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Great news for Healy’s most famous Queen Anne houses: On Monday evening, March 23rd, at a meeting held by Hennepin County and the City of Minneapolis with residents of the Healy Block Historic District, the proposed sound wall was defeated by unanimous vote among those residents present. In addition, a new proposed design for the I-35W expansion was presented and approved. Monday’s win for the Block is an inspiration for the preservation community: an example of how historic district residents can triumph during a long and challenging political process.
Plans for expanding and redesigning I-35W at the 31st Street exit have been in the works for a long time. Since the early 1990s, various plans have come and gone, representing serious threats to the Healy Block. In their current manifestation, expansion plans were introduced more than four years ago. Negotiation and discussion between the various government entities (federal, state, county and local) and the Block residents have been going on since then. (See post Threats to Healy Houses Renewed) Over a year ago Block representatives met with MNDOT commissioner Charles Zelle to work out some of the issues with the design. The new design and the nixing of the sound wall represent a significant win for livability of the residents on the Block and the future preservation of these historic houses.
David Piehl, who owns and lives in the J.B Hudson House on the Block, explains why eliminating the sound wall from the expansion plans is important: “A wall would be ugly, and the snow storage requirements for the freeway would mean the wall would be 10 feet closer to our homes than it currently is, in addition to being 20 feet high on top of the already-high embankment. Furthermore, the improvement in noise levels was projected to be around 5 decibels, which is not nearly significant enough for us to want to make the other sacrifices the wall would require.”
After the vote on the sound wall, discussion turned to the design of the off-ramp. Residents previously selected a design with a single-lane ramp, separated from Second Avenue by a median. However, the Federal Highway Administration vetoed it as “fatally flawed” due to lack of “storage.” That left another option which was very similar, but had a two-lane ramp.
At the meeting Block residents David Piehl, Ioannis Nompelis, and Pete Holly fought hard to keep the pavement and traffic as far from the historic houses as feasible. Residents recognize that Second Avenue on the 3000-3100 blocks serves three purposes–as a residential street, an off-ramp, and frontage road.
On Monday project organizers presented a modified design that has the ramp starting as single lane, then widening to two. They also widened the median separating Second Avenue from the ramp to 12 feet by taking a portion of the embankment. As Piehl reports, Block residents “are OK with this because it moves green space closer to our homes and the ramp further away. We wanted the median to be wide enough to be planted, so we can plant a visual screen between Second and the ramp, and we got that. A visual screen will also be re-planted on the embankment. The proposed median runs all the way to 31st Street. Second Avenue becomes a single lane with parking, but entirely separate from the ramp south of 31st. Even better, Second at 31st will be ‘right turn only’ due to adding 20 feet of boulevard space in front of the two homes on the 3000 block—which again moves traffic away from those homes, improving livability. The ‘right turn only’ lane reduces the appeal of 2nd Ave as a ‘frontage road’. The upshot is that Second Avenue will be a single lane residential street separated from the ramp by a 12-foot-wide, planted median.”
The miracle is that after four years of negotiating and fighting with the various entities involved in the I-35W expansion, residents of the Healy Block finally got nearly everything they asked for, short of moving the ramp. As Piehl says, “It is amazing to think that they started with bringing the freeway 30 feet closer, and a massive retaining wall–and we got them to a place where the plan is an improvement over what currently exists!”
This is a truly remarkable win for preservation in Minneapolis. Thanks go to a talented city planner, Jeni Hager, who diligently designed, re-designed, and re-designed again to ensure that the current proposal satisfied residents’ aesthetic and livability concerns as well as state and federal requirements. Many thanks also to supportive City Council members Elizabeth Glidden and Alondra Cano for their leadership. And finally, thanks and congratulations to David Piehl, Ioannis Nompelis, Pete Holly, John Cuningham (who worked for moving the ramp) and other Block residents who persevered and made it happen.
In 1980 when then-Wedge-resident Anders Christensen examined the building permits for all the houses in Lowry Hill East, he discovered that a master builder named Theron Potter Healy had built 30 of them. Further research revealed that during his career (1886-1906), Healy had built over 120 houses and commercial buildings in Minneapolis.
In 1993 Healy’s most celebrated creations, the Queen Annes of the 3100 block of Second and Third Avenue South, received national historic designation as the Healy Block Historic District. In 1977 Healy’s Bennett-McBride House had been listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a superb example of the Queen Anne architectural style.
