If These Walls Could Talk

The history of an entire city echoes through the empty rooms at 3044 Third Avenue South.

The only sign that life has lately visited the house at 3044 Third Avenue South in Minneapolis is a set of dog tracks in the snow, beginning under the stoop and disappearing somewhere outside the streetlight's range. A small, scraggly pine in the side yard is weeping ice, and the wind from the north rattles the loose eaves. The century-old house is dark tonight, as it has been ever since it was foreclosed upon by the bank, condemned by city inspectors, and boarded up six years ago. Two-and-a-half stories up, random shingles stick out at all angles, and the original mortar in the massive brick chimney is crumbling away. The front door is nailed shut and a small padlock hangs there, like an afterthought, on a makeshift hook. An official-looking No Trespassing sign is stapled to the plywood.

"So you want to know about that house?" Betty Walsh, who was born and still lives in the one across the street, asks, a bit mystified, when we meet one afternoon during a lull in the cold snap. "I hear it's been vacant for a while now." I pull a chair up to the edge of her bed, a great mahogany piece her parents were given as a wedding gift in 1893. In the muted light through the curtains in this second-floor back bedroom, her hands glow like alabaster. No wind or weather has touched them since 1935, soon after she was diagnosed with MS, celebrated her "last Christmas downstairs," and was carried up the narrow stairway to the rest of her life in this bed. "And I hear," she continues, in a half-whisper, "it's at the heart of a squabble around here."

"Squabble" would be putting it gently. In the past few years, the house has been slated for demolition twice by city planners who consider it beyond any hope of complying with safety codes; the place is so far gone by now, they say, that the "only feasible solution" is to clear the lot for new townhomes or light industry or a midnight basketball court. In turn the house has twice been saved by a small group of neighbors bent on rescuing it as a "historically significant" property; far gone perhaps, they say, but, given a proper rehab it has a better chance of helping to resurrect these few blocks than any alternative the city has yet offered.

And so the house stands empty, its fate caught up in what's become a familiar sight in the inner city: houses built of the stuff dreams were made of a hundred years ago, when the town was young--mahogany and heavy plaster, lathe and thick limestone--and which have survived, in structure if not in spirit, long past the time when the economy of a transformed city could support them.

"I suppose if the walls of that house could talk," Betty says, setting aside the Colin Powell book she's been reading, "it could tell you the whole biography of the way this city's grown up, from the time it was settled to the storm this morning."

It was not envisioned as the fanciest house around; it was never destined to become a famous one. But the corner it stands on--at 31st Street and Third Avenue in south Minneapolis--was, to Betty, the center of her world as a young girl. If its walls could talk now, it might tell the story of that young girl canoeing around the intersection during the floods every spring, before the sewers were modernized and the boulevard paved over. It might describe her sitting out on the lawn in a black graduation gown, waving at a passing streetcar, in the days before the interstate cut through a block to the west and filled the neighborhood with the sounds of traffic from the new suburbs to the south.

Betty Walsh, lying in bed all this time, still remembers the music that used to issue from that house. A piece called Moonlight and Roses, over and over, on the player piano. "This was long before all the commotion over there started. The music that house used to make, it was elegant, remember?" Betty's sister, Mary, says, sitting on the edge of her bed and waving a hand in the air like a composer's. "Never a wrong note. This must have been--"

"The Squyers, this was when the Squyers lived there--"

"And they had that great big player piano in the window that faced this way, toward our house. Betty and I used to sit out on the front porch in the evening, and the music would float out the window and over to us. It was such a concert!"

"The father was in banking, I believe--isn't that right, Mary? Professional, like many of the up and coming at that time." City directories covering the years between 1912 and 1930 list Fred Squyer, head of household, as a state manager for Bankers Life Association of Des Moines, and his son, Dell, as vice president of a downtown optical office until he married in 1916 and moved to Duluth to start up his own eyewear business. After the elder Squyer died in 1913, his other children--Lucille, also an optician, Gertrude, a teacher at the Minneapolis School of Music, and Harry, a clerk at P.A. Schmitt Sheet Music Company on Nicollet--supported their widowed mother until her death 17 years later. "These were the kinds of families that got started here," Betty remembers. "Aspiring, on-their-way-up kind of people. Many eventually moved out to the more fashionable districts, by the lakes or to Edina or the outer reaches."

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