Sherlock Homes

Minneapolis's Victorian gems have endured boom times, bad times, and some godawful weather. Now they face their greatest danger yet: government ownership and a new brand of antique "collectors."

A Tuesday in November, midmorning. It's sunny, but cold enough for Keith Miller to have to scrape the windshield of his green '58 Ford Fairlane. He glances at his watch: Still time to idle the car a little before the meeting with a guy he will remember five years later only as Jerry.

The Fairlane has been leaking oil lately, but it makes it to the appointed spot, a few blocks off Interstate 394 on Penn Avenue in Minneapolis's Bryn Mawr neighborhood. Miller gets into Jerry's car; they discuss who will introduce whom, what questions to ask. Before they head off toward the cream-colored house down the street, Jerry turns around and gestures. About a block away, a car and a van pull closer.

Miller and Jerry walk up to the house. A young, thin, dark-haired man answers the door; he's been expecting them. Miller introduces Jerry as his helper.

The man leads them into the living room. Standing up against the wall is an eight-foot-tall fireplace mantelpiece and the matching overmantel, which holds a large beveled mirror. Both are made from cherry wood and heavily carved with fiddlehead ferns.

Are these, Miller asks, the pieces from his house on Second Avenue South? The question is for Jerry's benefit; Miller has already seen the photos taken by neighbors as the massive items were hauled out of the historic structure. Yes, the man confirms; he also has the doorknobs from the house, some other hardware, and a box of fireplace tiles, bluish-green and painted with images of bamboo thickets and darting swallows. A little haggling about price ensues; Miller names a figure and the man protests. Haven't they already agreed on $1,400?

That's all Jerry needs to hear. He opens up his jacket and flashes a badge; in a police report on the incident, he will be identified as Sergeant McFarlane. The young man calmly walks into the kitchen and dials his lawyer. Outside, a five-and-a-half-ton truck emblazoned with the wordsPolice Property & Evidence pulls up.

Keith Miller is no professional gumshoe. At night he works as a bartender and waiter at Manny's Steakhouse in downtown Minneapolis. By day he fixes up his Queen Anne-style house near Interstate 35W and Lake Street. But somewhere in between he has found time to amass a prodigious knowledge of local interior architecture, along with a collection of investigative records--letters, police reports, photos, notes--dedicated to his true avocation: Sleuthing out architectural thievery. His neighbor Marjory Holly calls him "a walking encyclopedia, a bloodhound." Other friends tell him: "I just hope that I never get on your bad side."

 

The people who do get on Miller's bad side are a curious lot. Some are street criminals with access to a truck and some rudimentary tools; others are sophisticated operators with a profound knowledge of antiques and their value. Some claim to be collectors. All of them have one thing in common: They break into historic houses and rip out woodwork, stained glass, tiles, doorknobs--and with them, say Miller and other preservationists, the soul of inner-city neighborhoods.

The gutting of the city's historic houses, says local architect and Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission member Bob Roscoe, is a catastrophe on a par with the environmental deterioration described 35 years ago by Rachel Carson: "It's the Silent Spring of what happens to our cities when nobody cares," he says. "It's behind the four walls of these old houses--nobody sees it. But what we're losing is our hidden treasures and the quality of our neighborhoods and cities."

No one seems to know just how often architectural antiques are stolen in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The municipal and federal agencies under whose stewardship the thefts often happen don't keep track; police say burglaries of vacant homes are seldom reported or investigated. When asked whether anyone has ever been charged with stealing old home decorations, Shirley Sailors, a supervisor in the Minneapolis real estate office of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), could name only one instance--the one that ended with Keith Miller's visit, in November 1993, to the house in Bryn Mawr. "It's the only case that I'm aware of in ten years where we actually knew who did it and were able to catch him and get restitution," says Sailors.

 

 

Probably no piece of Twin Cities real estate is as dear to the hearts of antique lovers as the Healy Block. Easily visible to I-35W commuters as they whiz past the 31st Street exit, the block is bounded by 31st and 32nd streets and Second and Third avenues. It is designated as a city Heritage Preservation District and listed on the National Register of Historic Places; experts consider it a unique collection of the work of T.P. Healy, who in the late 1800s designed some 120 houses in Minneapolis, including more than half of those on the block. The houses are loaded with the ornate woodwork, elaborate stained glass, and painted tile that characterize the Queen Anne and Colonial Revival styles, but over the years many have suffered from neglect.

When Scott Jerome Johnson bought his house on the Healy Block in 1986, he seemed like a good fit for the neighborhood of amateur restorers, self-taught Victorian experts, and urban activists. He attended meetings, became active in the block club, and--since he was a real estate agent--even sold other houses in the area. Marjory Holly, his next-door neighbor, remembers that "just about everybody was friends with him. He was a charming person, really a good con. My family had no idea he was in such deep financial weeds."

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