Long before hockey dynasties and cake-eater jokes, Edina was known as a tranquil farming community on the far outskirts of Minneapolis.
The rural Edina Mills, then part of Richfield Township, was considered so remote in 1886, the year that George and Sarah Baird built a big brick farmhouse to replace their modest wooden one, that the Bairds had a hard time finding a hired “girl” to help with the housework.
“Nobody wanted to go that far out,” said Diane Plunkett Latham, an Edina resident and local history buff.
Now, of course, Edina is a highly desirable first-ring suburb — so desirable, in fact, that its older neighborhoods have become Ground Zero in the teardown debate being waged throughout the Twin Cities.
The city issued 101 permits for teardowns last year, setting a record, and has already issued 68 this year, according to senior planner Joyce Repya. “Now that the recession is letting up, we’re seeing teardowns all over.”
Too many teardowns, in Plunkett Latham’s opinion. “Edina’s history is being torn down right in front of our eyes.”
So she and like-minded preservationists have organized an Edina Historic Home Tour on Sept. 15. It’s billed as a celebration of the city’s 125th anniversary and a fundraiser for the Edina Historical Society, but it has another mission: to foster appreciation of Edina’s historic housing stock.
“We want to show people how to retain these homes,” Plunkett Latham said. “With minor remodeling, you can make them very livable. We want to encourage people to do that.”
Morningside, the east Edina neighborhood near the France Avenue business hubs at W. 44th and 50th streets, is a particular concern, she said. “People want to live there, so they can walk to all those amenities.” But many buyers are demolishing the vintage homes to build bigger, new houses.
The homes aren’t the only casualties, she added. “We’re losing 100- to 200-year-old trees. That has troubled neighbors deeply. Yes, they replant. Nobody puts up a $1 million house and doesn’t landscape.” But new trees aren’t the same as mature ones, she noted.
Homes on the tour highlight three important eras in Edina’s history. In addition to the Baird House, which represents the city’s rural roots, visitors can tour an Arts & Crafts bungalow built in 1912 along what was then a streetcar line, and a 1929 Mediterranean home in the Country Club district, one of the first planned communities in Minnesota.
Houses in Country Club are now protected from teardowns. The district is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was designated an Edina Heritage Landmark in 2003. Homeowners who want to make significant changes to Country Club homes built between 1924 and 1944 must clear their plans with the Edina Heritage Preservation Board.
In 2010, the city launched a similar Heritage Landmark designation for owners of vintage bungalows. But instead of designating an entire neighborhood as historic, homeowners are invited to nominate their own bungalows as Heritage Landmarks on a house-by-house basis.
The designation would impose some limits on remodeling, particularly projects that affect the streetscape. But the designation also carries benefits, according to Repya, who serves as staff liaison to the Heritage Preservation Board. “Our research shows it increases interest and property values. It’s an honor and makes a house special.”
Plunkett Latham, for one, thought the bungalow program would be popular. “We were hoping a lot of people would do it, that we’d have so many we couldn’t keep up,” she said.
But so far, not one bungalow owner has taken the bait. “Some people have expressed interest, but nobody has pulled the trigger,” said Repya. “They wonder about the marketability of their home, with so many teardowns going on.”
Joyce Mellom, owner of the Country Club house featured on the tour, considered expanding after she bought her house in 1993. She’s made many improvements over the years, including new plumbing, a rebuilt chimney and a remodeled kitchen, which still boasts its original breakfast nook. But she resisted the impulse to do a big addition — and she’s glad she did.
“I thought about it, but I decided I didn’t want to rip up the back of the house and stick this thing on there,” she said. “It’s not the best house in Country Club. I don’t have a master suite. But it totally works.”
She’s watched other nearby neighborhoods change dramatically as their housing stock undergoes extreme makeovers. “I’m grateful I live in a neighborhood with some restrictions,” she said, “that protect and maintain its integrity and original character.”