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If These Walls Could Talk

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."  

"We were acquainted all around, weren't we?" Yes, Betty nods to her sister, we were acquainted all around back then. "At 3044, it was the Squyers--though we weren't what you might call on the social level with them. At 3108 was a masseuse, a Mrs. Egli, and she had customers constantly in and out. One of them was my old Shakespeare teacher. She'd have a massage, then come down for a visit with grease still on her face. 3112 was a minister, Baptist. When three of us had scarlet fever, he used to come to the door with coloring books. 3116 was the McBrides. 3120 was Emma Dunn, who built a place for her son next door. Farther up was a Greek family. Third Avenue here was a throughway, with houses popping up when the streetcar lines came south.

"In those days there were four grocery stores, a dry goods store, and a stable where we used to take sleigh rides. Our house was a farmhouse, built around the time that house across the street went up. The farm went clear to Lake Calhoun at first. It all changed with the crash in '29. Families lost everything, including the roof over their heads. Then the war effort came along, and many of these houses were cut up into rooming houses for workers. After the war, the house across the street was made into separate apartments, four of them I think. They were rented out to tenants--all packed and crowded in.

"In the 1960s, the city bought up and demolished hundreds of homes for the freeway--or, as they called it in the early advertisements, 'the parkway.' What a shame it was. After that, something else changed. They put another addition on the back of that house, cramped up against the property line. Windows were kicked out. The porch fell off. It was a mess. People came and went so quickly. I guess we haven't known much of anybody over there since then."

Betty arranges her white hair on the pillow, leans back, and closes her eyes. She's standing out on the lawn again, looking over at the house framed by the row of elms that used to knit a canopy over the intersection. There's an ornate railing around the front porch where the Squyers are sitting, in her memory, in the evening. The second world war hasn't happened. The wrecking ball and demolition crews haven't begun razing her neighbors' homes for the interstate highway. The drug dealers and prostitutes and gang kids who earned this small stretch of city the nickname "crack alley" in the 1980s haven't been born.

"I hear they've torn down lots of places in this neighborhood in the past couple years. There was a fire, arson they say, over on Second. The apartment building on the other side of the vacant lot, word is it's been condemned. But that house has been on that corner for over a century. It's an original, it's seen it all, good times and bad. I guess it's been nearly destroyed on the inside, and neglected. Some of the neighbors who still care have been fighting to fix it back up. The city, I think, wants to tear it down as an eyesore, but who knows? It may still have some life left in it."

The house at 3044 Third Avenue South was built by A.P. Rushton, a plasterer and contractor, on Lot 12, Block 1 of Baker's Second Addition in the summer of 1886, the same year the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in New York. It was the first house on the block, a 10-room structure with foundation stones hauled in by mule-drawn wagon from the quarries below the Mississippi bluffs, a fireplace mantle decked in tiles shipped in from New England, and over a thousand square feet of maple and oak flooring from the lumber mills overlooking St. Anthony Main. By all accounts, the new house stood like a harbinger of the building boom's future--a well-to-do family residence out on the south edge of town, girdled by plowed fields and marsh, expecting company. An 1886 map of the city shows the neighborhood platted out but undeveloped from Lake Street to the city limits at 36th Street, where the Fort Snelling Railroad cut through Elisha Morse's 40 acres. The land was up for grabs, and property titles moved fast: The lot A.P. Rushton bought in 1883 for $800 had, since first being deeded out by President Franklin Pierce and the U.S. General Land Office a year earlier, switched hands nearly a dozen times before he built on it. Philo Remington, an engineer from New York, owned it for all of three months. T.B. Trafton from Ohio owned it from noon on a Tuesday until the deed office opened the next morning.  

"It's not easy now to imagine the spirit of this neighborhood back then," says Jane Strauss, who lives down the street and researched this district for her master's thesis, as we pore over a stack of piecemeal city plat maps in her dining room. "But we know a few things from the record. We know there was quick profit in land speculation. We know there was a certain percentage of reasonably well-off folks who settled here, but if you were a millionaire, for crying out loud, you didn't end up living here. You lived on Summit Avenue in St. Paul or in Minneapolis you lived in Stevens Square by the Art Institute. Or on Park Avenue. Or on Franklin. Or you lived around the lakes. If you were really wealthy, you summered out in Minnetonka.

