Nokomis Knoll Residential Historic District
The Nokomis Knoll Residential Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999. Portions of the content of this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2016, The Gombach Group.
The Nokomis Knoll Residential Historic District consists of all properties located on the south side of East Fifty-second Street between Bloomington Avenue South and West Lake Nokomis Parkway, on West Lake Nokomis Parkway between East Fifty-second and East Fifty-fourth Streets, on the north side of East Fifty-fourth Street between West Lake Nokomis Parkway and Bloomington Avenue South, and on the east side of Bloomington Avenue South between East Fifty-fourth and East Fifty-second Streets. No properties in the district are listed individually in the National Register.
The Nokomis Knoll plat, which is roughly triangular in shape, consists of 95 lots. Streetscapes are characterized by mature elm trees, trees of recent vintage, flat and sloping lots, sidewalks, and grass lawns. Some of the streets continue the urban grid, while others curve. Houses on West Lake Nokomis Parkway overlook Lake Nokomis, one link in a chain of lakes surrounding the city. Those on Fifty-fourth Street face Lake Nokomis Park. Buildings in the district are generally 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 story, single-family dwellings.
Structures are typically one-story, single or double automobile garages. All of the buildings and structures are of wood-frame construction. The majority of the houses represent a range of Period Revival architectural styles that were popular in residential neighborhoods between the two World Wars. Decorative detailing common throughout the district includes stone, synthetic stone, and brick veneer, chimneys with incised decorative panels, wrought-iron grille-work, arched doorways, and ornamental half-timbering. Of the ninety-two dwellings, seventy were built during the 1920s and 1930s. Forty-two date to the 1930s alone. The majority of the buildings and structures have experienced little alteration since they were built. Thirty-two buildings and structures are non-contributing components of the district due to alterations which have compromised their historical integrity, or because they do not share the historical associations represented by the district, or because they were built after 1948, the end of the district's period of significance. Since there is a relatively small number of buildings built after 1948, the district continues to illustrate neighborhood development patterns of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the area known as south Minneapolis was an agricultural region located within the boundaries of Richfield, now an adjacent suburb. In 1883, Minneapolis's southern boundary jumped from Franklin Avenue to Thirty-eighth Street, and across Minnehaha Creek to Fifty-fourth Street four years later. Annexation did not immediately change the rural character of south Minneapolis. Farms operated into the early 20th century producing vegetables, grain, fruit, and dairy products for local markets.
Following national trends, residential and commercial development began to transform the agricultural landscape of south Minneapolis in the 1920s. This decade saw farms sold, dismantled, and replaced by subdivisions in an effort to accommodate the startling demand for single-family housing by a burgeoning middle class. Development gradually moved away from the urban core, assisted by an expanding network of electric streetcar lines and, later, automobiles. In Minneapolis, the population in the area south of Minnehaha Creek jumped by more than 300% between 1920 and 1930. Developers platted subdivisions as quickly as land could be purchased, beginning in areas along Minnehaha Parkway, east and west of Lake Nokomis, around Diamond Lake, and in the suburb of Edina. Sunset Gables, Edgewater-on-Nokomis, Nokomis Knoll, and Edina's Morningside and Country Club districts are among those subdivisions that emerged during this decade.
The Nokomis Knoll Residential Historic District exemplifies one type of urban subdivision that transformed the rural fringe of American cities in the early 20th century. The District stands today as a reflection of community planning and development practices utilized in Minneapolis from 1922 through 1948. These practices evolved as a direct result of the nationwide emergence of a substantial middle and upper-middle class, whose numbers exploded during the early 20th century.
In addition, the Nokomis Knoll Residential Historic District represents the first wave of residential development in this country where individual garages were standard amenities, a nod to the growing number of private automobiles among middle-class families. [See: Automobile Suburbs, 1908 to 1945] Furthermore, houses in the Nokomis Knoll Residential Historic District display many well-preserved examples of the eclectic Period Revival architectural styles that were the height of middle-class fashion in residential districts during the 1920s and 1930s.
Rapid industrialization and economic diversification had stimulated the emergence of a large middle class in American cities in the early 1890s. By the early 20th century, expanding manufacturing, retail, wholesale, and finance industries and the increased availability of education had helped establish this segment of the population as a prosperous, white collar force in the American economy. Even the economic downturns associated with the First World War did not dampen the overall prosperity enjoyed by middle-class Americans between 1899 and 1929. The Twin Cities were no exception. Between 1900 and 1920, the population of Minneapolis expanded by nearly 178,000, a phenomenal growth spurt that reflected this burgeoning faction of middle-class professionals. The city's booming economy in the 1920s allowed more people than ever before to afford less congested and more idyllic living conditions than inner-city neighborhoods could offer.
