Weekend Tourist: Milwaukee Avenues legacy

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April 22, 2011
By: Linda Koutsky
Linda Koutsky

Milwaukee Avenue Historic District // Located in the Seward Neighborhood just south of Franklin between 22nd and 23rd avenues


We Minnesotans love our history. With museums and historical societies in each of our 87 counties and 23 town historical societies in Hennepin County alone, we know how to document our history and changing world. From beaded Ojibwe bandolier bags to 19th-century steamer trunks to Prince’s “Purple Rain” movie costume, we collect and save our historic treasures.

But how do you preserve a neighborhood? The National Trust for Historic Preservation was founded in 1949 when many of America’s historic buildings were facing the wrecking ball. The nonprofit organization designates historic properties for architectural or cultural merit. Both individual buildings and entire neighborhoods are nominated. Minneapolis has dozens of buildings with historic designation and 12 historic districts. District designation spotlights communities, helps preserve unique neighborhood character and encourages better design.

In the late 1800s, Minneapolis was a fast-growing urban metropolis. The population increased 350 percent in a single decade. New and affordable housing was crucial. Developer William Ragan built Minnesota’s first planned workers’ community for the mostly Scandinavian immigrants who toiled in Milwaukee Railroad’s nearby yards.

Built between 1883 and 1895, the closely spaced houses were situated four to a city lot in order to squeeze as many houses as possible on the land. The two-story brick exteriors, uniform roof slopes, decorative gingerbread woodwork and inviting front porches created an enchanted village atmosphere.

By the 1970s the neighborhood suffered from deterioration and neglect and entire blocks of houses were scheduled to be razed. A neighborhood group formed and convinced city leaders to save the neighborhood’s historic fabric. Though some houses were lost, many were saved and rehabilitated. The street was paved over for a two-block pedestrian boulevard lined with about 40 houses. The Milwaukee Avenue neighborhood was designated a National Historic District in 1974.

Park your car on a side street and look for the tight cluster of homes. This neighborhood can be hard to find. But once you’re there, it’s like visiting a recreated village. Look for decorative scrolls, carved brackets, turned porch posts, creative cut-outs on wood surfaces and a distinctive color palette.

And while in the neighborhood, visit another historic treasure, Milwaukee Avenue heads south just behind Charlie Hoffman Guitars (2219 E. Franklin). This legendary guitar shop specializes in fine, handmade musical instruments played by many local and national musicians. The shop is definitely worth a visit.

Change can be hard on preservationists but can often be good because cities need to grow and evolve. Minneapolis has a state-of-the-art central library, a vibrant Nicollet Mall, and a handful of hotels in repurposed buildings that attract convention-goers and sports fans alike. As our city continues to change we need to both keep our history and welcome the future.


Pie Break
Enjoy unusual combinations such as garlic mashed potato pizza at the Seward branch of Pizza Luce (2200 E. Franklin Ave.).


Learn more
Want to learn more about Minneapolis history? Join the Linden Hills History Study Group for their upcoming presentation about the Gates Mansion — the biggest house ever built in Minneapolis. Thursday, April 28, 7 p.m. at St. John’s Episcopal Church (4201 Sheridan Ave. S.) $3 suggested donation.

Send your comments to WeekendTourist@mnpubs.com.