Community Engaged Preservation: Exploring Race, History, and Public Life

4600 jpgAt first glance, 4600 Columbus Avenue South in the Field Regina Northrop neighborhood doesn’t look too special. But in 1931, the house was the site of one of South Minneapolis’ largest racial showdowns. When Arthur and Edith Lee, an African-American couple, bought the house in what was then considered a white neighborhood, their neighbors mobbed the house to intimidate them out. A number of groups and individuals stepped up to defend them, including postal service workers, WWI veterans, the NAACP, and attorney Lena Olive Smith.

In fall 2012, professor Greg Donofrio challenged his class Introduction to Historic Preservation class to consider “why is the site of an event that happened 80 years ago of interest to a neighborhood today? Why should we commemorate this history? What does this story, and this house, prompt us to think about and talk about today?”

Then Donofrio pitched a class project: collect the information necessary to write a National Register nomination for the Lee house. But after critiquing the framework of the nomination, the students, an interdisciplinary group including public policy and engineering, decided it wasn’t engaging. Instead, they used their research to create a graphically experimental project that led to the exhibition A Right to Establish a Home, opening tomorrow at Goldstein Museum of Design.

Preservationists traditionally work with communities that have identified an issue, such as specific type of conservation district, to produce a final report of their findings. Donofrio envisioned a different type of public engagement. He wanted to understand why, in addition to reasons outlined in the archives, the neighborhood considered the site historically significant. Recognizing that the students and the community possessed different but complementary sets of skills and knowledge, his class collaborated with the neighborhood to develop the project.

The class to conducted oral history studies to record experiences with race and housing, race and public life, and race and owning a business. They asked community members what it was like to grow up in the neighborhood in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. They attended community meetings. And they kept in touch. “When you have authentic community engagement, you can no longer make lateral decisions about how the exhibition’s going to look,” Donofrio explained. “You have an obligation to stay in touch and consult them with about how the material reads, and whether you’ve quoted them accurately. It takes more time but the results are so much richer.”

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Erica Hway (B.S. Architecture ’13) said that the project was her first opportunity to “really able to see how commemorating the physical site of historical events can reunite a community and allow voices to be heard.” The project challenged students to consider the house and its context through the lens of time. Rather than seeking ways to improve its aesthetic, functional, or structural qualities, they examined how the events of 1931 connect to larger social issues that helped define our culture today. “The importance of place is not defined by the prominence of the architect, uniqueness of the style, or wealth of the patron: it is defined by its story as it spans from the past to the future,” Hway explained. “Our built environment should support every aspect of a culture, including both its past memories and future functions.”

news-briefs.pngAdditional research ranged from mapping businesses near the house at the time of the incident to get a picture of the physical and cultural context, to requesting photos from the NAACP, to comparing media coverage in historically black and white newspapers. The students took advantage of the course’s flexibility to complete longer-term graphic design, public history, and architectural history projects. 

The class collected enough raw material for Donofrio to partner with the neighborhood organization on a legacy grant to support Laurel Fritz (M.S. Heritage Conservation and Preservation Candidate) to write and edit the National Register nomination. She also co-curated the upcoming exhibit. According to Fritz, the Lee House project was ” the most formative experience of my graduate education. Helping develop the exhibit allowed me to think about how a preservation project can be developed to engage an audience beyond preservationists, historians, or architects.” The house was added to the National Register of Historic Places last month.

The project transformed the student’s conception of preservation and turned them on to new career possibilities. Eddie Krakhmalnikov (MLA ’13, M.S. Heritage Conservation and Preservation ’14), the class’s TA, realized first-hand that “through preservation, even the smallest sites can reveal profoundly relevant experiences. Preservation is often related to house museums, large homes of captains of industry, and commercial redevelopment projects, frequently carrying connotations of wealth and prestige. Projects like the Lee house truly expand the field beyond such associations.”