Cornelious Martin was an Army vet, a mechanic and a recent transplant from Oklahoma when he bought his first house, a simple two-bedroom ranch in south Minneapolis.
“I was pretty young and in a hurry,” he recalled of his 1961 purchase. “I had a family to raise, I was working and going to school.” The neighborhood was stable and close-knit. “It was comfortable here. We fitted right in.”
Fifty-five years later, Martin still lives in the modest house where he and his late wife raised their four children. “We sent them all to college,” he said with pride, seated in his cozy living room filled with family photos. “It’s been a good house. It’s served us well.”
Martin’s house, along with a few dozen others in his neighborhood, made history back when they were built for one reason: They were open to home buyers of all races, a rarity at the time. Now the city has proposed celebrating and preserving the homes by creating a new historic district, Tilsenbilt Homes.
“This is an important group of homes,” said Minneapolis City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden, who nominated the district for historic status. “It was one of the first integrated housing developments in the nation,” and the first to receive federal support.
The Tilsenbilt houses were built in the mid-1950s, an era when African-Americans faced steep hurdles in trying to buy a home, thanks to restrictive deed covenants and red-lining policies that kept them out of all but a scant few established black neighborhoods.
“It was difficult for people of color to get mortgages,” said Andrew Frenz, a city planner. During the 1940s, Minneapolis’ black population increased 60 percent — yet of the 9,500 single-family houses and duplexes constructed between 1946 and 1952, only 12 were sold to African-American buyers, creating a severe housing shortage — and steep prices for the few homes available.
A community is born
Enter the Minneapolis Urban League, which encouraged black real estate agents to work with the Federal Housing Administration to develop a new model for integrated projects. Realtor Archie Givens Sr. assembled 63 lots (bounded by 39th Street, 47th Street, 5th Avenue S. and 3rd Avenue S.) and recruited builder Edward Tilsen, owner of Tilsenbilt Homes, to construct them.
The well-constructed homes attracted buyers, mostly African-Americans, who moved in and formed a stable neighborhood. Many of the houses have remained in the same families for decades. Martin’s son, Craig, who moved back to Minneapolis to help care for his father after his mother died, has warm memories of his childhood in the neighborhood.
“The neighborhood is now the way it was then, kids playing up and down the street,” Craig said.
His sister Karen Martin remembers “street games, night games, Mom calling us in” to go to bed. There were neighborhood parties, and trick-or-treating and walking to the nearby library.
“It was a nice neighborhood for an African-American family to grow up in,” said Kelly Martin, Karen’s twin.
And while most of the families were black, there was some racial integration. “We played with whoever was on the block,” Craig recalled. “Kids don’t see race unless they’re taught.”
In addition to their historic role in housing rights, the Tilsenbilt Homes also were associated with two significant historic figures. Givens and his wife, Phebe, known as Minneapolis’ “first black millionaires,” were prominent business leaders (developing and managing nursing homes) and philanthropists. Builder Tilsen, who was born in the Ukraine and experienced discrimination as an immigrant Jew, was a pioneer in pushing for integrated housing in the Twin Cities.
The Tilsenbilt houses are modest in size, about 1,000 square feet, with a central door, and inside, a kitchen, dinette, two bedrooms and formal dining room that could be used as a third bedroom. “They have a similar look,” said Craig Martin. Walking the neighborhood, “You can see which ones are Tilsenbilt.”
Most of the properties “retain their integrity,” according to the city, with few exterior alterations and most of their original materials and design.
Help with repairs
Historic designation could help preserve the homes and potentially attract corporate sponsorship and other resources to help make needed repairs and updates, Glidden said. However, some residents have expressed reservations about potential restrictions on remodeling they may want to do in the future.
To explain the historic designation process, the city has hosted a series of informational meetings for residents of the neighborhood. The Martin family, for one, is in favor of the proposed district.
“I support it because of the neighborhood, how nice the homes have been. These are average-sized homes for the average family,” said Kelly. “This is a historic block.”
Craig likes the idea of recognizing the community’s role in advancing housing rights. “The whole purpose was to get families like ours to move into this area and be part of a stable neighborhood,” he said. “It’s important to document.”
Willie Bridges, president of the Field Regina Northrop Neighborhood Group, thinks historic designation will be good for the neighborhood. “We’re excited,” he said. “For people who want to stay in their homes and the community, this is a resource.”
But not all the neighbors share his enthusiasm, he acknowledged. “Some are a little skeptical.”
“I’m on the fence,” said Anthony Scott II, who grew up in the neighborhood and bought his Tilsenbilt home six years ago. “On the plus side, it’d draw people into the neighborhood and encourage them to buy,” he said. Still, he fears it will also increase property taxes. And he’s concerned he won’t be able to make improvements he wants to make, such as adding solar panels to the front of his house, which would be prohibited because it would alter its historic appearance. “I don’t want anybody telling me what I can and can’t do.”
Nanette Smith, who grew up in a Tilsenbilt house and returned to it after the recent death of her mother, is trying to gather information about the historic designation proposal and make up her mind. Her home does need some repairs, she said. “It hasn’t changed much. It still has its original metal cabinets in the kitchen, and its original pink tub.”
The proposal for historic designation is currently under review by the State Historic Preservation Office, and will go before the City Planning Commission next month.
Glidden believes that the neighborhood merits recognition. “It’s part of a history we have buried,” she said. “It didn’t end segregation. It was one blip in a very segregated system. We need to tell this story as part of the story of Minneapolis.”