"As for this neighborhood in 1886, say, you can see it's been divvied up. City planners were platting their vision. And the vision down here was upper middle-class suburb. It's the Eden Prairie of its day. It's under way, in transition. Look here," she says, tracing the property lines with her finger, "there's Mary and Betty Walsh's place, with a barn behind it. Maybe she told you about the older black man who used to bring up his cows and goats to graze them on the block. Other than that, there wasn't a bloody heck of a lot before the house at 3044 went up. This neighborhood only came into existence when the streetcar route made commuting possible."

By the time the electric streetcar lines stretched south to link the district to downtown in 1890, all but three of the block's 24 lots had been built on. Rushton's gamble paid off when he sold the property--complete with the $3,000 house and a $200 barn--for $7,000 to a real estate speculator named W.H. Holt that year, then took the profits and turned them into a more fashionable address near Lake Harriet. By then the new City Hall, the Masonic Temple on Park Avenue, the Lumber Exchange on Hennepin, and the Light Tower in downtown Bridge Square were on the map. Construction crews had broken ground for a 240-foot-high exposition hall on the banks of the Mississippi, where nouveau riche entrepreneurs hosted the city's one and only national Republican convention in 1892. Plat maps from that year show a new school, two missions, a 5th-precinct police station, and dozens of Lake Street storefronts all within walking distance of the intersection of Third and 31st. The following year, the market crashed and the Panic of 1893 froze the vision in place. From the front yard of W.H. Holt's house, you could look south down the street and see the skeletons of half-built carriage houses against a backdrop of vacant fields.

"The next wave of building cranked up in 1898, and it filled some of those empty spaces in with housing that wasn't quite so fancy. There were fewer Victorians, fewer houses built with the first golden-age flush in their walls." Strauss retrieves from the pile another map, circa 1914, and points to a cluster of new homes where May Dayton's 40 acres were farmed only a decade earlier. By this time, the Holts had headed on to the San Joaquin Valley in California, the Squyers had moved in and attached a $500 front porch to the house, and Mary Walsh has just been born in the upstairs back bedroom across the street.

"Between the time of this map and up to late 1920s, it stayed very much a quiet neighborhood. Also, in came a lot of little bungalows for working class black families just south of these blocks. There were a substantial number of Jewish people here, too--small shopkeepers, maybe some professionals, though it wasn't easy to get those kinds of privileges then." At least 10 Ku Klux Klan chapters had sprung up in the city by 1923.  

"So we had both a Jewish and an African American enclave, because both were excluded until later from residence in other sections of the city. In fact--and here's a lovely little tidbit--up until the 1930s, the principal at South High School on Good Friday used to show a movie about the crucifixion and make all the Jews stand up and get booed. As much as people bitch that Minneapolis is segregated now, hey, it's been going on since time began here. This neighborhood was one of the few places where minority folks could live in peace.

"What happened then was, of course, the Depression. In order to save the house, owners had to take in boarders. Some of the houses passed out of the family and were split up into separate quarters with absentee landlords. In 1930, people had a hard time making ends meet. They did what they had to do." That was the year the Squyers sold the house to Carroll LeBaron and his family, who took in a steady supply of short-term tenants in the upstairs rooms. LeBaron had, as Betty Walsh remembered, a "very good job, one of the higher-ups" over at the Sears headquarters on Lake Street--an enormous complex that once housed the city's most popular department store and is today vacant and slated for demolition. And Mary Walsh, after drawing a momentary blank--"LeBaron? LeBaron? of course"--remembered the cake Mrs. LeBaron used to bake for her sister every Christmas. "She'd come across the street, right at the holiday, with this huge layered thing, the biggest cake you ever saw. It was heaven--covered in coconut, with cherries and fresh holly all over it. She brought it over the first year after Betty went to bed."

