Council committee grants appeal to demolish writer’s house

Linden Hills residents and fans of writer Brenda Ueland staged a “Read-in” outside Ueland’s house March 19. Photo courtesy of the “SaveBrenda’sHouse” campaign

A Council committee voted Thursday to allow demolition of a house at 2620 W. 44th St. once owned by writer Brenda Ueland.

The vote was a “close call,” said Council Member Kevin Reich, who said much of the home’s historic value seems to be gone.

“I think what we have before us today is a really strong case that it is about the person, and the story, and not so much about the building,” Reich said.

Letters from as far as Norway advocated to stop the demolition of the house where Ueland lived from 1954 until she died at age 93 in 1985. Ueland worked as one of the first female reporters at the Minneapolis Tribune and Liberty Magazine. She advocated for women’s rights, published several books and set an international swimming record at age 87.

The house sits on a valuable site purchased for $840,000 located steps from Lake Harriet, where zoning allows four stories or 56 feet.* Limited liability companies with the same address also own 2630 and 2616 W. 44th St., while 2624 W. 44th St. has been marketed for sale.

Developer John Gross said the zoning would allow up to 10 units on the site where Ueland’s house stands. The developers’ intent is a single lot development, and the “million-dollar house” they own next door to Ueland’s would not be torn down, Gross said.

The city’s Heritage Preservation Commission previously voted to deny the demolition and called for a historic designation study of the property. City staff recommended the denial as well. In breaking with those decisions Thursday, the city’s Zoning & Planning Committee decided there were no reasonable alternatives to demolition.

The developers said the home has been gutted and remodeled, and doesn’t hold any links to Ueland’s significance as a writer. They said the $250,000 cost of rehab added to the high purchase price makes renting out the house or reselling it to a single family impractical.

Some residents spoke in favor of demolition.

Nearby resident Kevin Kirsch said a reading room or library space would do a better job of honoring Ueland’s legacy than an outdated dwelling. As an English major, he said he’s never trekked to an author’s house to find inspiration.

Reich said the developer’s $70,000 commitment to public art may be a better way to honor Ueland’s legacy.

Council Member Lisa Goodman disagreed, and said she thinks the building merits further study.

“I think the reason there is no alternative is because the developer doesn’t want to provide a reasonable alternative,” she said.

She asked the developers if they would be willing to broker a deal with residents on the spot.

“Are you willing to sell the house to the neighbors for the price you paid for it plus whatever your holding costs are?” Goodman asked.

The developer said no: The site’s zoning calls for redevelopment, and Ueland’s own estate sold it for land value, Gross said.

Gross has lived across the street from Ueland’s house for 22 years, and he said the development partners have worked in historic preservation for much of their careers. Commers worked at Artspace; Gross redeveloped the Bayers Hardware building into Upton 43 and Patisserie 46. Gross said he bought the house on the open market, and the site has been zoned R4, a “medium-density” district, for 50 years.

Beth Dalby, a previous owner of the home from 2002-2015, said she worships Ueland’s legacy. She said she had a romantic notion that she would save the house from demolition, fix it up and live there until she died. But the ceiling sagged, the roof leaked, and the front porch was falling apart, she said.

“I made so many changes because it seemed like the right thing to do at the time,” she said. “…If it had not been for a developer buying that property from me …  If the rules changed while I owned it, and it went from being R4 to being historically designated, I’m not exaggerating when I tell you it would have financially destroyed me.”

Writers including Yale professor Alice Kaplan and memoirist Patricia Hampl wrote letters asking city officials to preserve the house.

Courtesy of City of Minneapolis

“I visited her more times than I can count in that house with the fern-green walls, the bookcases floor to ceiling with books old and new, fiction and nonfiction,” Hampl writes. “I was welcomed as ‘the next generation,’ as someone who wanted to be a writer.  That house was a campfire where I warmed my future. I probably drank more Manhattans there than bears recounting (I realize now that Brenda didn’t join me, but made me feel I was living the real salon life just by sending me to the kitchen to make a drink for myself).”

Hampl said the house should be preserved because Minneapolis is a literary center, with a concentration of literary publishing second only to New York.

JoEllen Haugo of the Linden Hills History Study Group said there are few historic structures in the state that preserve the memories of women.

Ueland wrote for dozens of magazines in New York including the Saturday Evening Post, Harper’s and Ladies Home Journal. A history by Eric Utne said she dressed 25 years ahead of the fashion, and called herself the first woman in the western world to cut her hair short.

According to a city staff report: Ueland returned to Minneapolis in 1930, where she wrote her first and most popular book “If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit” at the family home south of Lake Calhoun, which was demolished in 1953. The Norwegian government awarded her a medal for her coverage of the trial of Vidkun Quisling, who served as Norway’s Minister-President and coordinated with Nazi Germany during World War II. Ueland was caught plagiarizing a few years later when she lifted paragraphs from a Life Magazine story and inserted them into one of her own stories for Collier’s. She moved into 2620 W. 44th St. at age 63, where she continued to write daily. She completed a biography of her mother that was published posthumously.

Utne, founder of the Utne Reader, is writing a memoir featuring mentors including Ueland. He met Ueland at age 12, when she married his grandfather. Utne reports that she walked Lake Harriet twice a day, “Once for the body and once for the soul.” The bookcases that stood on either side of the 44th Street fireplace are gone, but he said rental photos of the interior at look just as nice as the day Ueland lived there. He said it would be sad to lose the second floor sunroom where she wrote — more than 6 million published words in total, by her estimate.

“Some of our greatest writers and most influential — like Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville — were unknown during their lifetimes and struggled,” Utne said. “But their works became loved and appreciated after their deaths.”

*The site stands inside the Shoreland Overlay District, which requires a conditional use permit to build above two-and-a-half stories or 35 feet.