What is an apartment building? It can be a place to hang your hat. It can also be a community. The general perception is that apartments are temporary places to live; training wheels for home-ownership.
But for many it’s not training wheels: it’s a home. Apartments are often the first step in independence for young adults. Couples move in together and raise families, individuals craft careers or run businesses out of their apartments and, for plenty, it’s where they die.
In cities where home-ownership becomes increasing difficult, living in an apartment, is in fact, the only option for most people. If one looks to New York, the great cities of Europe, and other examples, one will see that many people occupy apartments, sometimes the same apartment, for the majority of their lives. Their children regard it as their home.
In Minneapolis, however, that is increasingly difficult. The affordable housing crisis has worsened and worsened in the last few years. This is our backdrop.
My name is Thomas Regnier, and I live at The Lowry Hill Apartments. Let me start by introducing one of us.
I was born in 1995. My parents were wealthy when I was young, or appeared so. Like many, they were mortgaged to the hilt. I had a priviledged youth, but by the crash of 2008 that was over. The foreclosure crisis had reached us and in 2011 we were forced to leave our home. I bounced around between my mom in Wisconsin and caring for my father as he recovered from a hip replacement and was evicted by his then-landlord in Watertown. I moved to Minneapolis in 2014 to be closer to my friends and pursue my education.
While living temporarily with my sister in the country while searching for apartments, a Craigslist ad directed me to a place where a friend of mine had lived the summer following high school, and I moved in at the Lowry Hill Apartments in September of 2014.
It hasn’t been a home to just myself, during that time. When my father was homeless following his eviction, he lived with his brother for a couple of years, and then with me for 9 months in 2015-2016. When my sister was homeless for a few months at the same time following two evictions, she lived with me.
There was a time when two relatives were sharing my living room. This was a violation of my lease, and I recognize my vulnerability in making that public, but I do it on behalf of the thousands of unknown people who’ve had to make such sacrifices and cannot speak up for themselves. Homelessness has been a specter for me and my family for several years now; for how many others is it the same?
The first couple of years that I lived at my current apartment, I couldn’t afford to pay rent, eat, and have a phone or internet, so I did without. I had a home, and that meant so much to me that I was willing to sacrifice in other areas. But, phones and internet are more necessities than luxuries if one is going to be a functioning member of society in the 2010s, and I have since modernized. I support myself by working part time at the Kowalski’s Market on Hennepin Avenue, and am a part-time Student at Mineapolis Community and Technical College. I walk everywhere and take public transit only when I have no other choice for reasons of economy. Things have gotten easier for me in recent years, but things wouldn’t be as easy for me if I had to move elsewhere, just as it is for many others who face difficulty with finding safe, stable and affordable housing.
Enough about me. Please allow me to introduce you to The Lowry Hill Apartments.
They were built in the summer of 1904 and the first tenants moved in that September. The corner of Hennepin and Douglas was an ideal spot. Served by two transit lines, it’s a prime example of the transit-oriented development of its day.
The two (later three) building complex was co-owned by their architect, Henry Ingham, who was a master builder and carpenter. For several years prior and afterward he had been very successful in developments of various tracts around the city, and built many handsome (and profitable) wooden houses.
His business partner was a nationally prominent lawyer, Walter V. Fifield. The rental agents were the Thorpe Brothers agency, then a potent force in Minneapolis real estate development who may have served as match-makers for the project, which may have gone back a decade. The buildings replaced several large single-family homes.
According to the advertisements placed in the Minneapolis Journal, The Lowry Hill (note that highfalutin integral article) was the “Finest in the Northwest,” with “papering and plastering done by artists” and “combination gas and electric light fixtures”. They were “exclusive apartments in an exclusive neighborhood for exclusive people.” The term “exclusive” is here a double-edged sword: a few years later in 1907 only 8% of American homes had access to electrical service, but the reality is that in an era dominated by racial and religious discriminatory property covenants, we can assume safely that “exclusive” meant that black, Jewish or otherwise non-white persons would not be rented to.
The city directories and the Minneapolis Journal’s society columns in the 1910s and 20s list the comings and goings of various residents, and gives us a picture of who they were: wealthy widows, junior executives at local firms, childless professional couples, and affluent people “closing up the cottage” on Lake Minnetonka and moving to the city for the winter; all solid citizens of the “right” kind.
