U area buildings embody generations of stories

The campus experience is much different than years ago, and it will continue to change.

Chris Iverson

As I was biking to my house in the sleepy Como neighborhood last week, I stopped and observed a classic house demolition on the corner of Seventh Street Southeast and 15th Avenue Southeast. This house, along with several other units, an old apartment building and a row of townhomes, is leaving to make way for another apartment complex. The developer, CPM Development, is financing a 202-room structure and continuing the growth of near-campus student housing.

Objectively, and in the right state of mind, I would be rooting for this demolition as if it were the Minnesota Twins making a legitimate run at the World Series. As a fan of growth in housing stock, as well as density, I would normally be smiling contently at the development progressing around campus. And I would giggle a bit when the bulldozer claw knocks another layer of roofing off the derelict 701 15th Ave. SE home.

In this circumstance, however, a bittersweet emotion surrounds me as I see construction erase the stories and events of a previous century.

Previous generations of Gophers lived in a much different fashion than we do today. Even reflecting on the housing stock of my freshman year in 2010, the scene has changed dramatically.

Something isn’t fitting into the equation of construction progress, and it’s the elimination of memories of hundreds of tenants past, ranging from students to industrial workers. Each person had a certain living situation while in a house near campus, and each has their own story.

In this house specifically, an intriguing story surrounds its walls. While watching demolition and commenting on the action taking place via social media, an old friend tipped me on a previous quirk to this house — something to do with corn — and I quickly investigated. 

“The house was previously occupied by some sketchy characters who planted field corn in the yard,” said Alex Cecchini on Twitter. The streets.mn contributor and University of Minnesota alumnus lived in 701 15th Ave. SE from 2005 to 2007.

“We called it the ‘Corn Palace’ and planted corn the next summer. But other than that, we never found out much about it history-wise,” he said.

When analyzing a house’s worth — spatially, financially and structurally — something important, something invaluable, something that can’t be assessed through money gets left out of the equation. The paperwork excludes the memories that the house creates. Those memories, unique to residents and visitors, are instead kept inside the hearts and minds of those same people. To a regular bystander, it was just a house. But to a select few, it was more than a house — it was a mindset, it was an idea. To a few, at some point in their lives, it was home.

When officials, neighbors and developers try to argue what is historic property, each has their own opinion. Someone who is unfamiliar with a property will likely look at its uses, its materials and its architectural details and then argue its historic worth. Someone who is familiar can analyze all of those factors but most importantly can analyze the memories that supplement it closely. In some cases, these memories cause many who can’t empathize to scoff and invalidate the argument. So in the name of rationality, historians break it down in compromising fashion, including not only the building’s physical features but also the significant memories it carries.

In some cases, the memories are so strong that they can validate the associated parcel as historic by memory alone. In a national example, the history surrounding the Alamo Mission in San Antonio keeps it preserved in its nearly 300-year form. The Alamo was built as a simple Roman Catholic mission in the northern reaches of Mexico in 1744 but was petrified as a historic site after the famed Battle of The Alamo in 1836. If the Texas Revolution never occurred, this building would not have become the American icon it is today.

In this light, memories hold more value than aesthetic features. But what constitutes a significant memory? The reveries back to college ages will likely bring up many good stories, which are important to an individual. These memories are likely unimportant to the masses, and because we can’t put a price on stories, a building’s worth reflects little of its meaning. That’s probably why property history is so fascinating — the stories from a building are often the most important element. Monetary value doesn’t carry history; memories do.

As I leave college, I will bring with me many fond memories of meeting friends, Saturday morning football games in the fall, fun parties and all-night study sessions. And when new construction fills the areas around campus, I’ll lose some of those stories’ physical associations forever. Not all is morbid, though. With more construction and more population near campus, even more college-age stories from future classmates will form. Even though our buildings and our stories might fall in rubble, it’s still nice to think that future students like us will create memories as soon as we may have lost ours.

So, as I biked away from the ruins of 701 15th Avenue SE, I felt a sudden, irrational emotion as I thought of the many stories lost in the fallen building. Although nothing historically significant happened in the “Corn Palace,” I empathize with the memories it created for so many before us. I biked away with a smile on my face, though, as I thought of the memories that are yet to come for future generations of students that will be created in the new apartment.