Digging into Stevens Square’s history

When Barb Jacobs lived in her former apartment near Stevens Square Park, she would often study the original fireplace built into the wall of her small unit.

“You can’t have something that big in your apartment without wondering about it,” Jacobs said.

She imagined her apartment might have been a family’s sitting room before the building was converted into smaller units, but she never knew for certain.

It was that curiosity about the neighborhood she has called home for four years that brought her to the Hennepin History Museum on the first Saturday in March. The museum opened its doors early to Jacobs and several other Stevens Square residents interested in learning more about their neighborhood’s past.

“I’m just generally really interested in the neighborhood,” Jacobs said. “ŠFor me, it’s really fascinating to learn how Stevens Square has evolved over the years.”

Jacobs, who also serves on the neighborhood board, added it is essential to understand the past as the pace of new development in Stevens Square increases. Older buildings are coming down, new condominiums spring up in their place and the city is talking about routing light rail through the area, she noted.

“All those things can really change a neighborhood,” she said.

Museum archivist Susan Larson-Fleming said Minneapolis’ Neighborhood Revitalization Program has brought a number of neighborhood leaders into the building in recent years. Neighborhoods using NRP funds for development are required to do historical research as a part of their project proposal.

In Stevens Square, much of that funding was directed toward housing improvements meant, in part, to encourage more long-term residency.

In the city’s most densely populated neighborhood, many apartment dwellers stay only a year or two before moving on. To slow turnover of residents, some older buildings are being converted into condominiums.

When the neighbors gathered around a large city atlas from 1912, they were able to identify one of those future condos, the former Abbott Hospital building on 1st Avenue South. In the pastel-colored map covering across the atlas’ broad pages, the hospital was a small red rectangle, the color indicating its brick construction.

Museum administrator Earl Ross said history can guide development in a way that won’t change a neighborhood’s personality.

“In understanding the history, you understand the character of the neighborhood and the possibilities,” Ross said.

Also a Stevens Square resident, Ross said he was drawn to the density and diversity of the neighborhood. To someone who grew up on the East Coast, it was the one place in all of Minneapolis that resembled a neighborhood in New York or Philadelphia, he said.

When they were built just prior to World War I, the three-story brownstone apartment buildings surrounding Stevens Square Park housed the young professionals who commuted to white-collar jobs downtown.

“Stevens Square was a very, very middle-class, interesting – I would say almost bohemian – community,” Ross said, adding that, to a great extent it has retained that character through the years.

“That draws people to the area,” he said.

 

Reach Dylan Thomas at dthomas@mnpubs.com or 436-4391.