Before the automobile became commonplace, Minneapolis residents could settle only as far out of the city as the streetcar lines allowed. As routes spread into outlying areas, the exodus from downtown increased and demand for housing along the urban fringe mounted. Middle- and upper-middle-class residents could afford to live in the most appealing regions of the city where there were hills, trees, and water. Most of these places were located south of downtown and were developed as soon as streetcar tracks were laid. In some cases, these areas were improved ahead of streetcar tracks, as residents were increasingly able to travel to their new homes in private automobiles, another hallmark of the prosperous, postwar decade of the 1920s.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Orchard Springs dairy farm occupied the land on which the Nokomis Knoll subdivision was eventually built. By the early 1920s, the area's agricultural operations had been abandoned and the farmland divided into smaller parcels. In July 1922, adjacent property owners Mae B. Urquhart and William and Winifred Sill platted a triangular, five-block, ninety-five-lot parcel between Bloomington Avenue, West Lake Nokomis Parkway, East Fifty-second Street and East Fifty-fourth Streets. In October of that year, Mae Urquhart and the Sills sold their land to Dickinson and Gillespie, a realty and development company working in Minneapolis and Los Angeles. The company was founded in 1904, but little is known about its early years. By the mid-1930s, Dickinson and Gillespie had established a reputation as "specialists ... in suburban subdivisions" and as "one of the oldest subdivision firms in the northwest." The company developed a number of areas in Minneapolis and its suburbs, including most of the land immediately east of Lake Nokomis, and Green Acres and Wilshire Gardens, both about six miles west of the city limits near Wayzata Boulevard.
Dickinson and Gillespie marketed the Nokomis Knoll lots immediately after their purchase, targeting upper-middle-class prospects. Deed restrictions, which remained binding until 1940, required a minimum investment of $3,500 for a single-family house, $5,500 for a duplex. Higher density dwellings and commercial development were prohibited. Detached garages were permitted, an accommodation to the growing population of automobiles, but had to be located on the rear thirty feet of the property. Other outbuildings were not allowed. Within six months of purchasing a lot, a buyer had to complete the erection of the house's exterior; occupancy was not allowed until exterior walls were finished. Just one restriction was unrelated to construction matters: non-Caucasians were barred from living in the subdivision. Deed restrictions such as these were common among contemporary subdivisions in the area.
Subdivisions developed around the same time as Nokomis Knoll included Dickinson and Gillespie's Nokomis Knoll Second Addition in 1922 just north of Nokomis Knoll, and the Thorpe Brothers' Country Club District in Edina, which was platted the same year. Tingdale Brothers developed the Edgewater on Nokomis neighborhood just south of Nokomis Knoll in 1923, and sold nearly half of the 325 lots in their new subdivision in two weeks. Company president Martin Tingdale saw the brisk sales as "evidence that the Lake Nokomis district is increasing in popularity as a high class residential area." Also in 1923, Dickinson and Gillespie platted several subdivisions on the east side of Lake Nokomis, including Nokomis Homes, Nokomis Park View, Nokomis South Park and Nokomis South Shore. Other subdivisions to the north and west of Nokomis Knoll emerged in the mid 1920s, including Martin Tingdale's Edgewater on Nokomis Second Addition, and the Nokomis Terrace neighborhood, developed by the Thorpe Brothers. Between 1921 and 1926, wards bounded by Fifty-fourth Street, still the city's southern boundary, "have shown the greatest population growth of any part of the city, with a greater home building record than all other wards of the city combined." According to the Minneapolis Journal, "The whole Lake Nokomis area, which five years ago boasted of one railway and 16 residences, now is parked and platted, and improved with hundreds of fine residences facing on city streets, curbed and improved."
