Constructed in Minneapolis in 1919, the Northeast Neighborhood House (NENH) served both as a portal into American society for newly arrived immigrants from Eastern Europe and as an advocate for the neighborhood’s underprivileged. It is a notable example of a social institution created solely for the betterment of the disadvantaged.
The beginnings of the NENH were rooted in Plymouth Church. The services offered at the church and at its Sunday school program were widely used by neighborhood citizens. It eventually became apparent to church management that they required a larger facility. In the late 1890s the church replaced its original mission building with a more spacious structure called Drummond Hall.
By 1910 the demographics of the Northeast neighborhood were changing. Catholic newcomers from Eastern Europe were arriving. The Protestant ministrations of Drummond Hall kept them away. The hall closed in 1913 due to dwindling attendance. The directors of Plymouth Church then determined that the Northeast neighborhood was still in need of a large social facility to acquaint immigrants with American culture. Neighborhood unity was their main goal. In 1915 Drummond Hall was reopened as the NENH. Its goal was to provide nonsectarian services to unite the community, which was divided by nationality and religion.
Robbins Gilman, former head of New York’s University settlement, was chosen to run the NENH. Gilman was aided by his wife, Catheryne, who was also a reformer. She influenced some of the NENH’s programs but was more active in other organizations. When the NENH began operations on January 20, 1915, it was one of four settlement houses in the city. It offered classes in sewing, cooking, carpentry, and dancing. It also provided a supervised setting for the children of the neighborhood to socialize.
Robbins Gilman hired one supervisor for boys and one for girls. This allowed him to focus on his grander ideas for the facility. A program to help women find work in conjunction with a day nursery was created. Within the first three years the NENH helped over seven thousand women find work. Gilman also began a dental clinic for children. As services expanded, so did the NENH’s popularity.
In 1918 construction of a new facility in the neo-Georgian style designed by Kenyon and Main was begun. By August of the next year NENH staff had moved into the new building. During the 1920s the facility offered more services and continued to expand. Two new wings, which included a gymnasium and a dormitory, were completed in 1927. When the Depression hit the NENH became a focal point for aid programs in the neighborhood.
In 1948 Gilman retired from his work at the NENH. He was followed by Lester Shaeffer and subsequently Joe Holewa, a native of the Northeast neighborhood. The latter half of the twentieth century brought great changes to the NENH and other settlement houses. Government and well-funded private groups began dominating social services. The people who had grown up with the NENH moved out of the neighborhood; new arrivals were unfamiliar with its mission. The NENH merged with the Margaret Barry House and incorporated as East Side Neighborhood Service (ESNS).
ESNS continued the tradition of its predecessor but expanded its programs even further. Eventually a new building was constructed for the organization only two blocks south of the original. The original building became apartments. In the twenty-first century ESNS strives to strengthen the diverse communities of east Minneapolis. The organization provides social services for people at all stages of life.
The original NENH building is a tangible reminder of early social welfare institutions. Specifically, it is a representative example of the settlement house movement in Minneapolis. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001.
For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.