Column: St. Louis Park historic houses are at risk

Jeanne Andersen
Jeanne Andersen

By Guest Columnist Jeanne Andersen

Mayday! Mayday! The Park has three historic houses at risk – can anything be done?

The first is at 4131 Excelsior Blvd. City records show that it was built in 1884, making it the third-oldest building in St. Louis Park. The land was owned by Christopher Hanke, who owned more than 200 acres of property on both sides of Excelsior Boulevard and both sides of France Avenue. The land where the house was built passed from Christopher to his son Charles in 1902. Charles deeded it to his sister Louise Watson in 1905, and in 1916 the land was platted into 119 lots as Hanke’s Minikahda Terrace.

Lydia F. Hanke, the sister of Louise and Charles, sold the house out of the Hanke family in 1920. From 1945 to 1987, it was the residence of the large Shinn family. The current owner turned it into a duplex and, by all accounts, has kept it up quite nicely. But now he has purchased three other lots on the block, including the two flat-roofed duplexes and the house on the corner of Inglewood, which has already been demolished. These four lots are for sale and would make a marvelous location for a new building. There’s nothing too historic about the flat-topped duplexes (except that Roundhouse Rodney lived in one of them briefly), but surely there must be something that can be done to save our third-oldest building from the wrecking ball!

The trouble is, as we found out when our very oldest house was at risk that there is absolutely nothing anyone can do legally to stop demolition of private property. One exception is if it is on the National Register of Historic Places, but only the owner can place his property on the list; St. Louis Park only has two such properties, the Nordic Ware Tower and the Historic Milwaukee Road Depot. The city does not have a historic preservation commission, and the state has no authority either.

In a city where we have lots of little houses that are being torn down and replaced by big houses, what if someone tore down their little house and moved this spacious and beautiful home onto their property, thereby saving it from the wrecking ball? It would save the owner the expense of demolition, the new owner could probably get the house for the cost of moving it and it would be preserved for another 100 years. If I won the lottery, I’d do it myself!

Another house at 2206 Parklands Ln. was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for Dr. Paul C. Olfelt and family in 1958. Olfelt worked as a radiologist at Methodist Hospital. The Olfelts met with Wright personally before Wright died in April 1959 at age 92. The 1,700-square-foot house was built into a hillside on 3.77 acres.

The Olfelts put the house on the market last June with a $1.495 million price tag. Surely no one would be so cruel as to demolish this historic home and replace it with a subdivision, but with land in St. Louis Park at a premium all bets are off. Frank Lloyd Wright fans, this one’s for you!

The third house in danger is at 4012 W. 31st St. The big foursquare house was built in 1907. In 1920, the owners were Thor and Minnie Larson, their five sons and three daughters. Thor was a building contractor and lather. The family occupied the house until about 1954.

This home is in a tiny enclave called Manhattan Park, made up of West 31st Street between France Avenue and Inglewood Avenue on the very east side of town. It is located between the railroad tracks and bike path on the south and Highway 7 and County Road 25 on the north.

Manhattan Park was created by Theodore Curtis, owner of the Curtis Hotel in downtown Minneapolis. Along the tracks was the Belco Grain Elevator, which was destroyed in an inferno in 1977 that killed a worker. The footprint of the elevator is now a three-block-long apartment building. The neighborhood is peppered with 100-year-old houses, 1920s cottages, 1960s apartment buildings and new condo developments. An unfortunate pattern with the large old homes was that as the surviving widow aged she couldn’t afford to keep up the property, and when she died the house was demolished.

A new trend, of course, is redevelopment, starting with The Shoreham, a giant development that reaches from Highway 7 to 31st Street. A few Manhattan Park homes were taken for the project, but none that were all that historic. Now Sela has purchased the property just west of The Shoreham, with plans to redevelop the block that has hosted Vescio’s, the Valu Stay Inn and the businesses at Inglewood.

What also makes me nervous is that if light rail becomes a reality, Manhattan Park may be doomed. Almost all of the properties are rental, and about half of them belong to one man. What was once an obscure, forgotten enclave may very well become a trendy neighborhood so close to Minneapolis you can see it from your house.

Solution? Maybe what we need is a safe haven for endangered old homes, like they have on Nicollet Island. When the island was revitalized in the 1980s, several older homes were moved there. Elmwood would have been a logical place here in the Park; in the 1970s there was actually a concerted effort to raze condemned buildings in our oldest section of town, but new ones were built in their place in the ‘90s, and vacant land is hard to find. Any thoughts on how we can save our endangered historic buildings would be welcome.

Jeanne Andersen is the secretary of the St. Louis Park Historical Society and has been researching Park history for 20 years. The opinions expressed here are hers and not those of the society.

  • Curmudgeon

    Wait, becoming “trendy” dooms a neighborhood? Dang, sorry for Minikahda Vista, but looks like you got trendy a while back and thus are doomed.