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What’s the story with those small houses on Milwaukee Ave. in Minneapolis?

The houses of Milwaukee Avenue were built in the 1880s as high-density homes for immigrant workers. When the Minneapolis Housing and Redevelopment Authority (MHRA) planned to demolish the run-down structures in 1970, neighborhood residents successfully organized to preserve the avenue as a historic district.

In 1883, real-estate agent William Ragan began developing land between Franklin Avenue and 24th Street in Minneapolis to construct low-cost housing for immigrants. To maximize his investment, Ragan turned the alley between 22nd and 23rd Avenues into a narrow street as well, and then divided it into half sized lots. As a result, Ragan placed forty-eight structures along the two-block, narrow stretch with almost no setback from the street.

Ragan used a single plan for forty-six of the houses he constructed here, making the narrow street, then known as 22 ½ Avenue, unique in its uniformity. The workmen’s cottages all featured a brick veneer, wooden porches, and “gingerbread” ornamentation. The street became an ethnic enclave primarily for Scandinavian immigrants.

In 1906, residents petitioned to have the name changed from 22 ½ Avenue to Woodland Avenue because they felt the “1/2” had a negative connotation. The name became Milwaukee Avenue instead, perhaps because many of the residents worked for the Milwaukee Railroad.

By the second half of the twentieth century, the houses were run down. The neighborhood, known as Seward, housed mostly low-income residents. By the 1960s, professors, students, and artists began to move in. This educated, counter-culture class sought out the cheap housing voluntarily rather than out of necessity.

In 1970, the MHRA planned to demolish the remaining Milwaukee Avenue houses, along with much of the western portion of Seward, as part of an urban-renewal project. They argued that the condition of the houses was beyond repair, the lot sizes were too small, and the street was too narrow for conventional traffic.

Some Seward residents opposed the displacement of their neighbors. Many of them had honed their organizing skills during the social and political movements of the 1960s. These activists successfully campaigned to gain control of the Seward West Project Area Committee (PAC), the citizen organization advising the urban renewal process, in its 1971 election.

The PAC believed that many of the houses were in good enough condition to save, that the narrow street was well suited for pedestrians, and that small houses were environmentally friendly. They also cited the block’s unique character as a reason for saving the buildings.

The street held historical importance as a rare example of contiguous brick-workers’ houses. Milwaukee Avenue was probably one of the few intact “common man’s neighborhoods” left in Minneapolis. Preserving the street would also preserve part of “Minnesota’s social heritage.”

After many months of tense negotiations, several PAC and MHRA members jointly formed the Milwaukee Avenue Planning Team in 1973. The team agreed to resurvey the area to determine if saving the buildings was feasible.

In 1974, the Minnesota Historical Society nominated Milwaukee Avenue for the National Register of Historic Places. It received its designation on May 2. This protected the homes from demolition without a public hearing. Despite initial reluctance, the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission also designated Milwaukee Avenue a historic district in 1975.

With demolition unlikely, the MHRA reversed course and began to work with PAC members as allies. They cooperated with the planning team, who advocated saving most of the original houses and demolishing some that were beyond repair. They wanted new construction that would blend with the restored structures to replace the demolished buildings. They also called for a pedestrian walkway and greenspace to replace the narrow street.

PAC members organized the Milwaukee Avenue Community Corporation to oversee the rehab process. They received funding from several public and private agencies to purchase select houses from the MHRA for restoration. The MHRA also offered grants for homeowner restoration and low-interest mortgages. This allowed some longtime residents and those unable to afford restoration themselves a chance to stay in the neighborhood.

Restoration, to historic guidelines, began in 1975. Most of the houses were completed over the next several years. Nine replica houses replaced demolished ones, as did new townhomes that complemented the original architecture of the street.

In 2007, for the thirtieth anniversary of the restoration, Milwaukee Avenue residents hosted a walking tour featuring eight of the restored homes.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Jim Million on 05/03/2016 - 08:42 am.

    Very Cool, Indeed

    Thanks for this detailed retrospective of fairly early–and successful–mostly forgotten cause. Now I remember the significant press coverage of what very many readers likely considered pointless uprising. What a capsule of proper process this story is.
    (May we have more?)

    Don’t these rescues now seem truly pragmatic as much as historic?

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/03/2016 - 11:08 am.

    Imagine that

    Hmmm. Small houses on small lots in an area purposely kept pedestrian-friendly to make up, perhaps accidentally, since this was far less of a popular issue then, a relatively “green” neighborhood. When I first visited Minneapolis around the turn of the current century, my son took me to Milwaukee Avenue just as a kind of cool place to visit, and I’ve gone back multiple times to take photos of exteriors and generally enjoy the ambience. For people at all interested in architecture and/or housing design, it’s well worth a field trip if you’ve not seen it in person. If 19th-century design and decoration don’t appeal to you, the neighborhood probably won’t, either, but even with my limited tolerance for “gingerbread” on houses, it’s one of my favorite places in Minneapolis.

    The “greenest” structure is almost always the one that’s already built, though it’s not always the most economical one. Retrofitting usually costs quite a bit more than starting from scratch. Ironically and unfortunately – or fortunately, if you’re one of the owners – the “working-class” housing on Milwaukee Avenue now costs well above the median home price in Minneapolis. A few years ago, the last time I checked, they were thought to be worth in the $400,000 – $500,000 range by, which isn’t always a reliable guide, but nonetheless provides some clues to relative value and/or sale prices. Kudos to those with the original vision.

  3. Submitted by Victoria Wilson on 05/03/2016 - 11:43 am.

    great article

    I love this kind of coverage about our city!

    But just for the record there were three sales on Milwaukee in 2015 ranging in sales price from $299-$365. Zillow is just a magazine with a lot of glossy marketing. That’s it.

    • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/03/2016 - 03:00 pm.

      Sale prices

      I stand corrected on the numbers, though $299-$365,000 is still WAY above the median listing price on, and doesn’t negate the irony of “working-class” housing avoiding the wrecking ball only to go upscale and out of reach for today’s “working class.” It’s still a beautiful street, and prices aside, I’m a fan of the housing there.

  4. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 05/05/2016 - 08:40 pm.

    Another history story to tell, maybe…

    I remember a portion of the history of the preservation of the workers homes but thanks for the fine historical detail.

    Do wish the history of Bohemia Flats could also be remembered. It too although demolished, was part of early Minneapolis… immigrant history told in a small book documenting a fascinating portion of early history and so colorfully recalled with its varied labels…Danish Flats, Conamorra Flats ( sorry,spelling which I can’t verify?)

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