Although development south of Minnehaha Creek became increasingly reliant on the private automobile, particularly after the 1927 annexation that dropped the city limits to Sixty-second Street, access to the streetcar line was still considered an amenity in the early 1920s. In fact, streetcar use remained high throughout the decade and continued to influence residential development in Minneapolis until the early 1930s. Located near key rail lines, Nokomis Knoll benefited from easy access to public transportation. Developers Dickinson and Gillespie likely noted the 1921 single-track extension of the Cedar Avenue route south from Forty-second to Fiftieth Street when considering the purchase of the Urquhart-Sills property. In the meantime, double tracks were making their way south on Bloomington Avenue, reaching Forty-eighth Street by 1923, Fifty-second Street (Nokomis Knoll's northern border) by 1928, and Fifty-fourth Street (Nokomis Knoll's southern border) in 1933. The Cedar Avenue tracks were continued to Fifty-second Street, and then west to Bloomington Avenue on Fifty-second in 1925, but this route was discontinued three years later.
Streetcar access was one among many factors that made the Lake Nokomis area attractive to developers and residents. Development south of Minnehaha Creek was also encouraged by the Minneapolis Park Board's progress in upgrading Lake Nokomis, which it had acquired in 1907. Between 1918 and 1924, the board dredged and filled marshy sections around the lake and landscaped the surrounding area, raising the 410 acres occupied by Lake Nokomis and adjacent parkland to the standard of the city's other attractive lakes. During the same period, the board improved Minnehaha Parkway, which links the lakes, and acquired Lake Hiawatha (formerly Rice Lake) just to the north of Lake Nokomis.
In addition, land between Minnehaha Avenue and Lake Nokomis became highly valued after the Ford Motor Company announced in 1923 that it was going to open an assembly plant directly across the river in Saint Paul. Known as the "Ford District," neighborhoods in this area continued to grow through the late 1920s, encouraged by the opening of the Inter-city (Ford Parkway) Bridge in 1927. Finally, a municipal zoning ordinance, passed in 1924, ensured a low-density residential character for south Minneapolis's evolving neighborhoods. This meant stable property values for homeowners.
Later improvements to the area included the installation of a city golf course west of Lake Hiawatha in 1929, and the replacement and installation of several Minnehaha Creek bridges between the late 1920s and the late 1930s.
The decade of the 1920s saw the construction of nearly 32% of Nokomis Knoll's housing stock. Most of this initial construction consisted of two- to two-and-one-half-story single family homes, sheltering the families of middle- and upper middle class professionals such as engineers, doctors, nurses, lawyers, dentists, teachers, insurance salesmen, and clerks and managers for light industrial and manufacturing companies. Small business owners and tradesmen such as plumbers, carpenters and electricians also made their homes in Nokomis Knoll.
Homeowners invested in Nokomis Knoll in one of two ways: They either purchased an unimproved lot and built a house, or they bought a lot on which a house already stood. At least 46% of the houses in Nokomis Knoll were designed and built on speculation by building contractors. In contrast to post-World War II development practices, where entire subdivisions were built by a single development/contracting company, Nokomis Knoll represents the heterogeneity of the pre-war building industry, where local companies each erected between one and three homes in a subdivision. The five-block Nokomis Knoll Residential Historic District embodies the efforts of over fifty building concerns. While some of the larger companies might have had an architect on staff, it was common at that time for builders to use the architect-designed house plans found in local newspapers, home and popular magazines, and pattern books sold at lumberyards. Stock plans had been used to bring professionally designed homes to the middle class since the 1830s. The practice of developing stock plans was regularly stimulated by building-industry downturns, such as those experienced during the First World War and the Great Depression, when trade journals and other organizations encouraged architects to produce the plans as a means of keeping their firms in business. According to historian Thomas Zahn, stock plans became "the primary source of residential design in Minneapolis [between 1892 and 1930]." Of the Nokomis Knoll houses that were built by their first occupants, 38% of owners turned to architects for house designs. However, most looked to the builders, or took it upon themselves, to obtain stock plans. It was likely the use of these plans, customized by homeowners, that created the uniformity of scale and stylistic variety that simultaneously characterize the district.
Typically well-educated and status-conscious, the new middle class reflected by Nokomis Knoll residents was savvy to the architectural trends that were sweeping through residential districts all over the nation. Consequently, most of the houses in Nokomis Knoll represent the Period Revival style, which was the height of fashion for domestic architecture during the 1920s and 1930s. This eclectic look was characterized by a medley of picturesque elements based on traditional European architecture. The shift toward the Period Revival began in earnest in the United States after Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition, where historical interpretations of European styles were popularized. New building materials, such as brick and stone veneer, that allowed middle-class Americans to mimic the masonry construction common in European architecture helped propel period styles to the forefront of fashion in the early 1920s. Among the most popular period styles were the American Colonial, English Tudor, English Cottage, Spanish Colonial, Italian Renaissance, and French Provincial. Picturesque interpretations of most of these styles are found in Nokomis Knoll.
