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Pursuit of Ugly Building’s Legacy: a Treasure Trove like pearls inside an oyster

“Don’t prejudge value by outward appearance alone”

BY SHARI ALBERS

For 15 months, a group of local history-minded folks have fought to save the odd-shaped building sometimes known as “the Burma Shave building” on the southwest corner of 21st Avenue South and Lake Street. It appears that all hope of saving even part of the building is lost.

Led by the indomitable Steve Sandberg, our group had a theatrical presence at Open Lake Street 2016, researched much beyond Burma Shave’s history, registered with Minnesota Preservation Alliance in hopes of getting a historical survey, paid over $500 in fees, and testified to the Heritage Preservation Commission and Minneapolis City Council.

Through our research, we discovered that the building at 2019 E. Lake St. was originally a Congregationalist Church—thus the timber frame-post and beam roof in the middle of the structure. It was built in 1882 near the current Midtown Farmers Market. In 1911, the last living church founder, Mrs. Mary Burnell, was interviewed for a Minneapolis Morning Tribune article. Burnell talks about the area in 1882:

“Although we were small in numbers we made up for it in enthusiasm. Within a few months we had built and paid for a $5000 church building. The older churches gave us much help and encouragement. We were an isolated and unorganized community—only a few homes grouped about some factories along the railroad tracks. Two or three miles of open prairies separated us from the city limits, then at Franklin avenue (sic). On all sides of us there were grain fields. For several months before organizing we had been having Sunday school in the district school. When we organized a church we determined to have a church building. For many years ours was the only evangelical church for two or three miles on any side.”

In 1892, the church building was moved to the corner of 21st and Lake. Ten years later, the congregation built a new church a few blocks south and sold the original building to a member of Sons of Norway. The church building was then home to Hugnad Hall Association, a Scandinavian fellowship hall for a few years, then Winget Manufacturing Company, and then Burma-Vita just before its Burma-Shave product gained national attention.

While the Burma-Shave story was our focus for preservation, the ensemble of all the stories paralleled the development of Lake Street—that of immigrants and entrepreneurism that is still Lake Street’s story today.

Winget Manufacturing Co. was a 1915 woman-owned, woman-managed, woman-designer business that employed mostly women seamstresses. The business would eventually move to a downtown building called Kickernick, named for Nell Winget’s nationally famous women’s pants.

We hoped to save the eclectic building, or at least a part of it, to better tell the important history that happened at that corner. We lost. After testifying to the Heritage Preservation Commission and appealing their 6-2 decision to the City Council Zoning Committee (a unanimous “no”), the City determined the building a historical resource, but on the same day, deemed it demolish able. We still feel that some post and beam structure or other physical element can be saved to help tell the stories, but it doesn’t look like that will happen.

The Minneapolis Public Schools bought half of the block, intending to erect an
adult education building on the site. There is no doubt that this is a great
location for such a structure—on major arteries, bus and light rail lines, adjacent to a senior high school. We figured the history of realized immigrant dreams was a perfect fit for the mission to educate adults in this new building. Steve Brandt, newly retired Star Tribune writer, covered the story twice. The Alley Newspaper has devoted many column inches to the story.

I understand and appreciate that the school district does not want to deal with liability, maintenance costs, and structural issues of this 134-year-old building; however, I believe some part of the building can be saved to help tell the important story of this site.

Think: NYC’s World Trade Center and the Mill City Museum.

I give walking tours for Preserve Minneapolis and Hennepin History Museum, where I see, first hand, how tangible history enhances the experience of visualizing and learning facts. For example, a 4’x8’ patch of concrete and a depression in the landscape at Washburn Fair Oaks Park in the Whittier neighborhood helps to tell the story of the 80-room mansion and man-made pond that once were part of the ten-acre W.D. Washburn estate. Tour-goers usually stand on the concrete and scrutinize photos to better imagine the historic site.

Minneapolis Public Schools and its architects have an amazing opportunity to incorporate some part of this eclectic building into an adult education center that also reflects hopes, potential, and, in the case of this building, realized dreams. In this building:

  • new immigrants practiced their faith,
  • Scandinavians found social connection,
  • one woman’s creative drive supported her family when her husband could not,
  • community women (perhaps some of them single mothers) found employment,
  • a neighborhood scientist developed a formula for shaving cream,
  • and entrepreneurs developed a new poetic paradigm for marketing that would line the nation’s highways.

We have yet to unearth this building’s stories after Vine Church, Burma-Shave, Hugnad Hall Association, and Winget Manufacturing Company; yet we know the stories of hard working, imaginative pioneers and immigrants parallel the development of Lake Street then as over and again until this era.

Certainly, imaginative architects can incorporate some historic elements into a new, modern campus that embraces and celebrates South Minneapolis’ past and present. We have addressed the Minneapolis Public Schools superintendant and school board members via email, offering to brainstorm this possibility. Incorporating tangible local history into the child-teen-adult curriculum would offer lessons that do not appear in any textbook.

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