Bringing Down the House

Taxpayers spent $65,000 to demolish the old Victorian at 1816 15th Ave. S. A buyer wanted to invest at least that much to fix it up. Make sense? You bet, says the Minneapolis Community Development Agency.

Most Phillips houses were built in the late 1800s, Anderson notes, when Minneapolis's population more than doubled in the span of a decade. Affluent families, squeezed out by downtown's expanding business district, built mansions along Park and Portland avenues; workers from the flour and lumber mills soon followed, building houses "in the country" south of Franklin Avenue.

Just as the working class moved in the shadow of the barons, their houses echoed the architecture of affluence. The brick structure at 1816 15th Ave. S. was a good example of the "folk Victorian" trend, says architect Roscoe: "Folk Victorians used some of the same ornament that is seen in the houses of the very wealthy. But the ornament is used sparingly and where it counts most, to spice up surfaces that are otherwise plain."

Those houses, and the neighborhood, remained unchanged for half a century--until they, and the neighborhood, faced the one-two punch of demographic change and federal policy. Returning WWII soldiers, who had grown up in the big city buildings that housed parents and grandparents under one roof, used the G.I. Bill to build new, single-family homes in the suburbs. As residents and businesses left the city, property values dropped. Federal and city "urban renewal" programs encouraged developers to tear down the old structures and replace them with boxy apartment buildings. Homes that remained standing were often snatched up by absentee landlords, who skimped on upkeep and finally abandoned the buildings to foreclosure, forfeiture, and demolition.

So a lot of history had already been erased, Anderson says, by the time she stepped into the picture. Perhaps, she reasoned, some blocks could be protected by historic designation, the way the Healy Block near I-35W had been in the 1980s. She did some research and found that in many cases, it was already too late: Seventy-five percent of a block had to be intact for the state to declare it historic, and eighty percent for the National Register of Historic Places. Most of the blocks in Phillips didn't have that many of their original houses left standing.

Then Anderson remembered reading somewhere that the small resorts of northern Minnesota had won recognition--as one entity--in an annual historic-preservation contest. She called around and discovered that the competition had been sponsored by the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, a statewide group that advocates for historic buildings and properties. There was still time to submit a proposal for the 1999 deadline. Anderson decided to focus on the area the Phillips Neighborhood Network's map identified as being home to vast numbers of abandoned properties--the portion extending from 12th Avenue South in the west to Hiawatha on the east, from Franklin Avenue in the north to Lake Street on the south.

And so, in the middle of this year's March snowstorms, the administrator and the pastor's wife trudged through the slush documenting the handiwork of long-gone craftsmen. While Elifson photographed houses from various angles, Anderson, a self-taught architecture expert, jotted down the details: "Queen Anne-style featuring a pent roof, porch fretwork, and corner brackets." "A belt course on this shirtwaist foursquare separates the upper clapboards from the wider lower clapboards."

The effort paid off: In early May the Preservation Alliance announced that the boarded and vacant houses of East Phillips had made its 1999 Ten Most Endangered Historic Properties List, along with high-profile structures like the Stillwater Lift Bridge and Seventh Place in downtown St. Paul. George Edwards, executive director of the Preservation Alliance, says the group chose the proposal because "we want people to remember that historic preservation is more than the James J. Hill house and the Basilica--that it's about everyday, yet distinct, architecture that helped to define neighborhoods. Plus we thought there was a potential for portions of Phillips to be local historic districts, and we wanted to draw attention to that."

Draw attention they did. On May 10 the Star Tribune listed the Preservation Alliance's Top 10 on the cover of its Variety section. There were also rumblings in city hall, where Sixth Ward council member Jim Niland convened a meeting between soon-to-be MCDA head Steve Cramer and Phillips residents, realtors, and preservationists.

At the meeting, Cramer listened to a long list of complaints from the activists, then made an announcement. He was "deeply interested," he said, in seeing houses move out of public hands and into the ownership of private buyers. The MCDA needed to undergo "a paradigm shift.

"I don't think that the way that the agency looks at things will change overnight," Cramer said. "But we can take some practical steps from today's meeting."

Niland suggested some of those practical steps at the end of the gathering. He would continue a temporary moratorium on new demolition permits in the neighborhood, he said, and work with Cramer to "get the MCDA working using some of the tools [real estate] agents use across town, lock boxes for instance." The city, Niland promised, would also look into revising rehab standards and explore options to sell dollar houses.

Like Cramer, Niland said he expected the MCDA to undergo a fundamental transformation--though, he cautioned, maybe not right away. "I liken it to turning around an oil tanker," he said. "It takes some miles and it takes some time."

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