Located just south of Downtown Minneapolis, Whittier is a neighborhood steeped with Minnesota history. From the perspective of Greg Schmidt, a carpenter who has worked in the area for about 30 years, the neighborhood has evolved along with its diverse population. Greg works on old homes in the area, reusing the materials of the original construction and maintaining the home’s craftsmanship and character.
Greg moved Rockford Illinois to Minneapolis to complete collage at St. Thomas and his MFA at the University of Minnesota. When he first moved to Whittier in the 1980s, he didn’t know that the neighborhood was called Whittier. Unlike Chicago, where the neighborhoods are easy to distinguish, the culture of Minneapolis seemed less defined and the residents seemed less permanent. Greg co-founded Silver Bullet Design (now SilverMark Design/Build) on 26th and First Street, in the heart of Whittier.
Whittier owes its transient character to its place in Minneapolis history. Located just south of downtown, the area became home of wealthy businessmen and government officials in the late 1800s. Streetcar lines that stretched along Franklin Avenue and Lake Street brought commercial development to the area. By the 1920s, shops and apartment buildings made the area a hub of urban activity. But by the 1960s, the area experienced postwar decline, and the neighborhood’s middle-class residents began to move to the suburbs. The construction of Highway I-35W in the 1970s forced more Whittier residents to relocate.
Greg noticed a connection between the transient culture of Whittier and his work as a carpenter, renovating historic homes. Residents invest more in their homes when they plan to settle into one place for a long time. For many years, Whittier was an area where people pass through. Most people are renters (about 77 per cent). Landlords save money by putting minimum effort into maintaining their rental properties, and as a result, buildings with unique historic character fall into disrepair through neglect and lack of resources.
Groups like the Whittier Alliance, where Greg is a volunteer, have been working to create a safe and involved community in the neighborhood. Since the 1980s, the low rent prices in the neighborhood have attracted younger residents and bohemian culture to Minneapolis’ midtown neighborhood. The area became known as the “International Neighborhood” as families from Vietnam, China, Mexico, and, more recently, East Africa made Whittier their home. Restaurants, grocery stores, and cultural institutions opened up along Nicollet in the 1980s in an area that has been dubbed, “Eat Street.” Projects like the “The Eat Street 20th Anniversary Oral History Project” by Spotlight on Oral History highlight the stories of the people and places that make the neighborhood a thriving community.
In his work as a carpenter is South Minneapolis, Greg takes great pride in staying true to the historic quality and character of the homes. Each house he works on is unique in terms of its construction, history, and the disposition of the homeowners. Greg says that it takes about two weeks to get to know a house. He has to understand how the house was constructed and get to know the homeowners expectations. He says the house itself has some agency in the work. “The house will help you if it likes what you are doing.”
Greg explained the difference is between renovating a historic home and building a new construction. Today, the components of new constructions are often built off-site. Whereas Greg builds a relationship with the home and homeowner, newer constructions are built like factory work, so many of the people working on the house will never see the final construction.
The preservation and reuse of old buildings is sustainable, environmentally friendly, and economically sound. In his work, Greg reuses as many of the materials as possible. This process can be arduous, and involves labeling and storing each piece of wood to make sure that it gets put back in the exact place it came from.
The old houses of Minneapolis were constructed with the wood of the towering hardwoods trees that once lined the Mississippi River. This wood created broad hardwood floors of the older homes of Minneapolis. When these houses are torn down to make room for new construction, the materials are thrown away, not only wasting valuable resources but a piece of Minnesota history.
Whittier gets its unique character from the combination of the old and the new buildings, used and revitalized by new generations within an array of cultures. Maintaining the neighborhood’s older homes preserves the historic character of the neighborhood as it grows and adapts to meet the needs of its current community.