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 words Police 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."
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."
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."
But, says Green, a great house can turn into an ordinary house very quickly--especially under the government's watch. "I have to warn people who might buy a HUD house that anything might be carried out before closing, and that HUD doesn't care. If you go in and the buffet's been stolen, that's too bad. If there are appliances, don't count on them being there."
HUD's Sailors estimates that at any given time, her agency owns between 200 and 250 houses in the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul; protecting them all, she says, is simply impossible. "Architectural theft happens, and it's very frustrating for the neighbors and for us. But we've looked at variety of alternatives--electronic security is just too expensive. And you can't afford to hire people to sit guard."
Sailors says HUD has no data on how often items are stolen from its houses. The cases, she says, are hard to pursue unless someone is caught red-handed: "Typically, if we have a property and it's clear that there's been stuff removed, we have no way to know whether the previous owner did it or if someone broke in. Even if we had a report from a neighbor, it's very difficult to track and not worth any law-enforcement time, so nothing happens. If the police have to deal with crimes against people and then they get a call that someone is carrying out a buffet, you can't criticize the fact that the buffet isn't the highest priority."
Nor does it take a particularly sophisticated burglar to break into a HUD house. HUD issues only one type of lock for all of its buildings, and the key hasn't changed in at least ten years. Sailors says it would be "a nightmare and impossible to estimate" how many people have HUD keys; the agency has a list of 1,400 approved brokerages in Minnesota, and many of them have multiple agents.
"We say in our training of agents that some people shouldn't buy HUD homes," Sailors concludes. "If they're buying it because they like that stained-glass window--well, it could get stolen. There's no way to prevent damage when the property is sitting there vacant."
One of the biggest buyers of HUD homes is the Minneapolis Community Development Agency (MCDA). Spokeswoman Dawn Hagen says the MCDA takes over the buildings to try to sell them to owner-occupants using local and state funding. She explains that the agency ensures that its houses are heated and the lawns are maintained, but that it can't guarantee any protection beyond that. "We have 500 vacant and boarded properties in the city," she explains. "Sometimes it can be a year or two before we can do something with the property."
Hagen says her agency, like HUD, does not track theft from its houses. But Cherre Palenius, project coordinator for an MCDA rehab program called Home Ownership Works, estimates that between five and ten percent of the properties she deals with are hit by architectural thieves. Palenius says the houses in her program--less than ten percent of the MCDA's total--are visited regularly by MCDA staffers to discourage theft, and alarms have been installed in most of them. "I know that HUD gets hit a lot and they do not have alarms in their houses," she says. "We buy houses from them sometimes that already have the buffets and things missing."
Watching century-old buildings being stripped under municipal or federal ownership is infuriating, says architect Roscoe. "Some of these older houses are very tough old critters. It's remarkable how they are built to survive, have gone through a number of families--if walls could talk, they would tell of joys through the years. It's unfortunate that when the government buys them, it often signals the end of their life."
What bothered Miller most about the Scott Johnson case, he says, was that no one seemed to care--even after he and his neighbors offered specific leads, documentation, and evidence. Marjory Holly, for example, gave this account of her efforts in a March 29, 1992, letter to then-Third Precinct inspector Steve Strehlow: "The police were by myself, my daughter, and probably a neighbor or two when we spotted the eight-foot overmantel being loaded onto a large moving van. But the two officers from the Third Precinct left chuckling shortly after arriving, when one of the men stripping the house referred to me as a mentally unstable old woman! The officers ordered my husband and daughter inside--'mind your own business'--even though we were standing upon our own property, and I was to 'shut up.'"
Current Third Precinct inspector Brad Johnson says he doesn't remember the incident, which occurred before his tenure. But he says burglaries of vacant houses often are not investigated because there's too little information to go on. "Property-crimes detectives are only assigned to cases where there's at least a phone call or some sort of follow-up to be done," Johnson explains. "If a neighbor was to see a suspicious truck in the driveway, that would be assigned. If all of a sudden a couple of windows are missing, chances are it won't be assigned."
Sgt. Clint Tucker, an 11-year veteran of the Third Precinct's property-crimes unit and a self-described local-history buff, says in most cases where police do make an arrest in a vacant house, the suspect is after metal. "The guys we catch started out ripping out radiators for copper plumbing. They'll take anything--the aluminum from around storm windows, you name it. I've heard of guys who've stolen brand-new aluminum scaffolding, brought it to a salvage yard, and sold it all."
But metal prices have been falling--at one local salvage yard, the copper housing pipe that three years ago sold for more than one dollar a pound now commands 40 or 50 cents. "Out of necessity, thieves have become more sophisticated," Tucker says. "You can work all day to get metal. But it doesn't take long, if you have the right tools, to get a stained-glass window. Wrap it in a bedsheet, bring it down to [a store], and there you are--$100."