As fashion trends influenced the character of the Nokomis Knoll district, so did the placement of the private garage. The district's growth over the course of two full decades has resulted in a visual chronicle of the early design solutions to the relatively new problem of housing the private automobile. Throughout the decade of the 1920s, the detached garage was the standard for sheltering the automobile. Indeed, 85% of the houses built in Nokomis Knoll during that decade had detached garages. The premise of the detached garage was "suggested by the stable which was separated from house for sanitary reasons." In addition, wary owners still considered the automobile somewhat of a fire hazard; contemporary architectural journals continually emphasized the use of fireproof materials when building the private garage. Although the popularity of the detached garage persisted for several more decades, architects on the cutting edge began promoting garages that were attached to or located within the footprint of the house in the late 1920s. In contrast with the detached garage, the attached unit was much easier to reach in cold weather and did not require separate heating facilities. Nokomis Knoll residents embraced the attached garage. 55% of those houses built during the 1930s had attached or interior garages, compared to 15% of those built during the previous decade. By the 1950s, the attached garage had surpassed the detached garage nationwide as the standard for housing the automobile.
Whether detached or attached, the private garage was relegated to the rear of the house in Nokomis Knoll. Unlike those in post- World War II residential developments, streetscapes in Nokomis Knoll emphasize house facades, not garages. The placement of the private garage in the district is a telling reflection of pre-war deed restrictions, auto size, lot size, housing costs, design precedents, and social values. All these factors changed dramatically in the 1950s, resulting in residential developments that looked substantially different from their antecedents. Nokomis Knoll's well-preserved streetscapes achieve significance in the face of such revolutionary changes.
Despite a dramatic downturn in the construction industry during the Great Depression, residential building continued in south Minneapolis through the 1930s. In fact, even though construction nationwide had fallen 66% between 1929 and 1933, neighborhoods south of Minnehaha Creek experienced a prodigious amount of growth during this time. Social historians Martin and Lanegran suggest that the residents of these neighborhoods were better prepared to weather the Depression because they "had higher incomes and better jobs than the population at large." Indeed, building in Nokomis Knoll did not merely continue, it flourished during the Depression. Approximately 44% of Nokomis Knoll's housing stock was built during the 1930s.
Better jobs and higher incomes, however, could not overcome nationwide materials shortages experienced during World War II. Between December 1941 and July 1945 no construction took place in Nokomis Knoll. Building resumed after the war, and most of the remaining lots in the district were filled by 1948.
Although the neighborhood's deed restrictions ended in 1940, the character of the district had been firmly established. With few exceptions, post-war additions to Nokomis Knoll were consistent in scale and design.
By the 1960s, zoning changes began to affect Nokomis Knoll. Several lots along Bloomington Avenue between Fifty-second and Fifty-fourth Streets were zoned to allow for low-density commercial development. However, the only evidence of this change is a one-story commercial building erected at the corner of Bloomington Avenue and Fifty-second Street in 1967. The rest of the district that borders Bloomington Avenue remains residential.
Design-related deed restrictions, the use of stock architectural plans, and low-density zoning laws that were established concurrent with the development of the Nokomis Knoll Residential Historic District have resulted in a neighborhood that is exceptionally cohesive in scale and design. The District stands out among neighboring contemporary subdivisions as a particularly well-preserved example of community planning and residential development practices in Minneapolis between 1922 and 1948. A long tradition of owner occupancy in the Nokomis Knoll Residential Historic District has provided a stable environment within which little change has occurred. Where surrounding subdivisions display spotty commercial in-fill, vacant lots, and design inconsistencies, Nokomis Knoll remains clearly evocative of the decades spanned by its development. The district's array of Period Revival houses exemplifies the architectural styles that were popular among the nation's prosperous middle class in the midst of the new motor age. In its crooked alleys, it is possible to trace the early design solutions to the problem of housing a private automobile.
† Christine A. Curran and Charlene K Roise, Hess, Roise and Company, Nokomis Knoll Residential Historic District, Hennepin County, Minnesota, nomination document, 1998, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.