The late Tom Braun, co-owner of the Wild Rumpus bookstore, liked to talk about the “architectural destiny” of the building where he lived, and where the bookstore resides, according to his widow, Felicity Britton.
The building was built in 1911 as a businessmen’s club and later became a Masonic Temple. It also housed the Linden Hills library, before the library’s current building was built in 1931, and was home to the Lake Harriet Dancing Club, which rented space from the Masons, until the 1950s.
Today, the Lake Harriet Commercial Club, located on Upton Avenue, still houses the bustling bookstore, an art gallery and office space. But the entire spacious third floor is taken up by Britton’s beautiful home, where she and Braun lived together before he died in 2018.
“The building was built for community space,” Britton said. “He felt it would be really selfish if he just had it all to himself.”
With a stage, a basketball hoop, a movie projector and marquee, Britton’s home is an enormous gathering area with high ceilings and large windows that bring in the light from outside. The couple often opened up their home to the community for fundraisers and performance events, a tradition Britton has continued.
Kevin Kling has performed in the space, as has the improvisation troupe Theater of Public Policy. There have been birthday parties, a concert to support Obama’s 2008 presidential bid and other fundraisers for state Rep. Frank Hornstein (61A), for attorney general Keith Ellison, for the Marriage Equality amendment and for nonprofits like Minneapolis Climate Action and the North Minneapolis-based workforce development agency Emerge.
When the building was first built, Linden Hills was still “the country,” Britton said. “There was pretty much nothing here except this building, and the fire station next door, and then some cottages.”
The Lake Harriet Commercial Club had billiard rooms, a stage area for theatrical performances, and an asbestos-lined room with a film projector. After a few years, the club became home to a Masonic lodge.
“Tom’s theory was that they probably were all Masons anyway, and they realized that if they were a Masonic lodge, they wouldn’t have to pay property taxes,” Britton said.
After purchasing the building in the early 1990s, Braun rented the third floor out as office space. Meanwhile, he was looking for a loft downtown and in the warehouse district.
“He was explaining to his realtors, ‘I want high ceilings, I want lots of light — it would be nice if there was some exposed brick,” she said.
He soon realized he could renovate the third floor of the old Masonic Temple to make his dream home.
Braun worked with architect Dan Feidt, who also designed the space for Wild Rumpus, on the third floor’s renovation first in 2001 and then in 2008. They found details in the original blueprints that they used for the renovation, like a stairwell that leads up onto the balcony. They also used original fittings and fixtures for the water fountain and sconces. Braun added new ideas of his own, like a winding metal staircase and catwalk in the “backstage” area of the theater and the use of rocks found along Lake Superior to decorate the bathroom.
“We tried to keep the look and feel of the old building in the work we did,” Feidt said. “For me it’s one of my favorite projects. That and the bookstore — it was so much fun to maximize the space in a really creative way.”
The auditorium acted as kind of a backyard. Used for meetings and as a gathering space, it’s also where Braun would play basketball with his grandkids.
It looks a bit like a grade-school auditorium that doubles as a gymnasium or cafeteria. There’s not a lot of furniture — just three comfy couches in the center of the room. Throughout the space there are additional quirky pieces of art and furniture.
“He loved things that were beat up and showing their history,” Britton said.
Once, she recalled, the cleaning lady noticed a rotten plum on the kitchen counter. The woman asked if Braun was done with it. “He said, ‘Oh no, I’m watching it.’ He was watching the decay. There was beauty in the decay — that’s what he liked about this building — the history and the ghosts.”
Originally, the auditorium area had a ticket lobby, which Feidt worked to create into a living room and dining room. Above that space, which had previously been the roof, they added a story, made up of a bathroom, a sitting area, a small bedroom and a deck. “That also allowed light to come into the space from the south,” Feidt said.
“He wanted it to look like a New York fire escape,” Britton said. “Tom loved New York, so he used to pretend this was his Manhattan penthouse with skyline views.”
Britton met Braun through Linden Hills Power and Light, an environmental advocacy group now known as Minneapolis Climate Action. Braun founded the organization in 2007, and Britton started out as a volunteer after being invited to join by a friend. Originally from Australia, she moved to Minnesota because her first husband was from here.
At an early strategic planning session, organizers brainstormed the goals of the organization, writing them out on a white board. One of the goals Tom wrote on the board was, “Tom will be married by the end of 2009.”
It didn’t quite work out that way, but by 2009, Britton had moved in (they married in 2015). By then, she was the executive director of the organization, but she stepped down from her role when Braun became ill with Alzheimer’s.
Britton said she plans to continue Braun’s legacy of opening up the space to the community.
“That’s what he would have wanted,” she said. “He wouldn’t have wanted it to be shut away and hoarded.”