Class and Historic Preservation on Milwaukee Ave

Posted on October 31, 2007 under minnesota, public history

Now that the North wind has begun to made bicycling an obstacle, I’d like to take you back to a 90-degree day in late September when, for the first time ever, the Milwaukee Avenue Historic District here in Minneapolis was opened for house tours. 7 houses were open to the public on Sunday, September 23rd, in an event sponsored by the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota and the Seward Neighborhood Group, and a friend and I were eager to see the insides of the houses. (They put up a little blogspot page for the tour, but it’s since been taken down. The Milwaukee Avenue Homeowners Assoc does have a website with historical information.)

Milwaukee Ave today is a pleasant pedestrian street in the middle of the pleasant Seward neighborhood, near the river and the university. From the outside, all the little houses on the four-block length of the street look almost identical, with porches and cute gingerbread woodwork painted different colors. It’s a nice place to take a stroll, cut through on your bike, or go trick-or-treating. There’s almost never a house for sale on Milwaukee Ave, and when they go on the market they cost a bit more than houses in the surrounding neighborhood. Milwaukee Ave was also one of the first districts in Minneapolis put on the National Register, in 1974.

But it wasn’t always this way. Milwaukee Ave was planned as a workers’ community for immigrants from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia hired to work on the Milwaukee Railroad. The houses were built between 1883 and 1895, by builders, not architects, in a vernacular style, on lots about half the size of those in the surrounding neighborhood. The houses were built on the cheap and by the early 1970s, they were decrepit and falling down, and the city planned to raze them. But some residents of Milwaukee Ave, including Bob Roscoe, who led the preservation effort, argued that the neighborhood feel of the medium-density housing and the community that that infrastructure helped create was worth preserving.

They organized a neighborhood action group and lobbied successfully to save Milwaukee Ave. In the restoration process houses were lifted to add foundations and basements, remaining materials were salvaged, stucco finishes were stripped from the brick, woodwork and porches were added. Some houses were demolished and replaced with new historic replicas.

I’m really impressed by the community-building and lobbying work it took to save the avenue, but upon touring the houses you discover what happened to the interiors. Many houses had to be mostly gutted due to the deterioration of the interiors, and were renovated according to the desires of the owners at the time, and their desires were apparently to create ’70s split-levels. Though the houses are quite small, they have great rooms and lofts and extra floors and wall-to-wall carpeting and so on. One house had a built-in wooden buffet salvaged from a mansion torn down around the same time the house was being renovated. Imagine the horror those barons of industry would have felt that their woodwork was being installed in a railroad worker’s house! The only house on the tour with a 19th C interior was one just off Milwaukee Ave, on 23rd Ave, which had not been renovated in the 1970s, and it had the proportions and feel of an older house, with many small rooms to be closed off in the winter. (I think it also helped impress me that this particular home was owned by an artist, and there were pieces of etched copper all around the house.)

Despite my perhaps snobby dislike of the interior renovations, I think there are some real questions to consider when discussing Milwaukee Ave. Who was this preserved for? What should a property’s original use have to do with how it’s preserved? In the preservation process, the houses went from working-class company housing (for renters and tenants) to more costly single-family-owned middle-class Queen Anne houses (at least to look at them from the outside). The brochure given out at the tour nominated Milwaukee Ave, with its close-together houses with facing porches, as a forerunner of New Urbanism. But New Urbanism has always seemed to me to be about nostalgia, about building new developments that looked back to a 1940s small town with middle-class folks sitting on their porches drinking lemonade and going to the pictures together. For Milwaukee Ave, this was a past that never existed.

Inside and out, for those Finnish railroad workers who were its first inhabitants, Milwaukee Ave would be unrecognizable. What does that mean? Who is historic preservation for?

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