Tangletown historians share neighborhood lore

Tom Balcom shows a representation of the Richfield flourmill. No actual drawing or photo of the mill has been found. The mill operated on Minnehaha Creek at Lyndale Avenue from 1854 through the 1880s.
Tom Balcom shows a representation of the Richfield flourmill. No actual drawing or photo of the mill has been found. The mill operated on Minnehaha Creek at Lyndale Avenue from 1854 through the 1880s.

There is a reason why Tangletown’s winding streets diverge from Minneapolis’ tidy street grid.

As told by historian Tom Balcom, landscape architect Horace Cleveland  planned the area in 1886, at a time when Tangletown fell outside the city limits.

An original 1886 map advertised Washburn Park (now Tangletown) as a place where “men of business can get away from the noise of the city and the inconvenience of small lots and crowded neighborhoods.”

“They called this a suburban retreat,” Balcom said. “…It was way out in the country.”

Balcom is a longtime Tangletown resident who leads historic walking tours. As a kid, he watched friends’ houses torn down for construction of I-35W, and he played in the trench dug out for the new highway.

Balcom’s favorite historic stretch of Tangletown lies on Nicollet Avenue between 50th and 51st, once part of the streetcar line. It holds grand historic homes, duplexes built in 1939, and prefab metal houses created in factories and assembled onsite after World War II. A home at the southwest corner of 50th and Nicollet was constructed for the superintendent of Washburn Orphan Asylum, an orphanage once located where Ramsey Middle School is today.

Many early homes in Tangletown were original designs, Balcom said.

“It was just a different culture, a different style of building houses back then,” he said. “Each house has its own identity.”

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According to research by historian Elizabeth Vandam, one Tangletown house was modeled after poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s home. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright helped design an addition to another. “Peanuts” cartoonist Charles Schulz lived in a Minnehaha Parkway house in the 1950s. Another home is a replica of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Italian villa.

Vandam, a  former Tangletown resident, said her favorite neighborhood stories relate to architect Harry Wild Jones.

“It’s hard to beat Harry,” she said.

Jones was Tangletown’s first non-farming resident, Vandam said in her book “Harry Wild Jones: American Architect.” A dirt path once passed by his house (still standing at the southeast corner of 51st & Nicollet), where planks were laid for mothers to walk with their baby prams.

Jones designed 300 projects throughout his career. His Minneapolis designs include the restroom structure preserved near the Lake Harriet Bandshell (as well as two previous pavilions there);  the Scottish Rite Temple near Franklin & Hennepin; and the Lakewood Cemetery chapel, modeled after the Hagia Sophia in Turkey. Rustic Lodge Avenue is named for Jones’ design of a “Rustic Lodge” that was never built, intended as a log home where every room was octagon-shaped.

As a member of the city’s Park Board, Jones encouraged the board to preserve parkland along the lakes and rivers.

During the Great Depression, design work became difficult to find, Vandam said. Jones moved his office into his home, hung the business sign on the front porch, and rented out the second floor.

“It’s a bittersweet story,” Vandam said. “He pretty much lost everything.”

Jones designed Tangletown’s water tower near the end of his life.

According to Balcom, the water tower was constructed in 1932 to replace a smaller tower and help address water pressure problems in the growing neighborhood. The project also provided jobs to help stem unemployment at the time.

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Balcom’s research tells the symbolism of the water tower statues, each weighing five or more tons. He said workmen who originally built Jones’ Tangletown house in 1887 were attacked by an eagle, and Jones decided to immortalize eagles in the tower. The “guardians of health” statues related to the city’s water quality. The area had seen outbreaks of typhoid fever and foul-tasting water, Balcom said, and residents disagreed about the cleanest water source.

In her book “The Doors of Tangletown,” Vandam quotes Jones’ grandson, Lee M. Jones, who remembers watching construction of the tower at age 10.

Water tower“The huge eagles and guardians of health were sculpted by [Jones’] friend and neighbor, John K. Daniels,” he said. “I still have a vivid memory of him taking me to Daniels’s home on Busch Terrace to watch the casting and molding. People worked day and night pouring concrete to get that tower completed.”

On one occasion in 1968, Balcom said a pump switch malfunctioned and the tower overflowed in the middle of the night, flooding basements to the west. Residents feared that the tower was on the verge of collapse. The Washburn Water Tower operated until 2005, and is included on the National Register of Historic Places.

Balcom is hoping for a reprint of “The Doors of Tangletown,” and he’s continuing his research. He’s currently working on a book about Fuller Park and the public grade school that was originally at the site. His walking tours take residents past Jones’ homestead, the Washburn Water Tower and Minnehaha Creek.

“Hopefully they gain more appreciation and pride about where they live and play,” he said.

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