The salad days were not to last. Originally, the “flats” were mostly 2 and 3-bedroom apartments, with parlors, dining rooms and kitchens, and a long, narrow “hall bedroom” off the kitchen, reserved for the servants, common in middle-class American homes before WWI and WWII depleted the labor supply.
By the 1930s the apartments were arranged for roomers sharing bathrooms, typical for large old houses and apartments at this time. During and after WWII, there was an enormous surge in general city populations. This ended around the early mid-fifties as people started fleeing to suburban towns in unprecedented numbers.
For a brief moment, Minneapolis numbered over half a million souls peaking at 521,718 in 1950, which we still haven’t reached again.
In 1943, 1949 and 1953 the building took its present form: large apartments were subdivided into a few two bedrooms, one bedrooms, and studios. Dark, elaborate woodwork was removed or painted. The old, intricate wood and wrought iron balconies on the fronts were slated for wrecking and the brick balcony of one building was enclosed. Stores were put in at ground level. 32 units became 89.
The next great cataclysm came with the coming of the highway to Loring Park. The former intersection of Hennepin, Lyndale & Groveland, known primarily as the “bottleneck,” was described by Larry Millet as an “almost Parisian experience,” giving glamour to what he admitted was a “traffic terror.”
Even with the recent overhaul of the area in 2016, and an installation of a new park island between southbound Hennepin and the frontage road serving Douglas and Groveland in 2018, the area still has its problems. The highway interchange between Hennepin & Lyndale replaced a monumental sweep of large apartment buildings and commerical structures of the 1890-1920 period, displacing many.
It seems that the Lowry Hill Apartments was slated to be torn down at this time as well, as the building permits are stamped with “wrecking,” but somehow or another they still stand. The Lowry Hill Apartments wound up segregated by the highway from the apartment district surrounding Loring Park that gave birth to it.
It’s easy to see those changes as a bad thing, but the simple fact is, myself or many of my neighbors couldn’t afford to live here if the building and neighborhood were in its original configuration. Life is complicated like that. The building survived the changes, just like we have survived our own. Some of us have lived here for more than a quarter of a century. Some of us have died here.
We number among us painters, film-makers, writers, teachers, and others who contribute to the cultural life of our city. We’re a musical bunch too: a trumpet player, a saxophone player, French horn, bass, piano, accordion (that last one is me, but I love my guitar too). My upstairs neighbor, who raised her daughter here, teaches piano lessons in her apartment. The sight of young children coming to take their first steps in music always touches my heart. That’s just the people I know about; after five years of living here, I still don’t know everyone.
Consider the following: after the destruction of the Gateway district in the early 1960s many of the alcoholics, indigents, and “undesirables” began settling in the area of Loring Park. Among these undesirables would be people now recognized as LGBTQIA. By some accounts, Loring Park had become a haven for gay men as early as the late 1940s. George Chauncy, noted historian, remarks in Gay New York, “apartment houses helped make it possible for a […] gay male world to develop. […] They offered gay men more privacy, space and prestige than rooming houses,” (158).
Although this is anecdotal, just about every other gay man I’ve ever met, has either lived at the Lowry Hill Apartments or known someone who has. The Lowry Hill Apartments is an unsung icon of the Minneapolis queer world; a link to the gay Loring Park heritage. I’ve had the privilege to be part of that tradition.
Think of it: a place where once only the white elite of yesteryear could live, has become a place where a diverse set of people, most of us low-income, can call home. Where businessmen caught streetcars to the office, we can catch the 6 to work. Their maid’s rooms are still here physically, but they’re maid’s rooms no longer at the Lowry Hill Apartments. That’s pretty damn poetic, I think. Apartment buildings like mine are the tidepool of democracy. They’re places where people of diverse races, religions, cultures, politics and lifestyles live side by side as equals. When better citizens are made, apartment buildings make them.
But this is all at risk. As I write, the building is being sold to an unknown buyer, and the futures of myself and my fellow residents are uncertain. To borrow a phrase from Mayor Jacob Frey, The Lowry Hill Apartments are an example of Naturally Occuring Affordable Housing (or, NOAH). That is to say, the rents here are below market rate and are affordable to people who make considerably less than the median income for the area in which they live. This is due to several factors. The fact remains that within the last 5 years hundreds of such buildings have been bought, the residents kicked out, the apartments flipped, and rents raised, and I know that for myself and my neighbors, that could have devastating consequences. It’s one of those cases where you have to hope for the best and plan for the worst.
How many people do you know whose story runs something like this? Probably more than you realize.