I-94 rest stop brings the 'funk,' may make Minnesota history
Officials see a piece of history worth saving in Burgen Lake stop near Alexandria
ALEXANDRIA, Minn. — Roadside rest stops typically aren’t built to last. Most travelers never give their designs a thought or raise their eyes to the roof line. In Minnesota, they last about 25 years before the Transportation Department knocks them down to build something new.
It’s a different vibe, though, at the Burgen Lake stop near Alexandria, where state and local officials see a piece of history worth saving.
Burgen Lake’s architecture is considered a gem of 1970s modernist “funk/revival." Its buildings and grounds, largely untouched in 50-plus years, are candidates now for the National Register of Historic Places.
“I’m really excited to see this site potentially on the national register, because it’s another era of travel,” said Brittany Johnson, director of operations at the nearby Douglas County Historical Society.
“It's another era of history that really in physical, tangible ways, shaped the course of Douglas County and Alexandria,” she said during a recent cold November day standing beneath a line of icicles hanging from the main building’s iconic roof, which resembles the peaked roof on an old Pizza Hut.
“It's also really exciting to me that we are looking at structures like this, sites like this that are 50 years old, and we're taking the steps to save them now while they're still in very good condition,” she added.
‘Why do we preserve these things?’
Burgen Lake is a Class One rest area, which means it must be open 24 hours with amenities such as flush toilets, vending machines, maps, lighted walkways and parking lots.
Of the 50 Class One interstate rest areas in Minnesota, only two are eligible for the register — Burgen Lake and one in Baudette, near the Canadian border.
Currently, there are only 10 rest areas in the entire country on the register, including nine in South Dakota and one in Arkansas.
“The Burgen Lake site is one of the earliest of the modernist rest areas that we have in our system,” said Andrea Weber, manager of MnDOT’s historic roadside properties program.
Specifically, the structures at Burgen Lake are an example of funk/revival, a term Joanna Dowling coined in 2006 when she was completing her historic preservation graduate thesis at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
“It’s a pseudo-revivalism of the French mansard roof — this is the 1970s version of that,” said Dowling, a Chicago-area consulting cultural historian. “The 'funk' term came in as a play on 1970s funk — funk music, and it’s also just funky, the funky version of French revivalism.”
In the ‘70s, Dowling said, these roof lines could be seen everywhere, from Pizza Huts to dentist offices and, of course, rest stops.
The Burgen Lake rest area was also originally designed to work in sync with its environment, Weber said, with the main building and two picnic pavilions positioned to take advantage of the “lovely pastoral lake view” framed by oak trees.
The main building also has a unique feature: a floor mosaic of the state of Minnesota, that was added in 2000 — artist unknown.
“It was a very sweet gesture,” Weber said of the mystery mosaic. “Rest areas really are kind of a welcome mat from the state of Minnesota for people who are driving through the state who may and not be stopping at any other place.”
To be deemed eligible for the register, a site must be at least 50 years old. Built in 1971, Burgen Lake is unusually old and untouched, and nearly identical to its original plan except for the infilling of oak trees that now block the view of the lake. MnDOT plans to remove the trees to restore the vista.
“Why do we preserve these things?” Weber said. “It does take a special expertise and takes a little bit more financially to restore them, but this is our heritage and, you know, once it's gone, you can't re-manufacture it.”
‘Doing the right thing’
Highway roadside style got a boost in 1965 when President Lyndon B. Johnson called on federal officials to “make sure that the America we see from these major highways is a beautiful America.”
Over the years, style has given way to function, with rest areas required to meet federal requirements for people with disabilities. Many now feature individual family restrooms, which double as gender-neutral spaces. Outside, playgrounds and dog runs have become as important as pastoral vistas.
While advocates of Burgen Lake remain devoted to its preservation, newly built Minnesota rest areas like Goose Creek on Interstate 35 in Chisago County and Straight River Northbound on I-35 near Owatonna have features like green roofs and glazing, or walls of floor-to-ceiling windows, to improve safety. This way, visitors can clearly see who is in the building before entering.
Rob Williams recently retired as the MnDOT Site Development Unit supervisor, essentially managing and supervising Minnesota’s rest areas for more than 20 years.
He calls the Straight River site “the art museum,” a nod to the way its stainless-steel cladding reflects a sunset. This rest area won a design award from the Minnesota chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
In November, on his last day on the job, Williams read a review by a visitor to Straight River.
“I have to say that this is one of the most beautiful rest areas that I've ever seen. The architecture, the interiors, it's frankly stunning,” it read. “I'm honestly confused as to why this is so beautiful. Like, definitely very impressed, but I have to say that I've never seen a rest area that looks anything like this. Will definitely be back the next time I'm headed up (I-94).”
“It's very rewarding,” Williams said. "It makes me feel like we're doing the right thing.”
In the next few years, MnDOT will begin renovations on Burgen Lake, starting with the construction of an additional truck parking lot. In 2025, the department plans to begin building an addition and restoring the main building and the site’s amenities to their original condition, including carving out that historic vista among the oaks.
Because Burgen Lake is so highly trafficked, and because of its historic status, Weber said any work on the site will be tricky.
"We're going to have to just be really thoughtful and careful about how we add more facilities to this one,” she said.