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Tuesday
Sep242019

Milwaukee Avenue: A Stroll Back in Time

Article by Michael Rainville, Jr.

The Minneapolis riverfront is home to many remnants of the Flour Milling Capitol of the World. Many mills, factories, and train bridges have stuck around and are constant reminders of the city’s past, but what about the workers? Houses from the flour milling era are scattered throughout the city, and one of the most cultural and historical areas where many of these houses can be found is the Milwaukee Avenue Historic District.

Current day Milwaukee Avenue

Nestled in the western half of the Seward Neighborhood, the houses along Milwaukee Avenue have provided beautiful housing for the working-class since 1883. It was that year when real estate developer William Ragan began prepping the land between Franklin Avenue and 24th Street, and 22nd Avenue and 23rd Avenue to build the first planned workers community in Minneapolis. Trying to build as many houses as he could, Ragan turned the alley into 22½ Avenue. He managed to fit in forty-six single-family houses with each lot roughly half the size of a typical residential lot. Ragan’s inspiration for the architecture of the houses came from design book plans that were popular in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Every house is one-and-three-quarter stories, made from brick and wood and features a porch, to list a few similarities.

Early on, many of the residents of these houses were Scandinavian, and had careers as bakers, carpenters, blacksmiths, general laborers, and railroad workers. In 1906, the residents petitioned to change 22½ Avenue to Woodland Avenue, because they felt that the “half” carried a negative connotation. There’s no clear reason as to why the name Milwaukee was chosen over Woodland, but the Milwaukee Short Line Railroad was very close by and many of the residents worked for that railroad.

As the decades went by, many of the houses were in disrepair, some to a point of no return, so the City of Minneapolis began to plan the demolition and redesign of the Milwaukee Avenue area in the 1960s and 70s as a part of Urban Renewal. There were many reasons why this outraged the neighbors, such as a majority of the houses were salvageable and the history of the area would be lost. Thankfully, the neighborhood did not back down and did everything they could to keep the city from razing the houses of Milwaukee Avenue. Seward’s Project Area Committee (PAC) representatives started the process of saving the houses by asking the city to designate the houses facing Milwaukee Avenue as a historic district. The request was denied, and things were looking grim, but Charles W. Nelson of the Minnesota Historical Society noted the importance of the houses as perfect examples of working-class housing and typed up the form to submit to the National Register of Historic Places. On May 5th, 1974, the Milwaukee Avenue Historic District was officially designated as a historic place.

Milwaukee Avenue in 1974

This designation meant that none of the houses could be demolished or significantly altered without a public hearing. Seward’s PAC members, lead by Bob Roscoe, walked through the area and inspected all the structures to see which ones were able to be restored and which ones had to be replaced. The nine houses that could not be saved were then replaced by structures that aesthetically matched the original houses of Milwaukee Avenue and fit in with the area. With help from grants for homeowner restoration and low-interest mortgages, the rest of the houses were successfully restored to their former glory, and then some.

Photo by Matt Dahlman, Red Pine Photography

Nowadays, Milwaukee Avenue is a pedestrian-only, landscaped walkway that offers one of the prettiest walks in town. In 2015, the Milwaukee Avenue Homeowners Association received grant money to install a bronze plaque on Milwaukee Avenue recounting the history and importance of the area. Like many areas throughout Minneapolis, Milwaukee Avenue’s future was once very bleak, but with passion and love for the area, the residents of Seward Neighborhood saved not only a piece of their history, but Minneapolis’ history. With autumn slowly approaching, now is a great time to take a stroll back in time and indulge yourselves in the history and beauty of Milwaukee Avenue.

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About Michael Rainville, Jr.

A 6th generation Minneapolitan, Michael Rainville Jr. received his B.A. in History from the University of St. Thomas, and is currently enrolled in their M.A. in Art History and Certificate in Museum Studies programs.

Michael is also an intern at the Hennepin History Museum and a lead guide at Mobile Entertainment LLC, giving Segway tours of the Minneapolis riverfront for 7+ years. Contact: mrainvillejr@comcast.net.

Click here for an interactive map of Michael's past articles.

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