The Columbia Park neighborhood of Northeast Minneapolis is located at the far north of the city, butting up against the city of Columbia Heights. Indeed, the area I walked was historically considered part of Columbia Heights, even after incorporation into the city of Minneapolis. See, for example, Plate 70 within the 1914 atlas. I walked only the northernmost part of that map, north of the Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Sault Ste. Marie (Soo Line) railroad. Also worth noting on that map are the big gap between the platted areas and the fact that most of the platted lots don’t have structures on them. Clearly this area was slow to develop away from the Central Avenue streetcar line until automobiles became more common.
Turning to a present-day map, my route consisted of a two loops (shown in blue) together with a substantial number of back-and-forth spurs (shown in red) and a connector between the two loops (shown in purple) that I walked initially eastward from main loop to little loop, then later westward to return to the main loop. The main loop started and ended at Architect Triangle, and the little loop allowed me to catch Van Buren Street NE and Central Avenue NE, the latter being the eastern boundary of the neighborhood.
By starting at Architect Triangle, I was able to see a group of six historically interesting houses that are on Architect Avenue, most of them around the triangular park. I visited them initially on a miserably cold day at the the beginning of February when I had the good fortune to be joined by Kathleen Kullberg, a “house detective” who has made a particular specialty of researching Architect Avenue’s history. I had originally planned to do the rest of the five-mile walk that same morning despite the weather, but I aborted after the historical briefing when I realized I was coming down with a viral illness. Happily my recuperation ended just in time for a record-setting warm spell, so I was able to return under more favorable conditions.
The story that Ms. Kullberg graciously shared with me back on that frigid morning was a story of a spectacular marketing plan, orchestrated in the first instance by Thomas Lowry.
Lowry was far from the first to buy cheap land on the outskirts of the city, subdivide it into lots, and then promote those lots so as to sell them for a tidy profit. (Indeed that is the entire story of Minneapolis from its founding as a speculative west-bank outgrowth of St. Anthony.) Nor was he the first person to operate streetcar lines in the twin cities: he took over and combined existing operations in Minneapolis and St. Paul. What accounts for Lowry’s extraordinary success is the energy with which he synergistically combined these two activities. He recognized that streetcar access could increase property values while residential growth would spur streetcar ridership. Essentially he pursued on metropolitan scale the same strategy as Henry Villard and James J. Hill used to develop western lands together with the Northern Pacific and and Great Northern railroads.
When Lowry extended the Central Avenue streetcar line to Columbia Heights, he was engaged in an even more synergistic enterprise. He was acting not only as real-estate developer and president of Twin Cities Rapid Transit, but also as president of the Soo Line. By developing modest sized lots near the streetcar in Columbia Heights, he was hoping to provide housing for the workers of Soo Line’s Shoreham Yards. (I’ll visit those rail yards later in my multi-day exploration of Columbia Park.) He also was interested in other industrial development possibilities that could likewise benefit from — and benefit — the availability of housing and transportation.
However, Lowry recognized that even such a synergistic plan could benefit from an initial jump-start of momentum to generate interest in living so far out. Therefore, in 1905 he organized a spectacular contest bearing a family resemblance to Willy Wonka’s golden tickets and such present-day television “reality” game shows as Chopped and The Apprentice.
Twelve leading architects were invited to submit plans for houses to be built on the new Architect Avenue. In the first round of the contest, six of the twelve were selected for construction. The plans were judged not only based on their provisions for comfortable living but also their suitability to a limited construction budget. Moreover, the architects needed to plan for the housewife to do the housework without domestic servants. In other words, the elite world of architect-designed housing was to meet the realities of an emerging middle class.