By the mid 1950s, the LeBarons too had moved out west and the new owner--a painter and paper hanger named Russell Bourgerie--spent $1,100 turning the interior into a labyrinth of one-bedroom and studio apartments. The war was over. And the American Dream, Minneapolis-style, was relocating to the next boom in Richfield and Bloomington and beyond--an exodus made possible by a wonder of engineering not unlike the streetcar lines that helped build south Minneapolis around the turn of the century: the interstate highways. With a good arm, you could pitch a rock from the side porch at 3044 and hit the steel guardrail that cut through the former site of a hundred now dismantled and hauled-away houses.

"They'd just started in on that damned highway when we moved in, so all this talk about a peaceful neighborhood is lost on us." Marguerite Gevers--Mugs, as she's known to her friends--lives with her husband, Dutch, in the little house the Squyers had wedged into the back 28 feet of their lot as a wedding gift to their daughter in 1926. Mugs refers to 3044, with vague irritation, as "the big house." The eaves of the big house's back addition butt up to within a couple feet of the Gevers's east wall. You could pass a cup of sugar out the window, she says, and into the neighbor's kitchen. "And up until the time the highway came through here, I'd have done that--been neighborly and all. There were good people over there--one family upstairs, another down, and a third, old man Robinson and his housekeeper, keeping things up. My take on when the trouble started is simple: The highway took all the pride away from this corner and turned it into a slum. Lots of noise made the rents dirt cheap, and before we knew it, all hell broke loose. Why, the whole situation put Dutch over at the vet's hospital with a nervous condition."

Mugs lights up another in a chain of cigarettes and launches into a diatribe she's been rehearsing for 30-odd years. "Where to start? First thing was that beautiful porch. The owner, oh I forget his name now--he had it rented out to some wild tenants, like a lot of landlords ended up doing at that time. He was over here all the time, replacing windows, putting in new stoves that got stolen, painting over graffiti, picking up garbage, working his butt off to break even. Then one of his renters ran up a thousand dollar water bill using the faucet outside over the summer to wash his car, so he shut off the spigots. He went on vacation up to the lake one weekend, and the tenants ran a hose from the upstairs kitchen all the way out to the front porch roof and flooded the thing. It got soaked and rotted through."

"Next came the drugs and the whores turning tricks all up and down the alley here. That house was a big chaos. We got bottles through our side window like you wouldn't believe, and gunshots like some kind of war zone. You get the point. There was one lady in the house who used to haul a case of whiskey out to the yard and get smash drunk. She'd put her little baby in a stroller and kick it down the slope for fun. One night she went after a boyfriend with a butcher knife and came this close to stabbing that baby. After she got evicted, she moved over to Park Avenue and ended up killing it. And that was nothing. In that vacant lot on the other side, there was a family with three small children. One night the dad, he got drunk, had a big fight with his wife, roped her to the bed frame with those kids and burned the house down. I was out of town when it happened, thank heaven, but when I came back it was a pile of ash. They found the bodies still tied up to the bed."  

Judith Martin, who directs the urban studies program at the University of Minnesota, admits that while it's tempting to paint the interstate as the dark antagonist in the story of this neighborhood's decline, that version doesn't do justice to the broader, more complex spirit of the times. The reality, she says, is that construction of the interstate in Minneapolis, as in so many other cities in the 1960s, took place at the same time as the propensity in American civilization to expand out to the edge--to the edge of the urban core and, in the way cities seemed to embody all the dreary stagnation brought on by the war, to the edge of the modern imagination. The highway served as the mechanism to put access to the edge within reach, as did the streetcar lines at the turn of the century. But the mechanism didn't build itself. Urban planners, investors, and anyone else with a stake in wagering on the ebb and flow of human settlement were predicting that Minneapolis would be a city of nearly a million residents in the coming decade. Where would they all live? And how would they get there?

"What happened culturally, demographically, politically," Martin says, "is an economy going through some very profound changes. Here you have the feds trying to build this massive transportation system. You've got developers who can see money out there on the edge, once the highway reaches it. You've got the automobile industry interested in selling a car to everybody, and making sure they have to use it. And in popular culture, you have an overwhelming presentation of the single-family home in a suburban setting as the cultural paradigm, a kind of contemporary paradise. Where would one possibly get the idea of a crowded urban environment being the ideal? It was not, and it never would be again. What the highway did was to provide competition for the places that it was built through, and made available the outer reaches where people wanted to live. So you see, the creation of the interstate was a function of this new American sensibility--one that by valuing the new and mobile, left the old and deep-rooted behind." Against this kind of transformation, the house at 3044 Third Avenue didn't stand much of a chance.

