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."

In late 1991, Holly says, residents began hearing rumors that HUD was foreclosing on Johnson. That in itself wouldn't have been unusual; Holly had seen more than a few neighbors give up on overwhelming restoration projects, and HUD's For Sale signs were a common sight in the area.

What was odd about Johnson, Holly says, was that as he moved out, he seemed intent on taking the house with him. Doors, chandeliers, a water heater, a toilet were hauled out of the Queen Anne and into Johnson's car and trucks owned by his friends. "The fireplace mantel was taken out brazenly in broad daylight," Holly recalls. "I documented it: the time, date, license plate number, who helped him move it. I took photographs. And I called the police. They said, 'It's his house; he can do what he wants.'" Holly explained that the house had been forfeited to HUD, but that didn't seem to make a difference.

In September 1992 Miller purchased Johnson's former house. Having heard Holly's tale, he called HUD to see whether they had recovered the items. He was told, he says, that "it's typical for people to trash HUD homes. If they can't have it, why should anyone else have it? HUD said they couldn't follow up on these things because they had no documentation to prove it."

Jim Skuldt

Not long after that, Miller says, he got a call from Johnson, who offered to sell him the missing pieces. (Johnson says it was Miller who contacted him, and that he was going to return the pieces to him for free. The payment he and Miller negotiated, he says, was for custom blades and woodwork he had made for the house.)

Miller called HUD back and again got no response. Finally, in August 1993, he wrote a letter to then-HUD secretary Henry Cisneros: "Are you going to let this guy off?" he says he asked. A month later he got a call from the Minneapolis branch of HUD's inspector general's office, the agency's investigative arm. They wanted a meeting.

The photos and witness accounts were helpful, the HUD officials told Miller after he explained his plight, but not good enough for a court case. Would he go undercover? With pleasure, he replied--and a few months later he was walking up to Johnson's house with Sgt. McFarlane beside him and a pair of police vehicles at his back.

Following the bust, Johnson was charged in Hennepin County District Court with breaching a real estate security agreement and receiving stolen goods, both felonies. He agreed to a no-plea deal that required him to enroll in a 12-month pretrial diversion program called Operation de Novo, and to pay $13,475 in restitution to HUD. When he appealed, the figure was reduced to $1,500.

Johnson says he took the no-plea deal because he had no other choice: "I don't have very much money; I could go to de Novo, which amounted to me stopping in once a week and telling them I was alive. Had I had any money, I would have fought them, and I believe that I would have won.

"Anyone who knows me knows that I am absolutely in love with historic properties," Johnson continues, "and there was never any intention that those things weren't going to go back into the house." The mantelpiece alone, he notes, could have fetched $5,000 in an antique store. "Why did it sit in my house for nearly two years if I was interested in selling it?"


Preservationists say the Twin Cities are uniquely fertile ground for thieves specializing in architectural features. The cities' core neighborhoods are crammed with houses built between 1860 and 1890: Minneapolis's population tripled during those boom years, and new factory techniques created opulent home decorations at middle-class prices.

"What people take to be the Minneapolis-St. Paul standard for late-nineteenth, early-twentieth-century houses--nice, built-in buffets, light fixtures--is unusual," says Judith Martin, director of the Urban Studies program at the University of Minnesota and the author of several books about local historic preservation. "That owes to a strong Scandinavian-craft tradition, to people who came from cultures that had a tradition working with wood. I know the housing stock in Chicago that's contemporaneous with the housing stock in Minneapolis doesn't have that."

Bob Roscoe, the architect and preservation commission member, says Minneapolis "came along at just the right time. New technology allowed lumber mills to scroll-cut and bead-cut decorative pieces in ways that had been done by hand for houses of the rich. Everyday people could come home to Victorian houses that had bits of what the big mansions had--leaded-glass buffets, transom windows with colorful pieces of stained glass that took on different colors as the sun made its way across the sky."

But the glory didn't last. As boomers moved to the suburbs, the houses where they'd grown up fell into disrepair; by the 1980s thousands of inner-city structures were going into tax forfeiture and mortgage foreclosure.

And still the woodwork and stained glass kept working their spell. Sandy Green, a real estate agent who has specialized in inner-city sales for 13 years, says buyers who wouldn't otherwise consider troubled locations are drawn to the old houses' architectural features. "A great house will always sell, no matter what the neighbors are like or what's going on on the street corner. An ordinary house or a stripped-out house will sit there a long time waiting for a buyer."

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