Eagan Needs Luxury Homes

Tony Caponi's 60-acre suburban sculpture garden, where he has lived since 1949, could have a future as a permanent art park-- or another housing development

Withered and brown, the grass beside the road is dying. The stretch of land just outside the Caponi Art Park and Learning Center in Eagan is technically county property, but that hasn't stopped Tony Caponi from bringing out his hose to try to save the lawn from an early-summer heat wave. It's mid-evening, the humidity has subsided from ghastly to merely sweltering, and, God knows, this job could have waited until tomorrow morning. After a day of hard labor--mowing acre after acre, pulling weeds, digging trenches--the 80-year-old sculptor could definitely use a rest.

But Caponi, founder of the 60-acre art park and sculpture garden, doesn't hesitate in losing a little more sweat. His wide jowls reveal a smile, and every so often he waves to drivers who honk in salute of the well-recognized community figure as they whiz by on the adjacent highway. Many people who pass the park off Diffley Road in the Dakota County suburb may not even be aware of its existence. Nestled into the side of a steep hill and remaining relatively unseen from the highway, the park is a one-of-a-kind wonder that most people from across the Twin Cities have yet to discover. Caponi, who immigrated to this country from Italy when he was 15 years old, purchased the lot in 1949 from a German farmer and quickly went to work on building a home for his family. And he has been cultivating and sculpting the land ever since.

For the past decade, Caponi has been gradually opening up his sanctuary for public use and working with local residents and city officials in hope of preserving the park for future users. His ultimate goal is to sell the park to a nonprofit organization so that he can focus solely on guiding its artistic direction. But in recent years Caponi has perhaps spread himself too thin, trying to squeeze in time for politicking in between pulling weeds and making sculptures, and now his 60-acre dream is in danger of coming apart. In fact, a heavy property-tax burden and dormant fundraising efforts may force Caponi to sell part of his land to housing developers in the ever-land-hungry suburbs within the next year.

Cast out of the garden? Sculptor Tony Caponi with one of his creations
Raoul Benavides
Cast out of the garden? Sculptor Tony Caponi with one of his creations

"I'm too proud to cry out for help, and I have always wanted to be thought of as someone who does things instead of talks," Caponi remarks in a still-discernible Italian lilt. "But now I want to start talking! I want to get into more programs and teach again and have young apprentices. Most of all, I want to preserve this park for posterity. I know I'm not a superman, though, and I need more help real soon."

 

To realize how all-encompassing and unique Caponi's vision is, in this Twin Cities suburb or anywhere else, all you have to do is take an afternoon stroll along one of its winding stone paths or dirt roads. Split in half by one of Eagan's busiest highways, the Caponi Art Park remains wholly tranquil, its many hills and thick forest protecting it from extreme noise pollution. You can discover most of Caponi's more than 20 individual sculptures, ranging from abstract stone carvings to compassionate explorations of the human form, on the park's north side in an open space surrounding Caponi's modern house and art studio, which are themselves entrenched in the face of a hill. In the adjacent wooded areas you may come upon other artworks planted here and there in open pockets, tucked away from the major trails.

"I have tried to give (the park) a definite spiritual quality," Caponi says. "Many of the individual sculptures are even hidden throughout the park so that people may discover them. It can be a process of self-discovery as well."

Caponi began to allow local residents to make their own discoveries inside the park in the early Nineties, not long after he retired from a 37-year stint as chair of Macalester College's art department. Today the Caponi Art Park is free and open to the public six days a week throughout the summer, regularly hosts concerts and theater performances, and occasionally houses artists-in-residence and conducts art camps. (The Minnesota Sinfonia will perform at the Caponi Art Park on Sunday, July 15 at 7:30 p.m.) And here's the kicker: Not only does Caponi, along with his second wife, Cheryl, still do the bulk of the work, but heading into his ninth decade, he says he is a ways from fully realizing his artistic vision.

On a clear and balmy summer day, Tony and Cheryl Caponi take an afternoon idler on a tour of the park, first heading toward its more wooded, less developed south side. Although Caponi stands no taller than 5-foot-7, his sturdy arms and large, well-rounded belly enhance his robust bearing. Along the course of the tour it also quickly becomes clear just how obsessively close he feels to every square foot of his land. He cannot walk a hundred yards without passionately bemoaning something to the effect of "Ah, Cheryl, we need to water the grass here!" or "Cheryl, that birch tree is dying!"

"I know, Tony, I know," Cheryl snaps in response to each crisis--one of a hundred she no doubt hears about every day.

Just before he crosses to the park's other side, Caponi pauses in front of one of his most visceral, eye-catching works, "Pompeii," a 170-foot-long sculpture consisting of more than a dozen bronze panels of contorted bodies and skeletons placed horizontally into the ground. Taking its broader shape from the hillside in which it is embedded, the piece draws from the volcanic destruction of its namesake Italian city in 79 A.D. The outlines of bodies appear as if they are actually buried in mountain and volcanic ash.

"Pretare, the town I come from on the Adriatic coast of Italy, the word itself means 'place of rocks,'" he recalls. "It was at the foot of a mountain, Monte Votorre, which was a beautiful monument I woke up to every morning."

Caponi returned to the peasant village as an American soldier when he fought in World War II. The scene will serve as the climax in Caponi's new book, A Voice From the Mountains, to be published by Ruminator Press this fall. The autobiographical tale poetically describes Caponi's artistic and spiritual philosophy within the context of his Italian upbringing. "Once I returned to America, I eventually found the biggest hill I could find and made a home of it," Caponi says. "The only problem was that there were no rocks here, so I had to go to my neighbors' farms to dig some up." Caponi used those stones to build the first walls and sculptures on his land.