The six finalists were driven out to the site (with suitable publicity) so that they could select their lots. This was a significant matter as this development was not platted as a rectangular grid laid down on land graded flat. Rather, it curved to fit the natural contours of the hilly area. The focal point was the low-lying triangle, which would hold a half-acre pond grandiosely called a “lake.” Thus, these middle-class workers could enjoy the same charming lakeside living as the wealthy executives who neighbored eight-acre Loring Lake (itself often called a pond) or 353-acre Lake Harriet. (I can imagine skating on a half acre in winter, but the idea of boating in summer is hard to fathom. In any case, the triangle was soon filled in and now provides grass, trees, and a couple benches.)
A contractor was then hired to build all six houses, which were judged by a distinguished panel but with the winner kept secret. The public were invited to take free streetcar rides to the area and inspect the houses for themselves, which thousands did. They could register their own predictions as to which house would win, and they were entered into a drawing for a free construction lot. The contest houses themselves were auctioned off with the proceeds to go to charity. Newspaper publicity was arranged both leading up to the event and reporting its outcome.
By the time I saw the houses and triangle in 2017, all had been substantially altered, yet all still showed their 1905 origins.
Befitting the contest’s goal of providing middle-class housing, the winner was from a company that made a business of selling plans from a catalog. The house at 3609 Architect Avenue was the Keith Company’s number 1106; Ms. Kullberg told me she has toured a more-preserved home built according to the same plan in St. Paul. The above photo of the Architect Avenue example shows that the front has been closed in where a columned porch originally was.
After seeing the contest houses, I continued north on Architect Avenue to 37th Avenue NE. Just short of that corner, I was interested in another gambrel-roofed house (from five years later, as it turns out) because the pillars at the front corner are unusually made from rounded river rocks, akin to the foundations on a couple of the contest houses.
Two blocks east on 37th Avenue brought me to Central Avenue, where I suddenly emerged from the residential world into the commercial. I was particularly interested in an office building from 1960 with an ever so slightly pitched roof and horizontally arrayed windows.
Returning back westward on 37th Avenue, I initially went as far as Madison Place before returning to Quincy Street. However, the most interesting sight along this avenue was nearer the beginning, just after I had crossed back over Architect Avenue. The house on the southwest corner, 3644 Architect Avenue, is a perfectly ordinary bungalow, but the garage behind it, facing onto 37th Avenue, is practically a Mondrian.
Quincy Street didn’t go very far south before the hillside brought it to an end and compelled me to turn westward on 36 1/2 Avenue. As soon as I rounded that corner, I came upon a Little Free Library interesting not only for its design but also for its incorporation into a larger setting with artistic objects at its base and a small stone bench across the sidewalk from it.
Next, my route plan called for me to temporarily leave 36 1/2 Avenue for a down-and-back spur on Monroe Street. The short distance to 36th Avenue contains nothing but the sides of four houses; it would be the kind of spur I could easily have decided wasn’t worth it. But once again I received reinforcement for the value of comprehensiveness: one of those four side views surprised me with an interesting sculpture.
I followed 36 1/2 Avenue past Valley Street and Madison Place to its western terminus at 5th Street, before returning to Valley Street to continue the main loop. At the intersection with Valley Street, I took a photo to illustrate why this street ends at 36 1/2 Avenue rather than continuing to 37th. As throughout this area, the street map only makes sense if seen in conjunction with a topographic map — or experienced on foot.
Further west on 36 1/2 Avenue, one of the 1950s bungalows had been recently rebuilt, causing it to stand out from its neighbors. After more decades pass, a scattering of individual houses will be replaced at differing times and the homogenous look of the initial development will give way to a natural heterogeneity that suits varying homeowners. What I saw was a striking example of the first step in this process.
Valley Street took me south to Columbia Parkway at a point just east of where 35th Avenue splits off from the parkway. I’m generally leaving the parkway for my next walk, when I’ll use it as part of a loop around the park. Therefore, I bore right onto 35th Avenue after pausing to photograph the bridge carrying the Soo Line tracks across the parkway. The railroad and accompanying electric transmission line run south of the parkway to the east of here, whereas west of here they run down the strip between the two streets.
