The two-story farmhouse is 117 years old. It’s charming, but nondescript, and clearly in need of rehabilitation.
Because it sits on a 12,000-square-foot lot a stone’s throw from Minneapolis’ Lake Harriet in desirable Linden Hills, it is teardown nirvana, which is where it was headed until passionate locals said, “Not so fast.”
That’s because for 31 years, the home’s owner was wise and witty Brenda Ueland, writer, seeker, mentor and activist, who had an abiding love for this neighborhood.
Ueland, whose life spanned 1891 to 1985, is best known for “If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit,” published in 1938. Reprinted by Minneapolis’ Graywolf Press in 1987, it has sold more than 250,000 copies in the U.S. and Canada and has been translated into Japanese, Korean and Spanish.
Ueland didn’t write that seminal book at this Linden Hills home, which is important to note. At the weekly meeting of the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission on Feb. 14, speakers — including developer John Gross, who bought the property for $840,000 last fall — argued that the fact that Ueland lived there, particularly in the last third of her life, was not reason enough to save it.
More meaningful ways to honor Ueland’s legacy, he and others said, could be a plaque at the local library. Maybe even a statue.
On the other side, large numbers of friends, family members and city planners urged the commission to deny the demolition. This unique Minnesota woman must be honored through the home’s preservation, nothing less, they insisted.
“Her presence and legacy are so strong,” said Jeri Maeve Reilly. “You can still feel her. Once that house is torn down, Brenda will be gone. You need the building to anchor the memory.”
I attended the preservation commission meeting, and not solely for work reasons. Over the years, I’ve marked up my cherished copy of “If You Want to Write” with pink and yellow markers. I even highlighted footnotes. I’ve also peppered Ueland’s small volume with Post-it notes that I turn to when I teach young writers, or when I need to remember why I do this work.
I support saving Ueland’s little farmhouse, but I do believe middle ground is possible. I also believe that this issue is not as simple as the David-vs.-Goliath tale that we too often default to. It’s more complex, and thus, more interesting.
I imagine that Ueland would have loved watching it play out from her second-floor sunroom, holding one of her signature Manhattans.
Ueland was born in Minneapolis, the daughter of Clara, a national suffragist leader, and Andreas, a lawyer and judge. As a sixth-grader in 1903, her prizewinning short story was published in the Minneapolis Journal. She attended Barnard College and lived in New York City, recounted her step-grandson Eric Utne, who is writing a book about her. Her circle of friends included writers Emma Goldman, Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather and Eugene O’Neill.
She married in 1916, had a daughter, Gaby, in 1921, and divorced in 1926. In 1930, she returned to Minneapolis, first living in the family home on Calhoun Boulevard, where she continued to publish. In 1954, after that home was demolished, she moved to the farmhouse, whose living spaces, Utne said, were lined floor-to-ceiling with bookcases.
It was here that she wrote columns, sold advertising, held salons, walked and swam the lake, fought against animal cruelty, championed women’s equality, and kept robust diaries. Much of her work is part of the Minnesota Historical Society’s collection. She also made several improvements to the house, according to community planning records.
The home has had at least five owners since Ueland died, during which time improvements were made, including new beams, new insulation and wallboard finishes. But it’s still 117 years old.
Gross, who has lived across the street from the home for 22 years, said he paid “a high price, but a fair price” for the land parcel, which is zoned R-4 for multifamily use. He also redeveloped the stunning Upton 43 restaurant a block away, and said he envisions a “deeply thoughtful development” on that single lot where the “poorly built” house now sits.
After decades of work in preservation, Gross said he’s “shocked” that this property could be considered a historic resource, and is confident that a vigorous city process of checks and balances will allow neighbors ample opportunity to share their concerns and ideas as the project moves forward.
If the home is designated a historic resource, he said it would “immediately lose $500,000 in value.” He estimates that renovation would create an $800,000 loss, “that would likely drive any private property owner to bankruptcy.”
After the meeting, at which the commission voted 6-1 to recommend denial of the demolition, commissioner Linda Mack agreed that preserving the house may not be the best way to preserve Ueland’s legacy.
“While the home does meet one of our seven criteria for potential historic resource, [being associated with the lives of significant persons or groups], it is not clear when you walk by this house that there is a history there,” said Mack, a former Star Tribune architecture critic, speaking for herself. “For the decades since she lived there, a lot of people have walked by and been unaware of its history.”
Senior city planner Aaron Hanauer countered that while he has “great respect” for developer Gross and Preservation Design Works, the company that evaluated the property, he sees value in preserving Ueland’s home.
“It is because she lived there,” he said. “There are different scenarios when evaluating properties associated with significant people. Ideally, the place of significance captures the productive life of the individual in the field in which she or he achieves significance. However, some properties might be eligible as the only surviving property associated with a significant individual, which in part is the case here.”
Respecting the city’s new accessory dwelling unit zoning codes, I’d love to see a renovated home with a repainted porch and preserved facade, coupled with a mother-in-law unit for an aging parent or aspiring writers or a college student or returning adult child.
I’m OK with a plaque, too, as long as it’s attached to a Little Free Library out front emblazoned with the fact that Brenda Ueland lived here for three rich decades. And please paint the little structure with spirited whales. For more on that, treat yourself to her writing.