Back on a guided tour of the park, Caponi finally reaches the south side, which overlooks his latest major sculpture and an addition to the grounds--a circular, stone-and-brick, Greek-style amphitheater that has hosted performances since last year. In this handsomely groomed spot, Caponi reminisces about when he first began creating space for the park and shaping the land.

"When I started, all of this land was completely rough and untraversable. Now look at where we've come," he declaims, waving his hand before the smooth grassy bowl that encircles the amphitheater. "You know, back then I had only farmers for neighbors. They wouldn't believe how the place has changed!"

 

Caponi's marvel at the changing landscape could extend well beyond his 60 acres to the region in general. The town of Eagan, which has developed 94 percent of its available space and is Dakota County's most populous suburb, wasn't fully incorporated when Caponi moved in. The Caponis have always welcomed their new neighbors as they arrived, but the town's development boom has created some pressures on the park along the way. For years, the Caponis have warded off home developers nipping at their heels with million-dollar offers. The only ground Caponi has ever sold, in fact, has been for the development of Eagan city parks, which border his land on two sides and have kept it well protected.

Yet saying no to further development has increasingly become a challenge. A recent proposal taken up by a city task force would approve the purchase of land just north of Caponi's property for an 18-hole golf course and possibly adjacent lots for luxury homes. With this boom in the background, Caponi has been struggling to sell his park to a nonprofit organization that will maintain its artistic mission. In 1992, he even established a nonprofit park foundation, which now consists of ten board members, to raise funds that would go toward hiring help for the park's basic upkeep and administration.

One of Caponi's plans would have the foundation, as a legally independent body, purchase the park from its founder, while he remained separate from fundraising activities. Caponi is now offering to sell the park for solely the value of the land, which has been appraised at roughly $50,000 an acre (for a total of $3 million). Caponi would exclude the value of the work he has already put into the site, which he estimates to be worth $1 million, and he would continue to live and work at the park for free.)

After numerous discussions with the city and county, including a failed 1996 referendum that would have authorized funds for the city to buy part of the park, Caponi and the foundation were forced to turn to the state Legislature for a property-tax break. By the end of the 1998 session, both houses passed a special bill that allowed the Caponis to pay taxes at the agricultural instead of the residential rate for five years, thus saving them roughly $20,000 to $30,000 a year. The conditional tax break was supposed to give the Caponi Art Park Foundation time to raise enough funds to purchase the park, making it tax-exempt, while the Caponis continued their benevolent mission. (Not surprisingly, there's no designated tax bracket for individual residents who desire to share their enormous plot of land with the public for artistic purposes.)

Yet at the end of this tax labyrinth lies a possibly disastrous dead end: Four years have passed and the foundation is nowhere near acquiring enough funding to purchase the park from Caponi or to provide for its basic operating costs. If the foundation continues on this track for the next year, the Caponis will owe five years' worth of back taxes for the higher residential rate with interest, which could result in what Cheryl Caponi approximates to be a $200,000 bill.

"We don't know what will happen to the park," says Ken Vraa, who has been on the Caponi Art Park board from the get-go and has served as director of Eagan's park board for the past 21 years. "We have a campaign that's ready to kick off, but it's late in the game and we just don't know." Vraa reports that the board has gotten off to a slow start, having underestimated the amount of work needed to run an effective fundraising effort. He also cites the many staffing and structural changes they have experienced in recent years.

The park board director has a few choice words to say about the failed 1996 parks referendum. This plan, Vraa recalls, would have authorized funds for the city to potentially buy 22 different parcels of land, of which Caponi's was just one. By the park board director's account, a small band of citizens launched a successful attack against the initiative two weeks before the vote--eventually blocking what Vraa argues would have amounted to a $12 property tax increase per Eagan homeowner. In the wake of this experience, Vraa contends that many people may verbally support Caponi and his dream, but they act more hesitantly when the time comes to take out their checkbooks.

"Some people think that [Caponi] is just in this for self-enrichment," Vraa says. "That's just wrong. He is not very wealthy to begin with and doesn't have a real income stream. He could have sold the land years ago, but he really wants to leave a legacy that's enduring. His vision is just incredible."

Yet the question lingers: If Caponi is so determined to preserve the park, why doesn't he just give it outright to the nonprofit foundation, or at least significantly reduce the price tag? Though one suspects that Caponi may yet play that card if the tax situation becomes desperate, for now, no such proposal is on the table. In the meantime, none of the Eagan officials contacted for this story had a skeptical word to say about the virtue of Caponi's project--but neither, it seems, have they moved the situation closer to resolution.

Vraa, who has witnessed Eagan run its full 20-year fast track to development, believes the loss of Caponi's park would cause irreparable damage to the suburb. "You know, it's a young city and sometimes people forget the value of art and community," he explains. "They're just so busy laying sod down in their backyard or trying to get their kids to T-ball practice. Then, when the city gets older, people may finally start to want a preserved open green space. Well, people need to realize that space exists now at Caponi's, because time is running out."

Despite his disappointment with the predicament, Caponi, for his part, does not place heavy blame on the ten volunteer board members. But he remains adamant that he will preserve every acre of the park, even if he has to turn to other sources besides the foundation.

"I'm not a quitter," he proclaims, shaking both fists. "The park will be; there is nothing else. I may become destitute, but the park will be here no matter what."

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