Although most of this area is settled with single family detached houses, there are a substantial number of duplexes on Madison Place, Spain Place, and 37th Avenue. They generally appear to be slight variations on a couple common plans; the photo below is a typical example.
Further north on that block, on the southeast corner of the intersection with 36th Avenue, a lifelike cow keeps an eye on passersby.
I cut this day’s portion of 37th Avenue off at University Avenue. The southeast corner of that intersection is occupied by a community garden area known as the Gateway that includes a water tower labeled “Columbia Park” and a circular array of garden beds that evoke the roundhouse in Shoreham Yards.
Immediately south of this parklike area, an entrance from 5th Street provides access to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s Tree Site. That entrance corresponds neatly to a ghost railroad track that peeks through a few holes in the surface of 5th Street. The 1914 atlas shows a track with similar but not identical alignment relative to the streets. I wonder what changed?
Continuing south on 5th Street, I was able to go one block west on 35th Avenue before returning. This block of 35th Avenue is discontiguous with the parkway-hugging portion I was on previously (and would soon return to), a discontinuity that was already in place prior to 1914. This block is given over to industrial uses. On the north side, I admired how the broad one-story operational portion of a building was joined to the narrow two-story office portion. (The occupants of the building are Mid-Continent Engineering and United Business Mail.)
The western end of this block consists of an on-ramp and off-ramp for University Avenue, which at this point is so arterial that it starts to resemble a freeway. Indeed, although my multi-day exploration of Columbia Park will also include the area to the west of University, I have no intention to walk this portion of University itself — the same safety rule that causes me to leave freeways out of my otherwise comprehensive tour of the city will also cause me to omit this portion of University Avenue.
On the other hand, I’m glad I went all the way to the University Avenue ramps. Tucked between the Mid-Continent Engineering building and University I found a “Prairie in Progress.” Looking across to the south side of 35th Avenue, I had a good view of the Moorhead Machinery & Boiler Company, in operation since 1919 and more recently providing products including “the design and fabrication of boilers for coal and nuclear electric power plans; the components for crushing and the separation of taconite, the design and fabrication of high pressure vessels for fertilizer storage, the processing of products used in the food processing industry, and of ASME pressure code vessels and pressure piping for coal gasification plants,” according to an Outstanding Achievement Award presented to John K. Moorhead by the University of Minnesota. The ghost railroad track I previously spotted also made another appearance here. (Again, the 1914 atlas shows it a bit differently, on the west rather than east of University at 35th.)
From 5th Street, 35th Avenue took me to the southern end of Spain Place, named (Ms. Kullberg told me) for another real-estate developer who had collaborated with Lowry. The corner property has an awesome treehouse, complete with a porch.
The northern end of Spain Place is hooked so that it intersects 36th Avenue at an oblique angle rather than 90 degrees. This is another feature that makes more sense on a topographic map or in person: a right-angled intersection would have been at the top of a decidedly winter-unfriendly hill. As I was turning that corner, I spotted another interesting Little Free Library. This one is interesting less for its skillful construction than for its sign’s unusual suggestion regarding contents: “Bring a movie, take a movie.” Personally, I’m a book person, but it’s nice to think that Minneapolis’s Little Free Libraries accommodate a variety of media.
Nor would a book lover need to go very far. As I took 36th Avenue back to my starting point, I passed another “Free Little Library,” this one notable for the quotes painted onto its sides. “The more that you read, the more … you will know. The more … you learn, the more places you’ll go.” (from Dr. Seuss’s I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!) and “Once you read, you will be forever free.” (widely attributed to Frederick Douglass)
Editor’s Note: Max Hailperin is walking each of Minneapolis’ 87 neighborhoods, in alphabetical order. He chronicles his adventures at allofminneapolis.com, where the original version of this article was published February 22, 2017. We’re sharing them here at streets.mn, at a pace of one or two walks per week.