For years it was just a dilapidated old house nobody cared about, filled with poor, lonely men nobody cared about.
Who could have imagined it would turn into a surreal conflagration that would pit the mayor of Minneapolis and a new City Council member against a diminutive cable television star, launch blogs and parody blogs and cause rabid preservationists to defy stereotype by threatening people and using vulgar language that suggests some of them might have landed on the home improvement channel while searching for reruns of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo?”
This tale has a long, convoluted history way too complicated to digest here, but let’s try a quick summary. The so-called Orth House was built by Master Builder T.P. Healy in 1893. Many of Healy’s homes are protected as historically significant, but the one on Colfax Avenue S. was radically altered over the years to become a rooming house. When owner Michael Crow sold it to developers who wanted to tear it down and build an apartment building, Nicole Curtis of HGTV’s “Rehab Addict” tried to save it.
Curtis and other preservationists held vigils, jammed council meetings with bullhorns and cameras and sued to stop demolition of the house. It didn’t always make for effective public debate, but it sure made for good television.
I like Curtis’ show, perhaps because my wife and I resurrected a Victorian home in Whittier. I know and admire a lot of the folks behind the efforts to save the Orth. But I must admit that at times some of them have seemed like they are a Dutch gable short of a Queen Anne, if you know what I mean.
All but two of the City Council members voted to allow demolition. Mayor Betsy Hodges approved it. Attempts at restraining orders failed, twice. One judge said the plaintiffs’ “experts” weren’t experts at all on the matter of historic preservation law, but instead advocates with biased personal agendas.
Boom went the Orth.
After the demolition last week, Curtis taunted Bender, the council member for the ward.
“Our council member, Lisa Bender lied … the Orth died. You can hashtag that, quote it, put it on a T-shirt,” she posted to hundreds of thousands of readers. “Lisa Bender, congrats! You won — you proved yourself to be a destroyer of history.”
So now there’s even a T-shirt you can purchase that says, “Lisa Bender lied, the Orth died.”
Too cute for words.
As expected, the Internets took over and Curtis fans flooded the Web page with comments, most of them reasonable. A blog (http://wedgelive.blogspot.com) cherry-picked the worst of them — sexist, threatening and foul-mouthed — and posted them as if they were a continuous thread. It made it look like all of Curtis’ fans had conked themselves with a ball-peen hammer.
Mayor Hodges got mad, and posted a rebuttal on her own website:
“This behavior is reprehensible,” Hodges wrote. “Nicole Curtis has fomented and abetted this behavior, and she has done nothing to either stop it or exhort her supporters to exhibit civility and decorum.” The mayor asked Curtis to apologize to Bender and, while she was at it, the whole city.
Until Monday, Bender had been silent on the attack. Then she posted a rebuttal on her Facebook page. (Remember the good old days when people just talked to each other? They’re over.)
“I am very disappointed by the aggressive, sometimes violent rhetoric that has been used by a few local people (and hundreds of people from elsewhere in the country who have been e-mailing, calling, tweeting and posting on Facebook about this for over a year) to spread lies about me, call me names, and threaten me,” Bender wrote. “I have two small children and my family deserves to be and feel safe in our community just like the rest of our neighbors do.”
I spoke with Bender on Monday. She’s been disturbed by suggestions that someone should bulldoze her own house and by overtly sexual and aggressive language. “I’m nervous even talking about it,” she said.
Bender says much of the criticism has been leveled from Curtis’ large national following, who haven’t followed the issue closely. “A lot of the chatter in the past year was perpetuated by people who don’t live in the city,” she said.
Some of that chatter has been shockingly volatile. Curtis fans called Bender a “waste of human flesh” and a “gutless coward.”
Bender is still unsure what “lies” she told. “No one has told me,” she said. “We have to make these decisions under the law,” said Bender. “We are supposed to follow these laws so that people are treated fairly.”
Bender also seemed offended that some accused her of taking bribes or somehow profiting from the demolition of the home to make way for an apartment building. “I can assure you, I have not,” she said.
Bender thinks the attacks on her, rather than the other council members who voted with her, is an extension of a bitter election fight in which she replaced longtime Council Member Meg Tuthill. I agree. Bender said she’s for preservation, and is currently working on a historic district in her ward. “This vitriolic attack takes away from that,” she said.
Brian Finstad is a board member of the group that worked to save the Orth. He’s dedicated to preservation, and I’ve lauded his efforts on the North Side. He’s also a pal of Curtis.
“I emphatically agree with [Hodges’] plea for civility,” said Finstad. “But if it was a real call for civility, it should have been done privately.”
Finstad said Hodges should have given Curtis credit for the houses she has rehabbed in north Minneapolis, rather than publicly attack her. He also thinks city officials were misled by the owner or developer about the existence of salvageable woodwork, windows and flooring inside the Orth house, and that needs to be examined before the next debate over a historical home arrives.
I agree with Finstad that the interior elements have been underplayed, but it’s also clear by the court rulings that interiors don’t matter when considering historical significance. I think the truth is important, too, but it wouldn’t likely have mattered.
When the dust, both literal and figurative, finally settles, the city will have one fewer kind of cool but neglected home, and one more cookie-cutter apartment building to fulfill the “density” dreams of urban planners. It doesn’t bother me terribly.
What does bother me is that while everyone was fighting over a house, no one I talked to seems to know what happened to the 15 low-income men who lost their homes.
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin