University Grove: an architectural time capsule

William Middlebrook built the first house in University Grove. (Photo courtesy of Sue and Bob Gehrz)

A host of famous Minnesotans, including legendary football coach Bernie Bierman, famed economist and presidential advisor Walter Heller, and classic children’s author Carol Ryrie Brink have lived there.

The area has been celebrated as an eclectic bouquet of 20th-century housing design by no less than the New York Times, which called it “St. Paul’s architectural time capsule.” But some visitors react to the University Grove section of Falcon Heights with a puzzled question. Why build your own piece of the American Dream if you can’t own the land it stands on?

University Grove operates under a leasehold arrangement that is unique in the Twin Cities. The 103 architect-designed houses in the Grove belong to individuals who built or bought them, but the University of Minnesota, which grants the residents of the Grove long-term leases in return for a nominal annual rent, retains title to the land they stand on. Steve Taff, the current president of the University Grove Homeowners Association, sums it up succinctly: “The university can control the evolution of the property without bearing the risk [of development.]”

The unusual leasehold system was the brainchild of University vice president William Middlebrook, who devised the scheme in 1928 to transform open land near the St. Paul campus into faculty housing as a method of attracting new professors to the U. Middlebrook had learned about the system from the experience of other universities, most notably Stanford, and he became so enthusiastic about the idea that he built the first house in the Grove for himself.

Middlebrook’s gracious Tudor-style home on Folwell Avenue, completed in 1929, now belongs to Sue Gehrz, the former mayor of Falcon Heights, and her husband, Bob, a professor at the U. Gehrz says that in addition to the handcrafted wood moldings and custom trim, the original Middlebrook house had some unusual architectural features like Murphy (built-in, fold-out) beds.

Sue and Bob Gehrz in front of their Tudor-style home.

“We use the space as closets now,” says Gehrz, adding, “Mrs. Middlebrook had been in a house fire, so she insisted that every bedroom have two exits. We have a lot more doors than most houses.”

The Grove grew slowly through the 1930s, and by the outbreak of World War II it covered about four square blocks. The University maintained tight control over the nature of the neighborhood. Prospective buyers were limited to tenured faculty and high administrators at the U. Lots were small, and all housing plans had to be approved by the University, which originally placed a ceiling of $10,000 on the cost of building a house. Fences were forbidden, as were outbuildings, swimming pools, extensive alterations to the roofline and anything larger than an attached single-car garage.

The University provided most services, and the intercampus streetcar ran conveniently along the base of Folwell Avenue. “The U was much more of a ‘mother’ to the Grove [in those days],” says Taff.

During the depths of the Great Depression, a tenured professorship was among the most financially secure jobs in a battered economy, and residents of the Grove even made occasional appearances in the society pages of local newspapers. Their houses in the Grove were built with attention to detail and solid confidence that the owner would remain able to pay his mortgage.

The Grove was small and the sense of neighborhood was strong. Longtime resident Kay Winger Blair remembers “the streetcar stopping at the bottom of the stairs and the professors coming up the stairs [at the end of the day.] They knew each other much better in those days.”

Murray High School Homecoming 1953: University Grove teens, from left, Carla Nordly, Ann Snyder, Judy Piper, Marilyn Fenske Hetzler (second from right) and Kate O'Brien. (Photo courtesy of the University Grove Homeowners Association)

Marilyn Fenske Heltzer, who grew up on Vincent Street in the 1940s, also remembers riding the inter-campus streetcar. “You had a punch card [for fare],” she says. “If you ran out of punches, the conductor would say, ‘You can pay me next time.’ And you would.”

Even after the streetcars stopped running in the 1950s, the wooded pathway where the tracks had been remained a focus for the neighborhood. Children played there, and Gehrz remembers an incident in the 1980s when the whole neighborhood turned out to see a cow that had strayed onto the trolley path, probably an escapee from the nearby St. Paul campus.

“The police came, people from the veterinary school showed up, WCCO came with TV cameras,” she says. “Finally, some guy in a safari suit showed up and shot the cow with tranquilizers. Meanwhile, they had backed up a trailer onto the path, and the cow was supposed to collapse into the trailer.”

To the delight of the assembled neighborhood children, the cow refused to do anything of the sort, falling majestically to earth as the sedative took hold.

Long before the cow came calling, the Grove had acquired some new neighbors by the end of World War II. The elegant architectural gems at the west end of Folwell Avenue and surroundings blocks were suddenly sharing the neighborhood with hastily erected Quonset huts at the east end of the street to house the influx of married students returning to college on the G.I. Bill.

Blair, who lives in the house that she and her late husband built on one of the last remaining lots in the “original” Grove in 1958, remembers when the metal pre-fabs were razed in the early 1960s to make way for an expansion of the Grove. “My older son [born in 1959] was very upset. He wondered where will all those [displaced] people live.”

Most of the married students probably found new homes soon enough, but maybe a few of them eventually returned to Grove as professors at their alma mater. The ’60s was a booming decade for the area, with new houses by distinguished local architects Ralph Rapson, Winston and Elizabeth Close springing up in the wake of the Quonset huts.

In addition to designing 14 houses in the Grove with his wife and partner, Elizabeth, Winston Close had a final say in many others. As the U’s official advisory architect for more than two decades, “Winston Close had to approve all designs for the Grove,” says Blair, “and he was opposed to ours. He suggested that our back wall be all glass, and he thought [we] should have open [floor] plan space … not broken up into rooms.”

Traditionalists at heart, the Blairs were completely satisfied with their conventional split-level design, tucked into a steep hillside lot. “I didn’t want a back wall of glass,” she says. So much for the architectural avant-garde. The Blairs stood their sloping ground, and Close eventually gave grudging approval to their plans. Blair quotes his final verdict: “He said there was nothing wrong with our house, but it didn’t have modern ideas.”

Martin and Nomi Dworkin's house was designed by local architect Joe Michels. (Photo by Richard Thieme)

Perhaps Martin Dworkin’s house met with more approval from Close. Designed by well-known St. Anthony Park architect Joe Michels, the house on Hoyt Avenue reflects Prairie Style influences that placed it “very much in the architectural vanguard” according to Dworkin, including “lots of glass, opening to the garden.”

Now retired as a professor of microbiology, Dworkin and his wife, Nomi, have lived in the Grove since building their house in 1965. “My salary was about $12,000 and the house cost $34,000,” Dworkin remembers. “My wife is from California, and she …wanted connection to the outside.” Dworkin recalls a peaceful community where crime was so low that when a police department spokesman came to address the homeowners association, the officer spent most of his time “talking about vandalism of pumpkins on Halloween. That was our major crime issue.”

By 1991, there were no more empty lots in University Grove, and only one house has been built since then, replacing a home lost to fire in 2010. But problems with turnover had begun to surface in the late 1980s.

“That was the winter of our discontent,” says Taff. “People thought they couldn’t sell their houses.”

Housing prices were rising faster than University salaries, and for the first time University Grove was having trouble recruiting newcomers. In November 1989, the University offered to sever its traditional ties with the community and sell all property titles to the residents.

Retired agronomist Donald Rasmussen, who still lives in the house he built on Folwell in 1964, remembers that the U put a “$5,000 price for my lot,” which he thought was a pretty good deal. But Dworkin recalls a dark time.

“The Grove is very civilized place, but this was a bitter, contentious debate,” he says.

Eventually Grove residents decided by a narrow vote to retain their historic relationship to the U, but new lease terms were worked out that broadened the Grove’s eligibility pool to include most permanent University staff. The new terms also provided crucial hardship waivers that allow sellers to turn to the open market when they can’t find buyers within the University community.

Most residents say that the dispute has been settled and there is no lingering bitterness. Estimates vary, but Taff says that the majority of residents are “still professors” and their families. Sue Weinberg, director of University Real Estate, notes that three hardship waivers have been granted since 2011.

Dworkin thinks about 10 percent of the houses belong to residents without University affiliations, but he says there are some other hard demographic truths to be considered.

“It’s no longer remotely possible for a faculty member in liberal arts to afford a house in the Grove [on one salary]. Nowadays the main wage earner must have income in the six figures … to afford [one.]”

Other changes have come to the Grove as well. The young families of the 1960s have aged in place to become retired couples. By the start of the new century children were a rarity in an area that once pointed with pride to its open commons, which allowed the many neighborhood kids to roam safely about the area.

Census data from 2010 reveal that, even excluding the area that includes the University retirement facility at 1666 Coffman St., the median age for the rest of the Grove hovers around 50 years old. On some blocks, more than 75 percent of residents live in one- or two-person households.

Many residents say they have noticed an uptick in the number of young families moving in just the last few years. “On our part of the block,” says Gehrz, “there’s a ton of new families with young children.”

But turnover in the Grove is slow, with only a few houses changing hands each year. Says Dworkin, who is 85, “[My wife and I] are at the stage when we think about what are we going to do when we get old. We’ve no intention of moving. It’s wonderful to live here. I hope to die peacefully in place.”

Judy Woodward is a Ramsey County librarian and a frequent contributor to the Park Bugle.

This article is part of a series of stories that look at different aspects of the Bugle’s communities as revealed by the findings of the 2010 U. S. Census. It has been made possible in part by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on Nov. 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.

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