Often, says the MCDA's Palenius, the burglars seem to be even more organized than that. "It's my understanding that they come up in contractor-type cars, and so the neighbors think it's something that's supposed to happen. I've had houses where thieves have been in and out with stained-glass windows in 20 minutes. Obviously they know what they're doing."
They also know their loot is hard to track. Very few people know how to trace, say, a stolen doorknob back to the property it came from; the only technique that comes close was developed by a Chicago police officer who is now a legend among doorknob lovers and burglary detectives across the nation. Arthur Paholke, who now lives Hot Springs, Arkansas, specializes in identifying lock-pickers and their tools from the microscopic marks they leave. He teaches seminars on the technique to police departments across the nation and at the FBI academy in Virginia.
Through his years examining doors and locks, Paholke has become an expert on doorknobs. His private collection fills a space 40 feet long and four feet high. He is a member of the Doorknob Collectors of America, which holds conventions and publishes a newsletter for its membership across the U.S.
In Chicago Paholke sometimes used his technique to track down architectural crimes. He recalls one incident: "A church in a poorer neighborhood--some rascals got the idea that these stained-glass windows could bring them monetary gain. The tool marks in the wood of the window sill and the mortise lock allowed us to make an ID and convict them. We've made ID on painted surfaces, cut window screens, wire cutters that cut telephone wire, as long as they maintain the microscopic stria"--tiny lines that can be used as a tool fingerprint.
The problem with architectural theft, says Paholke, is that most people can't tell one doorknob, banister, or mantelpiece from another. "With an auto, you have a VIN number. Same with firearms--serial numbers. But it's a relatively simple chore for Mickey the Mope to remove a doorknob and plate and transport it within the confines of a city."
John Strong, an investigator with the FBI's interstate theft unit in Washington, D.C., concurs: Thieves who specialize in old houses, he says, "don't need a fence. They can basically sell these items, which are not entered into theft computers or [given] serial numbers, on the legitimate market without a go-between. There are a lot of items that look the same." Strong says the FBI has started a database to catalog unique art items worth more than $2,000. But, he notes, "a lot of local departments aren't aware of that."
"We are aware of the cannibalizing of old houses," Strong adds. "We'd be more than happy to address it, but a lot of it hasn't been brought to our attention. Each particular theft is not a huge theft--tops are maybe thousands or tens of thousands of dollars--and so they're often handled by a burglary division of local departments just like, say, a lawn mower that's been stolen."
The other factor working in favor of architectural thieves, notes Paholke, is that few people--politicians, police, residents--seem to care when buildings are stripped in a bad neighborhood. Typically, he says, the crimes are not discovered until an area takes an upscale turn and new buyers pick up dilapidated houses. "The thievery is done at the cost of the new owner. The [perpetrators] could care less other than the fact that copper is going at 60 cents a pound or that the antique stores give money for this crap."
The case of the missing mantelpiece was not Keith Miller's first investigation. In July 1990 Healy Block residents told him that a fireplace mantel had disappeared from one of the houses on the block; a police report had been filed, but there had been no follow-up.
On August 5 Miller, on a routine jaunt through local antique stores, discovered the mantel at Cobblestone Antiques, then located on Third Avenue South in Minneapolis. He called police, who perused store records and discovered that over the previous year, Cobblestone had purchased nearly 20 windows and a few mantels from the same seller. The man returned a month later with another stained-glass window; store owners tried to keep him around until police arrived, but he got suspicious and fled.
Miller says shoppers needn't fear that everything they buy from local antique stores is stolen: Most of the merchandise, he notes, is shipped over from England, and much of the rest comes from legal salvaging operations. But that doesn't mean thieves don't sell to the stores: "[Stolen items] will usually show up in a week or so, if they're going to show up," Miller says. "So I tell people: File a police report, then hit the stores."
Local retailers say that they are careful not to traffic in stolen merchandise. Nancy Moore is manager of Architectural Antiques on Washington Avenue, one of the oldest local stores specializing in historic decorations. She estimates that her store buys items "off the street" a couple of times a week. Each time, she says, the store records the seller's driver's license number, name, and address. "I won't buy if I get a bad feeling about it," she explains. "People who are in this business--we like this stuff, so we don't want to buy from people who are ripping it off."
To some city officials, trusting antique dealers' gut feelings is not good enough. Last June, Tenth Ward City Council member Lisa McDonald co-authored an amendment to the city's regulations governing secondhand dealers. McDonald says architectural elements have been stolen from her house and those of her neighbors: "I've had whole houses stripped in the Wedge [neighborhood]. As someone who had to go searching for her windows, I was concerned about that." McDonald's ordinance required dealers to file a report with police every time they buy a stained-glass or leaded-glass item; for some retailers, the measure also upped the license fees payable to the city.