But its ultimate fate, Martin adds, was anything but accidental. By the 1970s, mortgage companies had taken to "redlining" whole sections of the inner city as bad risk investments, an official policy that directed home buyers toward the convenient new developments and away from investing in an enormous old house in earshot of rush hour and with little hope of decent resale value. Too, the city's zoning department reclassified thousands of single-family homes as apartments, inviting absentee landlords with cash up front to buy them up as tax shelters, landlords who had little interest in maintaining the character of a neighborhood that wasn't theirs.

"Add to this volatile scenario," Martin says, "efforts at that time to clean up what the dominant culture saw as undesirable activities downtown on Hennepin Avenue--prostitution, porn shops, skid row. By process of elimination, it all went down to the next most visible place: Lake Street, right around the corner from the house we're talking about. With the upset brought on by suburban exodus and redlining, this was a neighborhood that could no longer sustain any other economic environment. It's an old story that gets told time and again in the American city today. These are districts penalized by banks. They are not at the top of the dream list for homeowners. Under these circumstances, whether or not the house at 3044 is in fact a beautiful structure with well-built walls becomes irrelevant. The neighborhood has become so demoralized and fatigued that not many people with money and a desire to set down roots would touch it. That's the nature of the beast in these older communities. This house simply got caught and stranded in the spiral."  

Caught? That's "damn right" in Mugs Gevers's book. "The whole damn lot of us." Then Mugs asks herself another question--"Have we ever been tempted to move out?"--and answers, "Good lord, of course. But once you hit 70, you get tired of fighting. Like a lot of city people, we could never get back what we've shelled into this house. Property values hit rock bottom years ago. Listen, between burning down, foreclosure, and getting condemned by the health inspectors, there's only four occupied houses on this whole block now. Four houses, a trashy bar, and a Taco Bell. But in a way," she says, gesturing with a sweep of her hand out at the neighborhood she rarely ventures into these days, "in a way I'm happy that most everything's boarded up, including the big house. It's kind of peaceful again, like a ghost town."

There are a lot of ghosts on this block--the ghost of a child the W.H. Holt family lost at the turn of the century to pneumonia; the ghost of Frederick Squyer, who died in 1913; the scorched ghosts of three children and their mother, wandering around the lot just west of the big house, which stood like a ghost itself in 1984 when Jim Spande bought the place for $5,000 down on a 30-year mortgage. It was, he says, a divine inspiration, a "calling" by the holy spirit that led him to the corner of Third and 31st and ownership of a property that would, a short six years later, nearly ruin his health and bankrupt his finances. Spande refers to the house now in the same tone one might use to speak of a slow death in the family--pained, awe-struck, and with an edge of anger in his voice.

"With all the living that had gone on in that house," he says, "as they say, I could almost hear its walls talking to me. What they might tell during the years I had them go something like this. First off, I just loved to work with these older places. New homes, they're nothing like that now. I had a regular day job back then, at a vending company that has since laid me off at age 59. Anyway, I'd come down every evening to fix the house up. We were trying to put a little retirement nest egg together. Seemed like the house had one foot in the grave when we picked it up, but I got the front porch patched back up where it rotted, got the plaster ceiling and walls back to life, the beveled door glass, windows, plumbing, furnace--all of it, tired and worn as it was.

"The only real attention it had had for several years was from one of the upstairs renters, an older lady named Anna Christensen who'd been there close to a decade. She had a love affair with that house. She'd go up to the attic, empty and unfinished as it was, and get down on her hands and knees and scrub the pine boards once a week with lye. She said it kept the place refreshed. But she finally moved out when the arguing and bad manners from other tenants got to be too much.

