A once-grand 19th-century home that has been converted into an unassuming rooming house in south Minneapolis has become a battleground between residential development pressures and neighborhood preservation.
The two-and-a-half-story building at 24th Street and Colfax Avenue S. was built more than 120 years ago by T.P. Healy, a master builder of Queen Anne-style housing whose homes are scattered throughout south Minneapolis.
The owner has proposed demolishing the home and an adjoining rental duplex to make way for a four-story, 45-unit apartment complex, riling some neighbors and preservationists committed to keeping it.
City staff members counter that the building is not worth saving.
“It’s an important house,” Healy expert Anders Christensen said of the house, which lies just off Hennepin Avenue north of Uptown. “And I think that Healy represents an entire class of builders and he was really first in his class.”
High-density housing proposals outside of downtown recently have encountered obstacles in other areas of the city. Neighbors and developers are sparring over a proposal for apartments at Lyndale and Franklin Avenues and a high-rise on the north end of Lake Calhoun. While not a residential project, historic preservation recently derailed a six-story hotel proposal in Dinkytown.
The city’s Heritage Preservation Commission will vote Tuesday on whether to allow demolition of the house, which is a shadow of its former self. The exterior has been significantly altered, a fire destroyed the upper floors and it has been converted into a 15-unit rooming house where occupants live in single rooms and share bathrooms. The halls inside now resemble dormitories, featuring fluorescent lights, numbered doors and a lingering odor of cigarettes. Most of the historic windows have been replaced, a porch was enclosed and the building has been twice re-sided, according to a city staff report.
An initial attempt to demolish it was thwarted in 2013 when Christensen successfully appealed and convinced the City Council that it needed further scrutiny.
“I thought this was a fairly clear-cut case up front,” said city planner and historian John Smoley, who recommended allowing the demolition. “I’ve been surprised by the extent [to] which this has all gone.”
Being a “master builder” means that Healy designed, built and sold his own houses; about 140 were constructed, many of them still standing. A grouping of Healy houses just off the northbound 31st Street off-ramp of Interstate 35W is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Christensen said the 24th and Colfax house — sometimes called the “Orth” house because it was inhabited by the son of a prominent brewer — represents a transition in Healy’s architectural style inspired by the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago.
“The Orth house ends up being a prototype. … He built probably 10 houses that are variations on the Orth house design,” Christensen said. City staff could not find evidence to support the claim that this house represented a significant moment in Healy’s career, however.
Owner Michael Crow purchased the property in 1991 after the damaging fire. His tenants pay just over $100 a week to live there, but Crow is ready to leave the rental business after a series of medical problems. On a recent tour, he showed how little of the original building — interior and exterior — remain.
“Of all of the Healy houses that do exist, this is not a good example of his work. Most of it’s all gone. Just the fact that he built it — or built the frame of it — shouldn’t be a reason to save the house,” Crow said.
Crow believes that opposition is largely driven by resistance to the apartment building, rather than historic preservation. Opponents of that development from The Lander Group include longtime neighborhood resident Linda Huhn, who is disappointed to see more apartments proposed in the area. She notes that many residents have lived there for a long time, attending meetings and charting the neighborhood’s future.
“I don’t think these people should just be thrown aside for us to create dense housing for all kinds of new people to come in here who don’t really know anything about the neighborhood, or care,” she said. “They just want to be here because it’s kind of close to restaurants and bars and things happening.”
Largely an advisory panel, the Heritage Preservation Commission ruled previously that the building was a historic resource, which was affirmed by the City Council. Crow has since returned to the city with an application to demolish a historic resource. That will go first to the commission, then to the council on appeal.
But the council that took the last vote is half gone, replaced by seven new faces who ran on largely pro-density platforms — including City Council Member Lisa Bender, who now represents the area. The Colfax lot is an attractive site for development in an area that has already seen a boom in high-density residential housing. It is a short jaunt to Hennepin and Lyndale Avenues, served by many nearby bus routes and zoned for high-density housing.
Bender, who chairs the city’s Zoning and Planning Committee, said she is interested to hear the historic preservation arguments from both sides, but otherwise thinks “it’s a great development.” It’s in a transit-oriented area, she noted, and requires only a minor variance from city code.
“I am cognizant of the dynamic of wanting to make sure we’re taking historic preservation seriously and not saving buildings that don’t make sense,” Bender said.