McDonald says she hasn't heard much criticism of the provisions. But Derek Laumbach, general manager of Antiques Minnesota, says the law was one of the reasons he moved his antique mall out of the city last summer. "They say that this is going to help make sure that we are not dealing in stolen goods," Laumbach scoffs. "But it was arbitrary. There are certain categories: gold, sterling, stained-glass windows, art pieces. But there was no dollar amount--a $5,000 inkwell doesn't have to be reported, but a $50 sterling ring does."
Third Precinct inspector Johnson says police would like the regulations to go even further. Pawnshops, he notes, must take pictures of people bringing in items, and record names and addresses on a computer system accessible to police. A similar system for antiques, he speculates, could allow police to identify habitual thieves: "If there are a lot of entries for a certain person, then perhaps we have to check into where they're getting that merchandise from."
McDonald's ordinance, and the computerized records system Johnson envisions, might help police nab the occasional buffet burglar. But it's unlikely that either would have hindered the Twin Cities', and perhaps the nation's, most famous antique thief: Stephen Jay Blumberg.
The St. Paul native is best known for the "Blumberg collection," as grimacing librarians sometimes call it--a 19-ton assortment of more than 20,000 rare books and manuscripts, many of them stolen from American and Canadian libraries and museums. It was discovered in the spring of 1990, when FBI agents, acting on an informant's tip, raided Blumberg's three-story, 17-room house in Ottumwa, Iowa. Along with thousands of books categorized by subject, the house held tens of thousands of antique doorknobs and a large collection of stained-glass windows.
Following the raid, investigators discovered that Blumberg also rented an apartment near 16th Street and Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis and was storing items in another house near Franklin and Park avenues. From the two locations, police removed 300 stained-glass windows as well as brass doorknobs, musical instruments, lighting fixtures, fireplace mantels, jewelry, and coins. The items were brought downtown and set up for viewing so that theft victims could identify their property. Very few were ever claimed.
Blumberg's father told reporters at the time that many of the rare items were taken from St. Paul and Minneapolis houses that were being razed to make room for freeway construction in the 1960s and '70s. His son, the elder Blumberg says now, couldn't stand the thought of architectural features ground to bits by the bulldozers. A St. Paul antiques dealer--who first met Blumberg when he was a child lugging antique discoveries behind him on his bike--was quoted in the Star Tribune as saying that "that interstate had something to do with the way he is today."
Eventually, prosecutors in U.S. District Court in Des Moines charged Blumberg with transportation and possession of stolen property. He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. An accomplice testified at Blumberg's January 1991 trial that the two of them had traveled the nation for years, selling antiques by day and stealing books at night. Another partner in crime called Blumberg "Spider-Man" because of the way he was able to wiggle through air vents, scale roofs, pick locks, get past burglar alarms, and lift himself through tiny openings.
Defense lawyers, on the other hand, pointed out that Blumberg--who receives $72,000 annually from a trust set up by his grandfather--had never sold any of the books in his collection, and that many of the architectural items he stored were covered with dust. One attorney told the court that Blumberg "lived almost as a street person...who was absorbed by Victorian history, who lived in a time warp, a secret world."
In the seven years since the bust, Blumberg's tale has mesmerized antique fanatics around the nation. Nearly everyone interviewed for this story brought up Blumberg--often with a remarkable degree of sympathy. Lock specialist Paholke even called him a "very good friend."
"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.
The buffets, windows, tubs, and banisters are offered free of charge to "nonprofit contractors working on MCDA-approved projects," says Hartman, but there is no provision for selling the items to members of the public. Hartman says she is "working on a cost estimate to have a public sale. I'm thinking I should, to get more of this back into the neighborhoods. But nothing like that is happening in the immediate future."
Preservation advocates say the MCDA doesn't have much time to waste: The pieces stored in the warehouse could actually save historic buildings from the wrecking ball, argues David Piehl, housing chair for the Central Neighborhood Improvement Association. He describes an MCDA-owned house--"a basic 1910 Prairie-style house," that recently plummeted $20,000 in value after being robbed of its interior decorations. Explains Piehl: "Many of the rehabs in our neighborhood are so extensive that they're marginal to begin with, but they're doable because of the architectural amenities. Without them, a marginal rehab becomes financially undoable--the appraisal is lower, but the cost of project is the same, so you have a bigger gap to make up. That house we spoke of--it's a vacant lot now."
The MCDA's closed-door policy amounts to a betrayal of inner-city homeowners, charges real estate agent Sandy Green. "When does the public get those things back? Anyone using an MCDA rehab loan on a house built before 1940 should have that warehouse accessible to them, to purchase things that are compatible with their house. A lot of individuals are putting their very own money into rehabbing their own houses. If it's owned by a public agency, it should be available to the public." (Reckdahl)
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.