During the first Wedge Zoning and Planning Committee meeting on the Lander Group’s redevelopment plans for 24th and Colfax, architect Pete Keeley said he had contacted the City, and they had said the two houses slated for demolition had “no historical significance.” At the second meeting, another man supporting owner Michael Crow alleged that the Minnesota Historical Society, too, had said that the Healy house at 2320 was not historically important. I’m sure that both claims are true: Neither the City nor M.H.S. have anything on record about either house.
None of Healy’s Wedge houses have received historic designation, but that does not mean that they are not historic or architecturally significant. Many historic buildings have not received official historic designation (through the Historic Preservation Commission or the National Trust, for example), but that in itself does not speak to their importance.
Consider, for example, the Wedge’s own “Healy Block”, the 2400 block of Bryant Avenue South. Eight (probably nine) houses on this block are Healy’s: 2401, -05, -09,(-10),-20, -24, -28, -36, and -39, ranging in style from Queen Anne to Colonial Revival.
|2439 Bryant, Colonial Revival, 1905|
|2409 Bryant, Queen Anne, 1895|
On Bryant Avenue north of 24th Street (in the R-6 zone) are four other Healy houses; three of these are currently rooming houses. None of the houses on the 2400 block are rooming houses, although half of them were at one time. Former residents have told stories of tenants riding motorcycles up staircases, drunken brawls, drug deals, even murders taking place in these houses. Yet today, with the investments in time and money of their owner-occupants, they have become beautiful and valuable homes.
2320 Colfax, the Healy house slated for demolition, represents a pivotal point in Healy’s career. It is one of only two houses built by Healy in 1893. The other 1893 Healy house, 821 Douglas Avenue, was wrecked in 1981 by developer Paul Klodt. 1893 is a significant year in the history of architecture, the year of the Chicago World’s Fair. In this year the Queen Anne style began to fall out of fashion, replaced by the Colonial Revival style, made popular by the Fair’s “White City”. 2320 is Healy’s first Colonial Revival house, a significant part of his architectural legacy.
An old photo of 2320 reveals the original appearance of the house, with a large barn in back, and open field to the north:
|The Orth House, 2320 Colfax, as it appeared when new.|
|The house today. The porch has been enclosed, but the original roof line, profile, and fenestration remain.|
Obviously, some people don’t care diddlysquat about history or architecture, and this blog is not addressed to them. I have learned a very important lesson from my service on the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission and the Advocacy Committee of the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota: Governments and institutions are not concerned with saving buildings. Communities must define and speak out on what’s important to the community–and work to preserve it.
The 2004 LHENA Zoning Task Force clearly articulated what is important to Wedge residents, that is, ensuring the livability of the neighborhood by preserving the current mix of houses and multiple-unit buildings. Michael Lander has already redeveloped the southern part of the Wedge along the Greenway with high density apartment buildings and condominiums. This redevelopment makes sense in that it replaced a defunct industrial area. But the apex of the Wedge is a different story. Development supporters have made much of the idea of saving the neighborhood “core”, while keeping the “fringe” high density. Truth to say, the apex is such a small area that most of it can be considered “fringe” of the greater neighborhood, the current view from City Hall. The point is moot: R-6 allows high density throughout, so-called “core” included.
Last month a first in a series of meetings was convened by the City to look into the feasibility of establishing “conservation districts” in Minneapolis. Such districts would offer more protections than the zoning code, but fewer than those of historic districts, such as the Healy Block. A conservation district would certainly be a big step forward in saving the houses in the apex of the Wedge, but the idea is only at the beginning of a long planning process, with no guarantee it will be adopted.
|“360 Degrees of Wedge Healys”–Photo art by Richard Mueller|
In conclusion, I want to stress that if you want to save 2320 Colfax and preserve the other houses in the Wedge, don’t expect City Hall or an historical society to do it for you. Property rights are held sacrosanct in this country, and owners can wreck properties on the National Register if they so choose. Case in point–the developer in Arizona who wants to demolish a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Despite a firestorm of outrage and temporary stay of demolition from the City of Phoenix, the developer is still determined to take it down.
Former Zoning Task Force member Sue Bode said at the first LHENA hearing about the 2316-2320 plan, “Taking down a Healy house is like destroying one by Frank Lloyd Wright.” If you care about Healy’s legacy, if you care about the old houses of the Wedge, speak out.
|CAN PREVENT DEMOLITIONS!|