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‘He just did it. That’s how he was’

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Tilsenbilt Homes, the first integrated housing project in America, declared historic district


In a unanimous decision at the start of January, a Minneapolis City Council committee passed a resolution to declare a group of 52 homes as an historic district. These homes, located in South Minneapolis on 3rd, 4th and 5th Avenue South, were constructed by Edward Tilsen from 1954 to 1957, and they have a very specific significance.

“We consider [the area] to be the first integrated housing project in the country,” according to James Tilsen, the grandson of Edward and current co-owner of Tilsenbilt Homes. “We call it the first, and I don’t think anyone is going to argue with us.”

Tilsenbilt Homes — these are on 5th Avenue in Minneapolis — the first integrated housing project in America, were built by Edward Tilsen, from 1954 to 1957. (Photo: Mordecai Specktor)

The houses were rediscovered in 2005, when author H. Lynn Adelsman wrote about the history of the project in Hennepin History in an article titled “Desegregating South Minneapolis Housing: Tilsenbilt Homes of 1954.” In it, she discussed the city’s long history of racially restrictive housing practices, which included deed covenants and redlining that either prevented black people from moving into a neighborhood or discouraged whites from moving into largely black neighborhoods.

In that environment, Edward Tilsen’s decision to build an integrated housing project was revolutionary. “My grandfather believed in it,” James Tilsen explained. “He believed in a lot of social causes, and he was in a position to do something about it.”

Bob Tilsen, Edward’s son, supervised the project, and remembers that Edward Tilsen also thought the project would be a good financial decision. “He didn’t talk about it,” Bob told American Jewish World, “he just did it. That’s how he was. But he was a man not afraid to gamble, and he believed in people’s rights.” When the project came to him, Edward Tilsen thought that he could make more money by selling to anyone who was interested, especially as he had a realtor named Archie Givens, Sr., who was black and whose skill with real estate likely made him Minneapolis’ first black millionaire.

Ward 8 Councilperson Elizabeth Glidden spearheaded the efforts to have the area declared historic, much of it involving speaking to current residents of the homes to determine their interest and address their concerns. “We worked on it for about a year,” she told AJW.

According to Glidden, one of the elements that make a house eligible for historic designation is “social history,” defined by Wikipedia as “a field of history that looks at the lived experience of the past.” This is one of most underrepresented areas of historic preservation, according to Glidden, and the Tilsenbilt homes are a superb example of this.

She admits that there are challenges to representing social history, but the historic preservation of the homes is intended to be paired with a variety of additional program, including public artwork and commemorative plaques. “We have some people talking about walking tours detailing local black history,” Glidden says.

The process of becoming a historic district will preserve the homes in specific ways, detailed on a City of Minneapolis web page created for public meetings about the Tilsenbilt effort. Now that it has received a nod of approval from the City Council, “city staff will prepare an in-depth history of the district and evaluate its eligibility for designation and local preservation protections.”

This process typically takes a year and includes input from the State Historic Preservation Office, the Planning Commission, the Heritage Preservation Commission, and the City Council. The goal is to preserve the homes in a manner consistent to when they were first built, allowing for cosmetic changes.

In this instance, however, the physical details of the homes aren’t the most important. They are “typical south Minneapolis-type homes” according to James Tilsen. “Well-built.”

They were made exceptional by their use, by the fact that they put white people and black people together as neighbors.

(American Jewish World, 2.10.17)

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