Martin Capp was born in 1916 to immigrant parents and spent his formative years living in St. Paul’s West Side, a hardscrabble neighborhood in those days.
Fifty years later, workers hoisted his name in tall letters atop downtown hotel towers and imprinted it on St. Paul’s Jewish Community Center. Thousands of families would live in houses built by his company, Capp Homes, which pioneered affordable prefabricated housing in the postwar years.
Capp’s name eventually came down from the towers in Minneapolis and St. Paul, but it remains prominently displayed on the JCC, which Capp and his wife, Esther, helped build by making the lead donation in 1963. The Capps aided scores of charities in the Twin Cities over the years, including the Minnesota Children’s Museum, which got a truckload of lumber to build its first exhibits after moving to Bandana Square in 1985.
“He came from meager beginnings. I think he just felt that, because he could help, he should help. If he didn’t, who would?” said one of his daughters, Lisa Capp, who is president of Capp Industries. “He wasn’t a warm, touchy-feely guy. That’s not him. But he cared, about the Jewish community and the non-Jewish community.”
Martin Capp died June 25 from natural causes at the age of 99.
Capp lived his very early years in Wabasha, Minn., but moved to St. Paul’s West Side when he was 9, living among the factories that populated the immigrant-heavy neighborhood at the time.
After a stint in the Coast Guard during World War II, he ended up in Omaha, Neb., working for a lumber company, where he learned about the industry and became inspired to start a new kind of housing company.
He moved back to Minnesota and borrowed a small sum from a friend — about $1,000, the family story goes — to start Capp Homes in 1947. The company offered a more affordable route to the American dream by selling pre-cut lumber to build houses pictured in the Capp Homes catalog. Some owners chose to build their homes themselves, while others hired workers through Capp.
“People would pick their homes out of a catalog … and [the company] would deliver the lumber to that site,” said Leonard Horowitz, who did financial and accounting work for Capp for more than 40 years. “Back then, it was reasonable. People could afford to do it.”
He sold the business for $12 million in the mid-’60s, but by then had a second business called Capp Industries, focused on building and leasing commercial properties. Capp Towers hotels went up in downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul in those years. Capp Industries still owns the Minneapolis building, though today it is the swanky Millennium Hotel on the southern edge of Nicollet Mall.
It was also in that time that Capp started the philanthropy for which he was known in his later years.
He donated heavily to the Temple of Aaron synagogue, Sholom Home East and the JCC in St. Paul, and supported the Minnesota Hillel student center at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Other major gift recipients included United Hospital and St. Paul Children’s Hospital.
Lisa Capp said her father’s early success stemmed from his business acumen, his strong ethical reputation and a healthy dose of luck.
“He would be the first to tell you that there was a lot of luck,” she said. “There was a lot of work involved, but there was a lot of luck, too. He had a lot of vendors who would give him materials on a handshake, or an IOU. Things were different in those days.”
Capp is survived by his sister, Sylvia Gertsman, and Esther Capp, his wife of 67 years. He’s also survived by four children, 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Services have been held.