"In the beginning, things went smooth enough. I'd get renters in there, maybe 40 of them over the years, mostly young girls, black, white, whatever, with kids, two or three of them, and mostly on welfare, trying real hard to make it. Call me naive, but I checked references, laid down the living rules, and figured them as mostly good souls who'd respect such a house. How that ended up is another story. I remember one young lady I had in, with a 3-year-old daughter. I come over one day to fix her sink and find a man there who she called her brother, but who turned out, like a lot of them, to be no brother at all. These were the boyfriends, dwelling in the shadow, never on the lease. This one, he'd parked a motorcycle right there in the kitchen. When I asked him to take it outside, he threatened to beat me up.

"Another time I had one small apartment upstairs rented to a girl, 18 or 19, seemed real nice, pregnant and with a young kid already. Turns out the other tenants told me her boyfriend was in there beating her up every night, just bouncing her off the walls. I called the welfare department, bugged and bugged them, but when they came out she was so scared and miserable she ended up just disappearing like a ghost. That happened a lot. I'd get calls from the girls who'd run away to Wisconsin or Chicago, scared of their men, hiding out. They'd be so sorry, they'd say, 'Jim, the deposit is yours. The furniture and whatever else I left--food in the fridge, baby clothes, beds--just toss it in the alley.' Sometimes, the place was such a wreck, even a month after I'd redone it, that I could hardly believe it was the same place--pellets shot through the walls, carpet ripped out, spray paint like crazy.  

"Well, pretty soon it got out of hand. There was drinking and shooting drugs, pimps outside and who knows what inside. It got to the point where Minnegasco refused to come down unless I was there, and even then they'd bring a German shepherd or a big pipe along for protection. Once I came over with them and one of my tenants, a young girl again, came at me down the dark upstairs hallway, wearing this big trench coat, acting real strange, and pulled an old butcher knife on me. Another time, I came upon a cop with one of my tenant's boyfriends spread-eagled against the tree there, with a .45 aimed at his temple. What madness. Sometimes I'd get calls at 2, 3 in the morning from tenants saying I'd better come down here and get this dead body out of the front yard. They'd been fighting and somebody'd gotten shot down.

"Listen, there was drug traffic all hours of the day and night. It got to where I knew the head of the narcotics squad on a first-name basis. I learned to replace the screws in the front hinges with these simple spikes so when the raid squads kicked the doors in, the moldings wouldn't get damaged. One night, and this was the strangest thing, I came over just to check up. I pulled up to the curb, there in the dark under the streetlight, and turned off the engine. I just sat there looking at the house. A few lights were on, music real loud, people coming in and out, junk cars in the yard. I just sat there thinking it's not possible that this is my house. It can't be. I was terrified to go in. Then I got out and stood in the front yard waiting for the police to show up. And here, three squad cars come around the corner and it was just like slow motion. It was slow motion. Even the police were afraid to come near.

"As you can probably guess, we lost the house. The bank foreclosed on us. We just couldn't save her. When we bought it, the place was valued at over $100,000, though it was near impossible to get any kind of insurance. When we lost it, the house was estimated at $4,000. But for me what those years boiled down to is sadness, just plain sadness. There was all the sadness in the world taking place between those walls. That's the story it told me--all the hurts and frustrations people carried inside finally just did the place in. My tenants would take their anxieties out on the walls, literally, so it got to where the house itself must have felt a kind of despair. Like it couldn't even be a sufficient shelter anymore. Even like its purpose in life was used up. Toward the end, I just couldn't go on. All that time, all that money, and all that happened was wreckage. Finally, I got what rents I could and turned my back and let go."

The last time I visited the house at 3044 Third Avenue South was in the company of the current owner, Sam Harris. He and his wife, Emelda, purchased the property at a city tax auction last May for $10,400--$8,000 for the land and $2,000 for the house, a thousand dollars less than it cost to build in 1886. Between Jim Spande losing it to foreclosure and the Harrises picking it up sight unseen, the house had changed hands once, briefly, at an earlier auction in July 1990. But four years later, the only trace left behind by Bashir Moghul, a New Brighton resident whose high bid bought the place, was a trail of forfeiture papers, a few foundation stones where he'd ripped off the sagging porch, and a pile of asbestos shingles lying in the yard where he'd begun to pry them off with a crowbar. By the summer of 1994, inspectors had slated 3044 for demolition. A note scribbled in blue pen on a taxpayer service's memo regarding the wrecking order read, "owner... will want to remove his personal property. Is leaving the country for a period of time soon."  

