Back when there were boardinghouses

The Woonsocket Hotel
The Woonsocket Hotel, pictured in 1970, advertised running water as a perk for a room that cost $4 a week. Telegraph operators, stenographers and railroad freight clerks made the Woonsocket their home. Photo courtesy of Hennepin County Library

Her husband was a doctor who died young of pneumonia. And so my great-grandmother Mattie Craft Cooper hung onto the edge of the middle class by taking in strangers. She raised her three sons, my grandfather included, in a boardinghouse.

The boarders were always young women, usually students or teachers. Great-Grandma cooked their meals, cleaned their rooms and the shared bath and kept her family together. I have her cookbook. The food was unspectacular.

From its earliest days, Minneapolis has had lots of boardinghouses, some of which were successful enough that they were run by the same families for years. Single men who came to Minneapolis for opportunity would typically take a room, find a job and work towards prosperity. Plumbing was unheard of in those days, of course. The shared bath was literally just a tub.

This modest idea of unrelated adults living in one place and sharing meals was practical in frontier times, and it has stayed practical today. Unfortunately, as the middle class grew, the boardinghouse became an undesirable neighbor. Urban renewal was the result of community disgust at the circumstances in which the less affluent found themselves.

Today, there are about 200 boardinghouse licenses in Minneapolis, and only a tiny handful of them are run by people who are taking in “paying guests.” Most licenses are held by social service agencies. For now at least, the city does not issue new boardinghouse licenses; one has to buy an existing license to run a boardinghouse. Most of the licenses are for establishments renting sleeping rooms and a shared bath and kitchen. Only a few offer meals.

The 20th century gave us two world wars and the Great Depression, but Minneapolis also went through great industrial changes. Millers and lumberjacks did not have the work they once did. Minneapolis had a great need for inexpensive housing.

The boardinghouse, or sleeping room, was seen as the lowest housing option. A step up from a sleeping room, the apartment hotel offered furnished rooms by the day, the week or longer. The more expensive of them had private baths. Dining was sometimes offered on site.

Some of these buildings still exist in parts of Downtown. Even the finest Minneapolis hotels in the 1920s or 1930s had furnished apartments of three or five rooms and a kitchenette. The Normandy Residence Hotel opened in 1926, offering rooms with or without a bath, and advised, “Try the noon luncheon service. You will want no other.” Today’s Normandy Inn was itself built on a lot previously home to the Zier Row, a once-luxurious row house that had become the Residence Apartment Hotel, wrecked in 1967.

This world of the furnished room and the residence hotel was, of course, a business opportunity. And into that opportunity stepped a man named Fay N. Fuller. He was a realtor and hotel owner. He had a partnership with Charles Beery, and their projects included taking over some apartment buildings to create the Woonsocket Hotel at 1518 3rd Ave. S., about where the Convention Center stands today.

Their hotel was nowhere near as fine as the Normandy, the Curtis or the then-new Francis Drake. They advertised running water as a perk for a room that cost $4 a week. Telegraph operators, stenographers and railroad freight clerks made the Woonsocket their home. Fuller and Beery soon enlarged the property.

Their partnership did not last, which might have been due to Beery’s political views; he loudly proclaimed “America for Americans!” But Fuller continued to own apartment hotels. Around the corner from the Woonsocket, Fuller acquired the Clinton Hotel, and gave it his name. He lived in the building and managed it until he bought a fine residence at 2322 W. Lake of the Isles. And even there, he committed to providing housing for people in need. He remodeled his house into a duplex and advertised “comfortable, quiet accommodations for a refined woman.”

Fuller apparently liked the bustle of having lots of neighbors and he returned to apartment living. As he aged, he sold the Fuller Hotel, which became more down-market. After 20 years, the rent there had only doubled, to $8 per week. It was torn down in 1973 to make way for the new Convention Center.

The apartment hotels of the 20th century have been remodeled into apartment buildings or torn down and replaced with office towers or parking lots. We see new apartment buildings all over South Minneapolis, but most of these are not meant to house people for whom prosperity is just beyond reach.

Boardinghouses and sleeping rooms are rare today, but as Minneapolis looks for more tools to battle a growing affordable housing crisis, they may become more common. Following a July request by the City Council, the city is now fleshing out the details of a plan to allow for new rooming houses, single-room occupancy units and congregate living facilities.