There was going to be a gap between moving out and moving in with our new apartment, so while our stuff was in storage overnight, we needed a place to store ourselves while we were homeless. Instead of doing a night with friends or at a hotel, we decided to take on another adventure with our first airbnb visit.
In case you haven’t read the news in the past two years, airbnb is a way to find a nice room in someone’s home. It’s like Uber, but with a bed. I looked at what was available in the twin cities for the night, thinking about adventure. What we found was 300 Clifton, a mansion near Loring Park that was now being restored with 5 guest rooms available. I shared the find with Becky. She said to book it.
Flash forward several weeks. After a long day cleaning and moving out of our old apartment, I met Becky to leave a car at the new place so we could drive together into Minneapolis. It took some backtracking and help from the GPS when my brain failed to find the right road, but we got to our destination and parked in their lot behind the garden.
We were greeted at the door by Madonna, a great dane who loves the opportunity to show off her toys to anyone who will look. She had a ball, but soon traded it for a stuffed Charlie Brown. John, one of the two awesome owners of this building (we wouldn’t meet Norman until the next morning), welcomed us in. We said we were homeless, he said nonsense, this is your home!
John showed us up to the third floor, former servant quarters that were now guest rooms. Everything was furnished to the nines – a beautiful soft bed, a couch, a dresser and desk with an assortment of snacks and water and toiletries for the night. It was better than any hotel. John offered us some beers – they don’t drink and often have leftovers from guests. Our bathroom was shared with another guest – clawfoot tub, antique sink. We only ran into the other guest once.
Becky and I ordered pizza from a nearby place. We didn’t have plates, but John was quick to help out with that. We ate and fell asleep by 8.
The next morning, we woke and went downstairs for breakfast of mini rolls, yogurt, fresh fruit cups and coffee. Other guests were there too. John asked if anyone wanted to take the house tour. I enthusiastically raised my hand like a 6 year old kid.
It turns out this house was the epicenter of business and art in Minneapolis at the dawn of the 20th century, and that the decisions the owner made has continued to influence the path of arts in the Twin Cities even to today.
In the early 1900s, Minneapolis was the second wealthiest city in the country, behind only New York. The intersection of timber, mining, grain, railroads and the only waterfalls on the Mississippi meant the city was at the center of an economic boom – much like North Dakota is now with oil. It was a crazy time with lots of people from various backgrounds looking to make money and earn livings. Eugene Carpenter was a lumberman. He had enough land to supply his sawmills in the city with timber for 20 years. He used that time wisely. Part of his interest was art. He renovated the mansion from a beautiful Victorian to a more boxy and modern Georgian style, where symmetry and order are believed to help create an inner balance subconsciously in the residents.
Carpenter used his influence to gather the 200 richest people in the city and got them to contribute $1 million to create the Minneapolis Institute of Art. This idea was ridiculed by the rest of the country. What did these hayseeds in Minneapolis know about art? In a way they were right. These rich people didn’t know anything. So Carpenter said they needed to start collecting, bringing art home, talking about art, one-upping each other, learning and teaching. He changed the culture. One of the rich guys, the one who did already have a collection and knew his stuff, also thought they were dumb. He opened the Walker Art Gallery nearby as a sort of F-you to the others. Both galleries are still running today.
What’s more is that because of the way they created the Minneapolis Institute of Art, as a free art museum open to the public, with ample funding to keep it going, they helped start Minneapolis as an art center. Creative professionals comprise 5% of the workforce in the city, which makes Minneapolis the fifth most creative city in the country, behind New York, Los Angeles, Nashville and New Orleans – cities that are dedicated to the arts in one way or another.
Minneapolis also has the second most theater programming in the country, behind only New York.
And it was in large part due to this guy in a house on Clifton Ave in 1910.
After the Carpenters, the mansion became a boarding house for several decades, then an office building. John and Norman were able to pick it up and are working to restore it to something closer to the Carpenter years. They’ve done a fantastic job so far with the living room, dining room, butler’s cabinet, kitchen, and bedrooms. We were able to explore the servant stairs and main stairs, the architecture, the art. They have one of the first, if not the first, working thermostats. A boiler in the carriage house supplies steam heat, a process that creates a sort of life for the house. The house breathes steam, so cannot be upgraded with new windows. It’s holding on to the past to create a wormhole of time for us to see how their actions have created our city. John and Norman have taken it upon themselves to keep that door open, to continue restoring the picture. They even get occasional gifts from people who appreciate their efforts.
Over the years, for instance, the concrete supports for the fence along the house were stolen, broken or lost. The fence collapsed. One day, a woman came by with one of the supports she took 40 years ago and had been using as a plant stand. She gave it back with best wishes, allowing John and Norman to be able to authentically recreate the fence when the time comes for it.
A more thorough view of the history of the house and Carpenter can be found here.
We love that there are people out there that are willing and eager to put so much work into restoring the past. They bring to life a very real history and keep the spirit going even with the guests, many of whom are in town for conferences – collaborating, bringing the world into the city to send the city back out into the world – like any great art.