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."

"I have a question to put to you," says the former cop. "You're traveling and you come to a place and fall into a hole. There you see a mummy and you see little gold figurines and pots. It's quite obvious that it's the tomb of a prehistoric person. You crawl back out. Are you going to take any of these artifacts with you?

"Or let's say you're walking through a shabby neighborhood and you see a doorknob and say, 'I don't have one of those.' You look around and there are a couple of people around, doesn't look like a squad car's gone through here for the last 20 years. Would you steal it?

"This, then, is Steve. To know him is to love him. There's not a bone in his body that's anything but gentle. If you were to sit down and chat with him, you'd see that he's dedicated to preserving antiquity. Steve never saw a dollar sign. Never thought of it being valuable in a monetary sense."

Blumberg was released in December 1995, after serving four-and-a-half years of a six-year sentence in federal prison in Michigan. While in detention, according to news reports on his parole hearings, Blumberg wrote a letter to a friend in Ottumwa, advising him that "what you need to do is go to Minneapolis and work the obits and the death notices. They are packed. You might even find a cash stash. Minneapolis is loaded with rich old ladies living in old mansions stuffed with antiques and rare coins and jewelry."

In January 1997 Minneapolis police arrested Blumberg and convicted accomplice Dwaine Olson entering a boarded-up building at 3445 First Ave. S.--right across I-35W from Keith Miller's house. The arrest did not result in any charges. But another five months later, in December 1997, Blumberg was arrested in Des Moines again for breaking into an old building. A jury found him guilty of third-degree burglary in April 1998 and sentenced him to five years in prison. Blumberg's attorney filed an appeal that allowed his client to stay out of jail on $3,250 bail.

Last summer Miller was strolling through an antique show at the state fairgrounds, looking for some specific doorknobs. Vendors pointed him to a yellow rented truck and a scruffy man in his forties. On a hunch he asked for the seller's name. Blumberg introduced himself, and the two were soon engrossed in conversation about their shared passion.

Miller says he was struck by Blumberg's knowledge of architectural minutiae. "He can tell you that you should get Waterbury Hardware such-and-such to go with your house of a certain era." At one point in the conversation, he says, Blumberg pulled out an antique millwork catalog, showing the made-to-order woodwork of a bygone era. Miller was astounded; he'd never seen someone with a personal copy of the rare book.

Blumberg's truck held a wealth of items, and Miller bought some hardware for himself and his neighbor. The canceled checks are now in his investigative files--just in case, Miller says, police ever take an interest in the transaction. So far, they haven't.


INSIDE THE TREASURE CHEST

KEITH MILLER IS trying hard to appear detached as he enters 1335 Water St. But with his round face glowing, his pace quickening, and his hands flying to pull on his wire-rim glasses, he resembles nothing so much as an avid entomologist wading into a field full of butterflies.

And no wonder. To Miller, this vast room is a giant treasure chest. Here's a row of carved buffets, there a stack of radiators and bathtubs; heavy wooden doors lean against one wall, multicolored windows against another. Many of the items bear addresses written in black marker: "2710 Sheridan Ave. N."; "2705 James Ave. N." The houses have long since been bulldozed, but their grandeur--albeit piecemeal--lives on.

For a big guy, Miller moves fast. One moment he's running his finger down the side of a leaded-glass window, the next he's opening a medicine chest or peering at an enormous dictaphone that came from a demolished office building. At a pile of grubby, legless bathtubs--the feet are in a pile nearby--he points out one with a faucet in the center, "so that you and the missis could bathe together." Stopping at a cache of windows, he firmly pulls out one made from colored blocks of glass. "This is a farmer-style window," he says. "Poor man's stained glass--they got the squares of colored glass and glazed them into the window themselves." Beneath that frame is another with an elegant yellow-green design: "Look at this fleur-de-lis," he says with delight. "I'd say 1907."

Miller has come to a conclusion. "Even the pieces without marked addresses are from North Minneapolis," he declares. "Most of it is from 1905 or 1910, which is when the northern part of the city was built." Our guide, Minneapolis Community Development Agency special-projects coordinator Kelly Hartman, laughs and shakes her head. "I'm learning a lot today," she admits.

Some would say the MCDA has a lot to learn when it comes to the unique features of inner-city houses. Commercial wreckers for years have sold salvage rights to companies that pull valuable architectural elements out of buildings scheduled for razing. But in MCDA demolitions, those treasures until recently went into the landfill along with the rest of the wreckage. Now, thanks in part to the dogged pleading of the city's neighborhood groups, contractors are under orders to save reusable pieces and bring them to this warehouse in the Grain Belt complex, off Lowry Avenue in Northeast Minneapolis.

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