Between 1915 and 1940, Ogden A. Confer operated the Confer Bros. Realty Co. in Minneapolis, concentrating on neighborhoods on the south side of the then-bursting young city. He was a Jazz Age marketing guru who espoused advertising in the newspapers as “the cream-separator of the real estate business.” His slogan: “Confer with Confer.”
For his real estate ads and brochures, Confer hired skilled photographers, including one named J.H. Kammerdiener, who worked out of a studio on East Franklin Avenue (“Commercial Photographs That Tell Your Story”). His specialty was buildings; his photographs of churches, theaters, libraries, offices and houses from the 1920s and ’30s are featured in archives across the state.
This is only important because Confer hired Kammerdiener to photograph my family’s house. Or, rather, the house that would one day belong to my family. We know this because the Confer family gave the Hennepin History Museum a trove of some 8,000 black-and-white photographs of the houses that the company sold in Minneapolis, mostly between the two World Wars.
It is a priceless documentary collection — especially if the museum staff checks your address against the archive records (which they will do gladly), finds an old photograph of your home and e-mails you a PDF.
Then begins an adventure in micro history. With this vivid, unexpected glimpse into the past of such an intimate place — your home — you want to know more. And there is more.
You remember the fragile, yellowed 2-inch-thick abstract that you haven’t read in 20 years. And then, you learn that the city and its museums and libraries stand ready to help you assemble not just a decent history of your little corner of the city, but also your home’s wider place in the history of the city itself.
You learn that the lobby of the Minneapolis Development Review office on S. 4th Street has a computer terminal that, with a quick address search, gives you PDFs of all the city inspections of your house (including, in our case, the May 1915 pre-occupancy inspection of our then-new house). That the Northwest Architectural Archive at the University of Minnesota’s Andersen Library (www.lib.umn.edu/naa) has all manner of records of architects, contractors, engineers and designers. That the Hennepin History Museum (www.hennepinhistory.org) has other, newer archives of photographs of the city’s housing stock. And that the Hennepin County Central Library Library (www.hclib.org/about/locations/minneapolis-central) has everything from plat books to city directories.
And in the records of your house — in city offices, museums, libraries — you meet the likes of Confer, Kammerdiener and even William S. King, the 19th-century Minnesota congressman and land baron whose legacy includes a vote-buying indictment, serial bankruptcies, as well as the treasure of the parkland around Lake Harriet and his namesake street, King’s Highway.
So what can we find out about the history of my house? We know that King bought the south Minneapolis land on which our house sits in 1870, purchasing it as part of a $4,000, 40-acre deal. As a measure of the turbulence in King’s life, at least three chunks of this land were sold off in sheriff’s auctions over the next 30 years. (King’s debtors included a long list of banks and the Pacific Mail Steamship Co., which might be explained by the fact that his address in one document is “Honolulu, Sandwich Islands.”)
At a particularly low point, in 1901, a Josiah Thompson paid the city $1 for our property with the stipulation that he pay the back taxes.
In 1915, Rosa and Peter Nigg of Minneapolis purchased our midblock parcel — at that point a double lot. In August of that year, 101 years ago this month, the house cleared its last electrical inspection and the Niggs moved in. Their mortgage was $3,500, due in three years at 6 percent interest. Their first year’s property taxes were $27.99, which they paid in two installments.
The Niggs sold the house a year later to the Tuttle family. The house would change hands eight more times over the next 81 years. The adjacent lot was sold in 1964, and was soon filled with the youngest house on our block. According to city records, our garage went up in May of 1924; the building permit estimated the cost at $500. The garage project was not without drama. Our abstract lists liens against the property from Glacier Sand & Gravel ($26.25), Northwestern Lumber Co. ($228.45) and Twin City Brick ($121.55).
The house had other dramas. In 1927, the owners divorced. A copy of the settlement is included in our abstract: The wife got the house and furniture; the husband agreed to pay the mortgage and taxes, along with $100 in alimony each month. The kicker: The court also ordered the husband to pay $75 in fees to his former wife’s very, very effective lawyer.
Snapshot of a city
We bought the house in 1997. As far as I can tell, no one who owned it before us was a big shot — no mayors or congresspersons or tycoons or ballplayers or notorious criminals. Some of our predecessors, however, were inattentive cheapskates — including the people who chose the cheesy orange paneling in the basement bathroom, who forgot insulation when they extended the rear entryway, who declined to trim the arborvitae out back.
But when was the photo that started all this research taken? The back of the print includes no date, just a handwritten note, “Wed. AM.” But since the garage is visible, the shutter clicked in or after 1924. The only other clue is the price of the house — $11,750. That, by chance, closely matches the price listed in the abstract for the sale after the divorce ($11,500), which took place in 1928.
So Ogden A. Confer hired J.H. Kammerdiener to photograph our then-13-year-old house on a sunny Wednesday morning in the summer of 1928. What a year. The city pushed over 400,000 people. Charles Lindbergh, age 26, was in the midst of his global victory tour. Walter Mondale was born down in Ceylon, Minn. And the Washburn Crosby Co. dubbed itself General Mills.
What’s the story of your house?
Tony Brown is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.