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Newly designated historic house holds the story of a Minneapolis family’s rise from poverty to prosperity

636 Elwood Ave. N. as seen from the street in 1930
Courtesy of the Rappaport family
636 Elwood Ave. N. as seen from the street in 1930

Mark and Gloria Bell knew the Minneapolis house they were remodeling might have an interesting history when they found a notebook stuffed in the wall of a third-floor room. Someone named Claire had traced an outline of her child-sized hand on the paper.

The little girl was Claire Rappaport. Daughter of Edward and Augusta, she was one of five children raised in the house at 636 Elwood Ave. N. between 1924 and 1946.

“That’s when we decided this was more than just a house,” says Mark Bell.  “It’s got a history, and it just drew us to that history.”

The Bells were attracted to the home by the stained-glass windows, the hardwood floors and its proximity to downtown Minneapolis. They are the fifth family to call the house home.

Stained glass windows adjacent to main stairway, 2010
Photo by Mark and Gloria Bell
Stained glass windows adjacent to main stairway, 2010

They are also the family that nominated the home for historic preservation — a status approved by the Historic Preservation Commission and, last Friday, by the Minneapolis City Council.

“It has been an 18-month odyssey,” says Mark Bell, adding the house has “motivated us and educated us.” 

The story of the house and the Rappaport family give all of us an idea of who came before we got here.

The house was built in 1912 for the Olesky — or Oleisky — family by carpenter Andrew A. Lofstrom for $3,000.

The architecture is not startling but combines Colonial Revival, Prairie and Craftsman style, according to John Smoley, preservation and design principal investigator for the city’s Community Planning and Economic Development Department.

There are seven categories that can qualify a structure for historic status. According to Smoley’s report (PDF), the house on Elwood qualifies because “the Rappaports’ commitment to family, business and their Jewish heritage exemplify the perseverance of Minneapolis’s Jewish immigrant entrepreneurs in the first half of the 20th century.”

Edward Rappaport was born in Romania to Yankel and Eva Rappaport. His father died when he was 3, and when his mother remarried, the new stepfather refused to allow her to bring both of her children into his home. Edward was raised by his grandfather.

He was about 18 when he headed to America. Unfortunately, the ship he was on ran low on food. When young Edward saw a man stealing food from a pregnant woman and her child, he chased down the thief and confronted him.

But the thief was not about to back down. There was a fight — and an anti-Semitic act. The thief carved a crucifix onto Edward’s chest. 

When he finally got to New York, he was re-united with his mother and introduced to his seven siblings. But the reunion apparently did not go well. Afterward, he set off, allegedly on foot, for Detroit, where he had heard there was an enclave of Romanian Jews.

There, he was invited to move in with the Schwartz family, who were also Romanian Jews, and immediately became smitten with their daughter Gusty, who was engaged to another man. Gusty and Edward ended up eloping to Canada.

Edward had been trained as a tinsmith. When the fire and earthquake hit San Francisco in 1906, the family, which now included son James, headed west to help with the rebuilding. They never got there. Gusty went into labor at Salt Lake City. Max was born, and the couple decided to head for Minneapolis, where Gusty’s family now lived.

Sometimes it seems like the Rappaport family is speaking to the Bell family.

After the Bells moved in, they removed old pine trees that had grown up around the home. Then they decided to change the main color of the house to a dark gray — even before they saw a photo of the house in the ’30s.

636 Elwood Avenue No636 Elwood Ave. N. as it looks todayrth as it looks today
Photo by Mark and Gloria Bell
636 Elwood Ave. N. as it looks today

“Much to our delight and amazement, we recognized the dark gray in that photo,” said Mark adding that they figured they were “on the right track.”

When the Rappaport family arrived in Minneapolis, Edward found work building the copper roof of the Basilica of St. Mary. But according to Smoley, Jews at this time suffered substantial discrimination and often had to work for themselves or for another Jew.

Edward worked as a junk peddler, plying the streets with a horse and wagon until 1923, when he is listed in the Minneapolis City Directory as running an auto supply business. A year later, the family moved to 363 Elwood. By then, the company was known as Northwestern Auto Parts — with the motto “For that hard to get part” — and was soon employing 75 people.

All of the Rappaport children worked for the company, and Gusty was the bookkeeper. The company, which became known as NAPCO, expanded 17 times between 1926 and 1963. The whole idea of a family business was that no one in the family would ever have to ask for work.

By 1964, NAPCO was operating in 32 foreign countries and had adopted the motto “The sun never sets on NAPCO.” The Rappaport family’s “dramatic rise from poverty to prosperity is significant within the context of immigrant Jewish and corporate history in Minneapolis,” according to Smoley.

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The Rappaport family sold the house in 1946, after their sons had married and moved out, to Rose Schiff, who might have installed the stained-glass windows featured in the house. Rappaport’s daughter Mary did not recall any such windows when she lived in the house as a child.

Schiff was followed in 1954 by Wolodymyr “Walter” Danylenko, who lived there until 1995. The Bells bought the house the following year.

Next spring, the Rappaport house will turn 100, and the Bells are planning to celebrate then all of the families who have shared their home.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Laura Weber on 11/23/2011 - 12:53 pm.

    Congratulations to Gloria and Mark for getting their house local historic designation!

    For more on their house’s story, check out the video on the “Extras” tab at http://uroc.umn.edu/cornerstones.

    And while you are there, watch the entire documentary “Cornerstones: A History of North Minneapolis,” produced by the University of Minnesota and TPT.

  2. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 11/23/2011 - 01:27 pm.

    Nice article.Thanks!

  3. Submitted by Jim Roth on 11/28/2011 - 11:12 am.

    From what I know the Rappaports have been and are a wonderful (and inspirational) family and asset to the community. The house is a small part of their overall story and contributions but thanks for capturing and sharing that.

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