Gordy Ramm, who works in the Hennepin County tax office, figures the $8,000-plus in back-taxes owed by Moghul on the house was typical fare for the slew of vacant houses in the neighborhood. These houses, he says, are the legacy left behind by folks finding the good life somewhere else, and in that regard the fate of 3044 is the fate of what became the inner city.

"Landlords who picked houses up cheap could never get a positive cash flow out of them--non-homesteaded, multi-unit places that they were, and in need of radical rehab. The house at 3044 is what you might call a giant money pit; it would require tens of thousands to bring it up to code now. Toss into the scenario a law passed in 1987 which allowed the City to speed up property forfeitures, from the conventional three years to just one in areas it deemed 'critical,' and you've got a formula for demolition. The City took it over with that in mind, but the house never did come down. There was talk by some area residents that it might have historical significance. So instead of letting the place die a quiet death, we opened it up for folks to walk though before yet another auction. But it was enter at your own risk. When it sold, we were all surprised. From the paperwork we've got here at the office, it sounds like Sam Harris bought it by mistake."

Attached to a cursory description of the house at the auction was an 11-page file detailing every code violation that city inspectors had managed to find earlier in the spring: ripped screens and missing doors, broken sheetrock and deteriorated ceilings, rotted-out soffits and fascia, an illegal bathroom, a hazardous heating system, a foundation in ruins. Item 14 on the building department's list of required work reads: Recommend that this building be demolished. The price tag for making good on all 57 violations, as the Harrises soon found out, ranged from $150,000 to twice that.

Even more of a shock was the reception they received from nearby residents fed up with what one called "slum lords trashing our neighborhood and cashing in on the profits." It turned out the house had been re-zoned years ago, so its only possible use was as a "single family home." Emelda Harris claims she was misled by false advertising at the auction, and is fighting to have the zoning changed back to rental-property status. Neighbors, especially those who live around the corner in a row of overhauled Queen Annes designed by architect T.P. Healy in the late 1800s, don't extend her much sympathy. They've come out on the other side of a bad era, and tend to heap most of the blame for the district's reputation as "crack and whore central" on reckless, suburban landlords, which is what they believe the new owners to be. The dispute has left bitterness on both sides, and the fate of the house in a precarious balance.

Last June the Harrises sent a letter to the tax department, requesting that their transaction be annulled and their down payment refunded--essentially, that the house be turned back over to the county as if the sale had never happened. Two months later, the Hennepin County Attorney's office replied that the sale of the property was under "as is" conditions, an enter-at-your-own-risk deal. However, the letter said, "this should not be interpreted as prohibiting you from exploring other options with regard to the use of the property... You may wish to explore these options with your own legal counsel." By the time Sam Harris pulled up to the curb for our trip inside, the most he could manage was, "We just want our money back. We just want to unload this thing and move on, but it's a dead end." This old house, he said, is like some kind of bad dream--one with a hold you can't shake.

The inspection reports were right, though an accounting of the house's condition on paper is a dim description compared to a slow tour through its rooms. The vision of an elegant home that A.P. Rushton must have held when he paged through a catalog of popular floor plans and chose this one--this one with the vaulted ceilings and recessed sills, the angled staircase stained in gold light, the formal double parlor and secret vaults and doorways framed in hand-carved dadoes--that vision has passed away. In its place are piles of abandoned mattresses, animal scat, cheap particle board punched through by years of drunk fists and busted pipes, and a few intact light fixtures that tremble in the wind gusting through cracks in the walls.  

When we got to the second-floor front bedroom, Sam Harris stood for a long time staring out the large, broken window. The sleek downtown skyline to the north was shrouded in steam. A late quarter moon was caught in the branch of a tree, just above the smoke of a neighbor's chimney across the street--a neighbor he will, if his wish comes true, never know. The interstate, a block to the west, sounded hushed and unhurried for once. The storm yesterday morning had left behind a temporary design of ice on the window. Its owner turned and motioned toward the door. "I suppose," he said, in passing, "it's time to go," and stepped through the prism of sunlight the shattered glass had scattered across the worn floor.


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