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Minneapolis likely to protect master builder Healy's 'prototype' house

Minneapolis likely to protect master builder Healy's 'prototype' house
MinnPost photo by Karen Boros
The house, which has suffered damage in three fires, currently is divided into 15 living units.

A Minneapolis house designed and constructed in 1893 by master builder Theron Potter Healy apparently will be saved from the wrecking ball. The process has been a short but rocky road.

First, the Community Planning and Economic Development Department decided the house at 2320 Colfax Ave. S. had no historic significance and signed off on a wrecking/demolition permit. That was in March.

Anders Christensen, an expert on the topic of Healy houses, appealed that decision to the Heritage Preservation Commission, which granted the appeal despite staff advice that the house did not match the definition of a historic resource. That was in April.

Two days later, the property owner filed an appeal of the commission’s decision that was heard by the City Council’s Zoning and Planning Committee. Members there voted 5-to-0 to save the house. That was Tuesday.

Council’s final decision Friday

The full City Council will consider the matter on Friday, but a 5-to-0-committee vote will be hard to turn around.

Healy built 140 homes in Minneapolis between 1886 and his death in 1906, working for every major architect of the era and designing homes himself even though he was not educated as an architect.

“Healy was a master builder, but the residence at 2320 Colfax has been altered extensively over time,” said John Smoley, a city planner who works with the Heritage Preservation Commission. The house, which has suffered damage in three fires, currently is divided into 15 living units.

The once-open front porch has been enclosed, wood-frame windows have been replaced with aluminum and vinyl, a large addition has been added to the back of the house and a barn/carriage house built by Healy has been removed.

“There are better remaining examples of Theron Potter Healy’s work,” Smoley said. Of the 30 houses Healy built in the Wedge neighborhood, 27 are still standing, including the Colfax house.

Home converted to multiple units

Healy built it on his own and sold it to Edward Orth, the son of John Orth, who in 1890 owned one of the four large brewing companies in Minneapolis. (Those breweries merged and ultimately became Grain Belt Brewing.)

The Orth House, as 2320 Colfax came to be known, was a single-family dwelling until 1962, when it was converted to multiple units.

“I’ve owned it since 1991. I bought it after it had been in a major fire,” said Michael Crow, the current owner of the Orth House. “The fire and water damage destroyed all of the eight-panel doors, the baseboards, casings, second-floor fire place, buckled the hardwood floors and destroyed all of the fixtures in the upstairs bathrooms.”

Theron Potter Healy
sanfordberman.orgTheron Potter Healy

Crow said he has been trying, without success, to sell the house for five years. Currently he has a buyer who wants to tear down the house — and the one next door — to build a four-story apartment building.

“There’s nothing left to restore,” said Crow. “The building was restored back into a nice rooming house, but nothing was done to restore any of the old parts of the house due to the cost.”

Healy built only two houses in 1893, which was a turning-point year for the nation. That was the year of the Chicago World Fair, which introduced the nation to neo-classic architecture. It was also the year of the nation’s worst financial breakdown when 600 banks failed and 194 railroads went bankrupt.

Up until that point, Healy had been building Queen Anne-style houses with intricate woodwork and bright-colored paint. Suddenly people wanted neo-classic design.

Transition house style

“The Queen Anne style, the style that Healy had perfected, was now out of fashion. He must now invent a new style,” said Christensen, noting that Healy built his first new-design house on speculation, and it became his new prototype.

“2320 Colfax is that house,” he said.

“The Orth House is an original design created in a time of crisis and change,” said Christensen. “In Minneapolis, the name Healy is synonymous with Victorian houses, with exquisite craftsmanship and with elegant design. Healy is our civic master builder.”

Christensen argued that the first floor of the Orth House still contains some of the original woodwork, leaded glass and tiles. The first-floor fireplace also is intact. Outside, the original wood siding is still under the vinyl siding.  

“This house can be restored on the outside,” said Christiansen. “Built like a rock, this house is level and straight and true.”

During the five years it’s been on the market, there have been few interested in more than merely taking a look, according to Realtor Tom Dunn, who told committee members he has tried to attract commercial and residential buyers with no luck.

