeffers Petroglyphs Site to Paul Bunyan & Babe the Blue Ox, Denis proved that historic places could be more than monumental, beautiful architecture. The book won a Minnesota Book Award and an Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History, both received in 2005.
Bridges would become the subject of his next award-winning book, “Wood, Concrete, Stone, and Steel: Minnesota’s Historic Bridges,” published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2008. For this, he won a David Stanley Gebhard Award, Honorable Mention in 2009.
He also had a special fondness for mid-century modern architecture, which made an instant connection between me, my husband, and Denis. We all wanted to see more nominations for mid-century modern properties because they have reached the age where they are eligible for nomination but getting old enough that they are in danger of being torn down because the general public doesn’t see them as special or historic. In pre-pandemic times, Denis would reveal his fondness for the mid-century modern era by wearing shirts to Review Board meetings, held at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, that looked like they came out of the 1950s or ’60s.
During the pandemic, he worked from his home in Deer River, where he often spotted deer and bears. (I seem to remember him mentioning a bear looking in his window one time.)
Whether working in St. Paul or Deer River, Denis cared deeply about the accurate documentation of historic properties and worked with those writing nominations to make them as complete as possible to give them the greatest chance of making it into the National Register. Nominations for properties to the National Register have to be thoroughly documented for their history and integrity, with nominations often running 40-to-60 pages in length, complete with photos.
He understood the intricacies of how the National Register program worked and gave presentations throughout the state to explain the program. He also indulged my often arcane questions during Review Board meetings about what sorts of properties might qualify for the National Register. One of my final questions to Denis was whether a parking lot could ever be considered for the National Register. He said that none had as yet, but it could be possible in the future.
Following Review Board meetings, Denis would send board members a wrap-up email, briefly summarizing some of the questions that arose. Here is a portion of one of his wrap-up emails, dated March 20, 2019, that shows Denis’s understanding of the complexity of the National Register program:
“We realize some of our new members are working to discover just how the program works, how we view a property – what makes it significant or not, etc. In truth, we are always wrestling with what makes a property eligible for the National Register. It is challenging in part because each property has its own context. Even identical properties can have very different historical contexts. More, we are always working to discover what physical elements of a property are the most important. In other words, for a property to be eligible for the National Register, what physical elements must be there (are extant) and what physical elements do not actually need to be there. Again, it never is easy, but many of the questions asked last night demonstrate that board members are pondering these things. That’s good.
“We wished to reiterate something Frank [White] mentioned last night. A nice thing about being on the review board is that you oftentimes learn things about Minnesota’s history that you never before knew, and some of it is extremely interesting. Personally, I am always discovering something new about Minnesota’s story.”
Indeed, National Register nominations are packed with Minnesota history, and it’s thanks to Denis and the entire State Historic Preservation Office team that Minnesota’s history is being so well-documented through the National Register program.
While working as the National Register Historian, Denis also authored one more book, this one about an important piece of monumental, beautiful architecture: “Our Minnesota State Capitol: From Groundbreaking Through Restoration.” This book was written to document the 6-year renovation of the Capitol building, begun after a May 2011 vote by legislators to move forward on the project. The book was published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press in 2017. If you read carefully, Denis’s sly humor appears in its pages. At one point, he calls Cass Gilbert, the Capitol’s architect, a “youthful snark.” (See page 15 of the book.)
Denis’s impact on Minnesota history is so vast that it can’t properly be measured. He was a kind, genuine, thoughtful person whose passion for historic places will live on through his books and his work as National Register Historian.
Denis died at his Deer River home on March 4, 2022, gone far too soon at the age of 56. Minnesota’s history and preservation fields will miss him greatly.
A memorial service is fittingly taking place for Denis at the Minnesota State Capitol on May 14, 2022, at 11 a.m. in the L’etoile du Nord vault (room b015).
If you’d like to share your memories of Denis, feel free to do so in the comments.