Catering to Curling

A Chaska redevelopment project pays tribute to its industrial past while embracing a favorite local sport

”Chess on Ice” has come a long way from the frozen ponds of Scotland.

While the sport of curling rewards great skill and precision, Chaska, Minn., wanted to reward the community with a great place to play, practice, compete, and celebrate. With a design led by 292 Design Group, now JLG Architects, the Chaska Curling & Event Center opened its doors in the winter of 2015, alongside a vibrant redevelopment of Firemen’s Park in downtown Chaska.

Welcome To The Jungle

Touring the park and center today, it’s hard for anyone to imagine the site was once an industrial brickyard, later referred to as “the jungle.” In the 1950s, when the city’s brick industry went bust, the park was home to the deteriorating remains of a clay hole and beehive kilns from the principal brickyards.

After the Minnesota River flooded, the fire department received permission from the property owners to clear the land and create a park. Each weekend after, more than 20 firefighters sought out donations and labored with pickaxes and shovels to clean up the park and build a beach, baseball diamonds, and a picnic shelter—opening the park in 1955. Initially, the city leased the land from Christian and Charles Klein, but in late 1961, shortly after Charle’s passing, the land was donated to the city. (Olson, 2008)

Re-envisioning Recreation

As over 60 years passed, the glory of Firemen’s Park had sorely diminished, still a source of historical pride, but no longer a vibrant community destination. However, in 2008, another group of firefighters approached city council about preserving the park. (Olson, 2008)

Although in a beautiful setting, the park had its challenges. Its location, adjacent to industrial business and across a busy highway from downtown, made its walkability difficult, and over time the park slowly lost its luster. The city would later purchase the remaining industrial sites and embark on a new vision for the park with a public/private partnership.

The city recognized the park’s potential and set a long list of goals:

  • Preserving the past
  • Igniting renewed interest
  • Stimulating economic development
  • Providing new recreation space
  • Celebrating tradition
  • Engaging the community with indoor and outdoor gathering space.

To bring those goals to life, Chaska enlisted the help of local architectural firm, 292 Design Group, which has since merged with JLG Architects. The team, led by Mark Wentzell, Erik Olson, and Madeline Wentzell, worked closely with the city to identify an interest in amenities and activities, with curling at the top of the list.

“We talked a lot about what was going to happen at the center and Firemen’s Park, and it was really important that it had something for everyone in the community, not just curling enthusiasts. We saw how popular curling was in other Minnesota communities like St. Paul, Duluth, and Blaine, but there was nothing for curlers at the time in Chaska,” says Wentzell. “We knew it would be a big draw, but we also knew we had to create inclusive space for a variety of interests and purposes, not only appealing for special occasions, dining, and daily use, but also for those who want to go for a stroll, swim, fish, relax at the beach, or explore the park through nature walks.”

Construction on the Curling & Event Center kicked off simultaneously with the redevelopment of Firemen’s Park, aimed at creating a prominent lakeside destination. Critical to the project, the city removed the dated industrial buildings and replenished the eight-acre Clayhole Lake, creating a beach for swimmers, scenic boardwalk, and two fishing piers. The lake reaches 23 feet in depth and is now home to a thriving population of sunfish, bluegill, black crappie, and the occasional largemouth bass.

A Warm Welcome With A View

Within Firemen’s Park is a new, six-lane curling arena, an ice sheet made for melting (running and brushing). To benefit both players and the community, the city-owned center includes a cozy Welcome Hall, community gathering spaces, locker rooms, players’ lounge, a private restaurant with views of the arena and Firemen’s Park, and a 320-seat banquet space and catering kitchen.

According to Wentzell, it was always the intention to design the event center as if it belonged in the park, referencing the pitched roof lines, gables, and expansive windows. “The Welcome Hall was particularly important to the project; we wanted a lot of glass so it would be as open as possible to the park setting,” Wentzell explains.

“As you come in the doors to the center, you turn down the hallway, and the Welcome Hall halts at the park with views directly out to the lake. Once you’re in the Welcome Hall, there’s an overlook where guests can get a glimpse of the curling action on the ice. Near the restaurant, Crooked Pint Ale House, guests pass by the event center, so the Welcome Hall was key to the design of the building.”

To incorporate the city’s signature yellow brick within the design, the team dedicated an expansive interior wall to repurposed regional brick, providing historical character amid the warmth of timbers and sleek, modern lines. On the exterior, the team overruled the traditional red roofs of city buildings and chose a more neutral palette of soft gray metal and timber columns for an organic approach that seamlessly blends with its surroundings.

Everyone’s Invited

Today, the Curling Center is home to over 1,200 members, one of the largest curling memberships in the country. Here, guests and spectators have an open invitation to watch live curling games from the Welcome Hall or the Crooked Pint Ale House that overlooks the arena. While league games are played on Sunday through Friday evenings from October through April, spring and summer leagues run from May through September. The center also hosts several bonspiels and competitions throughout the year, learn-to-curl classes, corporate teambuilding events, and a successful junior curling program.

Redeveloping Firemen’s Park

With a collaborative redesign led by Wentzell, the surrounding Firemen’s Park is equally welcoming year-round, inviting visitors to enjoy outdoor terraces that overlook the lake, adjacent park, and lakeside pavilion. During winter months, the park is home to a lighted, 60-foot holiday tree and ice skating on the lake. In the summer, the park is rocking with a waterfront concert and event stage, including lawn seating for over 1,000 attendees. Firemen’s Park also boasts a fountain splash pad, Clayhole swim beach, concessions, a tree colonnade, and two fishing piers. The park’s pedestrian bridge was designed to span and cantilever over the lake, creating a picture-perfect backdrop for family gatherings, weddings, and corporate events.

Embracing The Past, Igniting The Future

At Firemen’s Park, the original caretakers are forever commemorated within a historical garden designed with an arched shape and yellow brick that mimics the site’s kilns. Today, when a fireman retires, the name is dedicated on plaques that climb up stylized red ladders along the Firemen’s Walk. Further preserving and displaying the site’s history, the team also took great care to position a historic bell at eye level inside the Welcome Hall of the center—a meaningful relic that hails from the city’s original firehouse.

Seven years later, resident usage and visitor interest have far exceeded the city’s expectations, filling the calendar with competitions, weddings, outdoor concerts, and other celebrations. Participation levels and city revenues are higher than anticipated, and downtown redevelopment interests are continually growing to align with its success. The Curling & Event Center has been a resounding hit, attracting the attention of both national and international media, Olympians, and curling enthusiasts.