One potential buyer, he said, was interested if the property were eligible for historic renovation funding. It is not.

Another buyer was interested in using the house as a group home for former prisoners.

“What attracted me to the 10th Ward wasn’t the 1960s apartment buildings,” said Nicole Curtis, who hosts “The Rehab Addict” on HGTV. “What attracted me was the idea that this was a city based on history. This was a city based on preservation.”

“You have to see through vinyl siding and vinyl replacement windows,” said Curtis. “Healy is still standing there. When I look at that house, I get the chills.”

Committee Chair Gary Schiff closed the public hearing and immediately moved to deny owner Crow’s appeal. The committee voted unanimously to support the denial, which should block destruction of the Orth House.

“I think this is a signal that this city takes seriously the contributions of Mr. Healy,” Schiff said of the unanimous committee vote.

He plans to move ahead with a proposal to study the Healy houses in Minneapolis and provide interim protection to the structures during the study process.

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Comments (3)

A familiar face

I grew up in a house so similar to this at 31st and Bryant S that even seeing the thumbnail photo in my news aggregator made me want to look at the article. I just looked up our house again on Google Streetview and I was not mistaken. Except for minor cosmetics, it's the same house. According to Zillow, our house was built in 1900. We lived in it from about 1952 until we sold it in 1989, at which time it fell into disrepair. But not 15 units as far as I know! Comment from Nichole Curtis also cracked me up. I added DIY network to our satellite package here in CA so I could watch Rehab Addict cause it was such a kick to see Minneapolis home rebuilding. KB

I wonder how many

quality architects out there are held back from producing their own masterpieces? I wonder how many people who would have loved to live within 1.5 (short E-W) blocks of Hennepin Avenue (and its commercial and transit options) because the apartment proposed was blocked? How many people are now not able to pay market rates to live within 0.6 miles of Lake of the Isles, a 4 minute bike ride, and a 20 minute walk from the CBD in downtown? This market demand will go somewhere else, likely to a place not within walking or transit distance of all these amenities - meaning they'll drive.

Yes, preserving some of our history is a wonderful thing. But how much is too much? How many TP Healy houses exist in Minneapolis? Is the transition style something worth keeping, or would his best work(s) in the Queen Anne style be more worthwhile endeavors? Is there no alternative for houses like this to be saved without needing them to be left in place? Couldn't someone or a group of people (a non-profit committed to buying and renovating houses, perhaps) buy it and have it moved to a place where the land isn't so valuable?

Yes, the environmental case for re-using existing structures is a noble one. I would hate to see this place torn down and a new SF home put in its place, or worse a parking lot, or worse yet a vacant lot. But I guarantee that even if you account for lost embodied energy in this structure (assuming all is lost in a teardown), the proposed replacement with 45 units and 50+ BRs would have used less total energy over the next 30+ years. Consider the transportation energy, unit efficiency (shared walls, efficient windows, etc) of the people living in the proposed building vs living in a greenfield development elsewhere.

From an equity perspective, allowing more housing units to go up where they're desirable helps keep housing costs down in that region (and the surrounding areas as well). Limiting supply in an increasing demand situation drives up prices. This is bad for the metro area at large as well - limiting housing options and units near the core continues to encourage a combination of two things: sprawl on the fringes and potential (or current) residents to live somewhere else where housing+transportation costs are lower (even if it means a lower paying job).

I'm glad we have recognized the value of our history and aren't knocking down entire blocks for freeway trenches and parking lots (well, not as much as in the 60s anyway). But We need to allow our desirable areas that support transit, jobs, and a healthy lifestyle to continue to grow and change over time. This ruling was a mistake, in my opinion.

Agreed

Had this house been better preserved, I would have understood the desire to save it. But it sounds like there's no way to preserve much of what made the house unique and historically valuable. It's now 15 apartments rather than a single house. It has only a fireplace and some fixtures that are original--those can be moved elsewhere. The rest of the house is a complete replacement.

It seems a shame to force the owner to hold onto it because it used to be at one time historically significant.