MCAD’s beloved Blue House moves to make way for school’s Gateway Garden
Spencer Ruskin watched with a surreal feeling as his former house moved along 26th Street.
Ruskin was one of dozens of Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) students who gathered at midnight on Aug. 28 to watch the beloved Blue House, as it’s become known, leave campus forever. He was one of the last six students living in the duplex while it was used as student housing.
“I really loved that house. I definitely spent two of my best years in that house,” the senior visualizations major said. “Seeing it move down the street is a really unsettling experience.”
The students and other spectators cheered and waved the house goodbye as it turned from 26th Street onto Nicollet Avenue on its way to its new lot at 3245 Nicollet Ave.
The Blue House — named after its color — left MCAD for its new home to make way for Gateway Garden, MCAD’s new surface parking lot and sculpture garden along 26th Street.
But it wasn’t easy finding a new home for the house.
Built in the 1890s, it was part of the Washburn-Fair Oaks Historic District, an early residential neighborhood in Minneapolis.
Charlene Roise, MCAD’s historical consultant and president of Hess, Roise and Company, said the college previously requested approval to demolish the Blue House from the City of Minneapolis’ Heritage Preservation Commission after failing to find a new lot for it the first time around. But commissioners denied MCAD’s demolition request at their Feb. 10 meeting and the school again began seeking lots for the house.
That’s when Carol Greenwood got a call from Jim Dowd, the president of the construction and development company coordinating the move, Prima Land, Inc.
Greenwood is a realtor with Equity Realty, Inc. She and her husband, Kelly, own and manage 10 lots in the Lyndale neighborhood, just seven blocks south of the Blue House’s old location.
Two summers ago, the duplex at 3245 Nicollet Ave. burned down, leaving an empty lot.
Dowd spoke with the Greenwoods and their business partners, Loren and Dana Brown, and proposed selling the Blue House to them for $1 as long as they would agree to bring the house up to standard with code compliances, renovations and various upgrades.
“The minute I saw it, I knew it was a perfect fit for the spot we had,” Carol Greenwood said.
With renovation experience on other houses on their block, Kelly and Carol Greenwood agreed. MCAD paid for the cost of the move and the construction of the foundation on the new lot.
Roise analyzed the new site to make sure it would work for the Blue House.
“Obviously you wouldn’t want to stick it next to the Kmart, for example,” Roise said. “It had to be a compatible site. And this was just a great site. It fit so perfectly in there; it’s going to be a really nice addition to that neighborhood.”
She said there are several other houses on the new block that were built in the same time period as the Blue House, so the new neighborhood is fitting.
“As a preservationist, I hate arguing for tearing down or moving a building. However, having all those cars parking in that historic district was a bad thing, too,” Roise said. “The house was sitting all by itself in the middle of a bunch of empty lots looking kind of sad, and so it’s getting moved back into a context that’s more appropriate — it’s going to be surrounded by other houses and fit in very well with houses from a similar period.”
MCAD took the case back to the Heritage Preservation Commission, and at their July 7 meeting, commissioners voted to allow the Blue House to be moved.
“They overwhelmingly thought that it was a great idea, not only saving the house, but having it in the hands of a contractor who was going to do a really first-class job of bringing it back and putting two families in it,” Dowd said. “That went very well.”
Ideally, the house would have stayed in the Whittier neighborhood, but none of the sites Dowd looked at were compatible.
Marian Biehn, executive director of Whittier Alliance, said she was sad to see the Blue House leave the neighborhood, but glad it wasn’t demolished.
“We were really sorry to see it leave. It took another piece of that history away from us, the integrity of the historic district,” she said. “No neighborhood wants to give up a piece of itself to another neighborhood, but Lyndale is a good neighborhood. It should be comfortable in the location it’s going.”
The move itself took a lot of collaborative work, but after hours of Xcel Energy, Comcast and Qwest workers moving wires, Minneapolis police directing traffic and workers from Prima Land, Inc. and Swift House Movers driving a massive trailer with hydraulic jacks and carefully positioning it to avoid streetlights, the Blue House — 22 feet wide, 55 feet long and 30 feet tall — finally rolled onto its new lot around 4 a.m. Aug. 29.
The construction crew worked underneath the house, building its foundation in about a week.
“I think the part that’s nice is we’re going to have a lot that, since the fire on it, has been this empty vacant lot,” Mark Hinds, executive director of the Lyndale Neighborhood Association, said. “It’s now going to have this nice duplex on it and it’s going to be managed by property owners that have a long history of managing their properties well, so that’s always a win for the neighborhood.”
The Greenwoods will rewire the house and bring electrical and plumbing back to current code. Carol Greenwood said she hopes to have renovations completed within four to six months before finding two families to rent the upper and lower floors. She plans to leave the house blue.
“We’re really excited about it,” she said. “We will definitely invite anyone and everyone to come and see it anytime they want and give it a pat. Who knows, maybe we’ll even end up with some MCAD students.”