A centrally-located park, tree-lined blocks of brick apartment buildings, and a post-card view of downtown make Stevens Square the Brooklyn of the Midwest.
This geographically small urban enclave boasts one of the highest densities of any metro neighborhood.
Bound by 94 on the north, Franklin Ave on the south, Lyndale Avenue on the west, 35W on the east — the neighborhood is bisected by Nicollet Avenue (Loring Heights on the west, and Stevens Square on the east).
The area has been designated because of the unique and cohesive historic architecture of 3-1/2 story brownstones surrounding Stevens Square Park.
The area south of what is the Minneapolis Central Business District was platted in 1856. Two property owners, Richard J. Mendenhall and Dr. Nathan B.Hill, owned most of the surrounding land which they developed as a residential neighborhood made up of a few large, single family homes. These large residential lots and “country estates” ensured that the Stevens Square area remained stable during periodic, speculative real-estate booms. The city’s rapid growth and the land’s central location increased the value of the area’s real estate and in 1874 horse-car surface transit made the area more easily accessible.
Mendenhall was a banker, city officer, public leader, and an avid amateur horticulturist. The Panic of 1873 wiped out his business and he sold land which was subsequently divided into four city blocks in the 1880s. In the face of adversity, the quiet Quaker made a vocation of his avocation and Mendenhall went into the floral business. By the 1890s the Mendenhall greenhouses covered more than a block to the west of the park.
By 1898 only 43 houses stood in the district’s 12 blocks and many blocks were entirely vacant. In 1907 the owner of one of the largest real estate firms in the city joined with the heirs of Mendenhall, Hill and other property owners to petition the Board of Park Commissioners to acquire the site of the present day Stevens Square park. The site rose above the street grade to a small hill and was the least easily developed block in the area. The Park Board quickly approved the purchase for $41,600 and, in 1908, the Park Board named the new park in honor of Colonel John Stevens, founder of Minneapolis.
In 1910 Abbott Hospital began construction on the northeast corner of 18th Street and First Avenue South.
During this time period Park Superintendent Theodore Wirth reported that the residents of the Stevens Square area are “clamoring for improvements” and, in 1911, modest plantings, walkways, and a tennis court and play area were implemented.
The growth of downtown Minneapolis – the city’s population had increased from 200,000 in 1900 to 300,000 in 1910 – had created a tremendous market for apartment housing. The availability of transit lines to Stevens Square, the available open land, and the newly improved park made the area attractive for development and the first of the large apartment buildings was constructed in 1912. Stevens Court and subsequent buildings were constructed within the three-story height limit required of non-fireproof residential structures. Developers accepted the brick walls as required for residential buildings over two stories and exploited the minimal limits of the State housing code on land coverage and building separation to maximize construction.
The redevelopment occurred with minimal removal of existing buildings. Only 15 of the 55 houses that existed in 1912 had disappeared. Most of these single family dwellings were converted to rooming houses or subdivided and rented as apartments, as was also the case in Loring Heights. Little change occurred between 1925 and 1945 and, even then, the area’s high population density discouraged further development and disruption by freeway construction. The State’s original plans for 35W ran straight north between Stevens and Second avenues (eliminating Stevens Square, Washburn-Fair Oaks Park, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and the site of the present Convention Center) and the City secured a re-alignment. Interstate 94 carefully avoided costly apartment acquisition by staying North of 17th Street. Only the slow process of aging and decay threatened the neighborhood’s future.
The original inhabitants of the apartments around Stevens Square were middle income downtown workers, mostly sales people and women.
After WWII when people began moving to the suburbs, the incomes of subsequent residents decreased and the buildings began to deteriorate – a trend that continued into the ’70s.
The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority opened its first facility in the neighborhood in 1967. The building at 1707 3rd Avenue South has 110 apartments. $1.7 million was just put into remodeling the facility – the largest remodeling since it opened. The MPHA building at 1920 4th Avenue South opened in 1969 and has 198 apartments. $700,000 was invested in remodeling two years ago.I
In the late ’70s and early ’80s a few buildings were converted and sold as condominium units at a time when rampant inflation made real estate an attractive investment. The majority of these condominiums are no longer owner-occupied units. Jim Larson, a local landowner, acquired several rental properties at a time when Minneapolis was striving to revitalize its downtown with the development of Nicollet Mall and related projects. In 1974 General Mills invested in Larson’s enterprise with the conviction that private enterprise could play a role and make a profit in rebuilding the decayed inner city. The acquisition and renovation failed to yield the profits that General Mills hoped for and the company sold its interest in 1980. Currently 26 properties in the surrounding area are owned by Stevens Community Associates,the limited partnership that succeeded Larson’s project.Stevens Square has retained a remarkable consistency in its housing characteristics, design, and appearance. Similar development occurred in other neighborhoods near downtown in the same period but none with the same uniform aesthetic as in Stevens Square. Ironically, what had been open land until 1912 quickly became an area notable for having the highest population density in the city – a distinction that it retains to the present day – and the area’s present residents are very similar in profile to to those who lived there when the neighborhood was first developed.