Remodeling a commercial building is a lot like remodeling a house; you never know what you’re going to find when you start knocking down walls. That was the experience for Josh Blanc, Layl McDill, Malcolm Potek and Kara van Wyk soon after they purchased a tax-forfeited property from Hennepin County. The building(s) on Lowry Avenue and Monroe Street NE had been neglected for years and had most recently been used to store junk. As they tore down walls and put up new ones, they researched the history of the buildings that they converted into the Flux Arts Building.
According to Hennepin County property records, the first building to be built on the block was 699 Lowry, back in 1900. It was a small wood-frame house that was moved to 2626 Howard Street NE in 1921. Another small home next to it was moved to 44 28th Avenue NE. Both of the homes made way for a new commercial building.
Like so many old commercial buildings in Northeast, it was a small corner grocery store with living quarters above. David T. Swanson and his wife, Gertrude, have the distinction of occupying the building the longest, from at least 1921 to 1940, when their daughter Genevieve announced her engagement to Glenn Holmer.
Swanson was robbed in January of 1931, according to a Star Tribune article. He was alone in his store when “two bandits, one short, the other tall” forced him to hand over $200 (a little more than $3,100 in today’s money) from his cash register. The robbers held up three more stores that night.
In 1932, Swanson was joined by Cornelius Murphy, a barber who lived at 2506 Monroe Street. He may have worked out of an addition to the back of the building. Two years later, Murphy moved his business to 676 Lowry, which is now a private home.
Mrs. Elizabeth Busere is listed in the 1936 Minneapolis City Directory as the proprietor of the grocery store, but Swanson still owned the building. In 1939, Mrs. Marie Kowell ran a beauty shop out of a rear addition to the building. She was still there in 1944, when Morris and Sophie Libshitz took over the grocery business.
The building may have been used as a bar or liquor store in the 1950s. City building permits show orders for the installation of signs for Glueks and Grain Belt beers and 7Up. A fire occurred in 1953, and building permits were required for the repairs.
There once was a building between 699 and 695 Lowry. It was built in 1922 by the Hygienic Artificial Ice Company, whose headquarters were at 1815 Third Street NE. Only 6-ft. by 10-ft., the wood-frame building was used as a “cash and carry ice station” where people could pick up a block of ice to put in their iceboxes to keep food cold. (People previously used ice cut in blocks from lakes and rivers.) The station probably also provided clean ice for use in drinks as well. Consumers began using gas and electric refrigerators about this time, so the building didn’t last long. It was subsumed into the 695 building in 1925.
This one-story building started out as the Edison Service Garage. It was built by Anderson Bros. at a cost of $11,000. The company specialized in servicing Willys-Overland cars. Its listing in the 1939 Minneapolis City Directory said the company offered “complete automobile repairing – washing – greasing – service – tires – batteries.” It also sold gas.
No major alterations or additions that required permits were made to the building until 1942, when C&S Tool Company took over the building and 699 on the corner, too. At some point, the service garage building was expanded up to the sidewalk, enclosing the area where the drive-up pumps had been.
C&S was started by Theron S. Castner and Harry J. Sadler. Sadler was a Northeast kid who graduated from Edison. He was the 1927 Northwest gymnastics champion and was elected to the Edison Hall of Fame. He attended the University of Minnesota and graduated from Dunwoody Institute.
C&S started out making gun-cleaning rods but soon expanded into metal finishing and deburring equipment, pneumatic bar feeds, electric hoisting units and jet operated collet chucks. By 1946, the eight-employee company had outgrown its little building. Castner moved the company to Albert Lea and renamed it Almco (Albert Lea Manufacturing Company), where 800 were employed.
Sadler started another company in New Brighton, HyPro engineering, which made agricultural spray pumps and pressure cleaning pumps. He held several patents for pumping equipment. When he died at the age of 80 in 1989, his funeral was held at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church on Lowry and Fillmore (now Joy World Universal Church).
The building at 695 Lowry was next occupied by the Millbrook Macaroni Company, a short-lived venture. In 1950, it advertised a sale of its equipment, including a pair of Prator hammer mills, a Hobart cake machine and a “brand new” Simplex automatic cello bag maker. Layl McDill said that when they were tossing around names for their revitalized building, “Macaroni” was one she suggested.
It may have been the mid-60s when walls were built joining 695 and 699 and the building became, for all intents and purposes, one. It was acquired by Screencraft, Inc., a screen printing shop, about 1968 and the company built a paint storage room in 1972. In 1970, the company advertised for a bookkeeper to work in its “one girl office” and offered a “liberal salary and benefits.”
Stage-Brite, a manufacturer of solid state dimmers and controls for stage lighting, took over the building in the late ‘70s. The company was a subsidiary of States Electric Manufacturing of Golden Valley and had been acquired by Sterner Lighting Systems in Winsted, MN. Vice president Richard Borgen was a lighting designer for the Guthrie Theater and served as president of the Theater in the Round.
Stage-Brite was followed by another electrical control company, SPEC Systems, who advertised for an electromechanical drafter in 1984.
Deterioration, then revitalization
Building rentals were managed by Ted Risk and Associates throughout the 1990s and into the new century, but the buildings themselves began to show their age and neglect. The three-bedroom apartment above the old store became a “party house.” It was last used as a residence in 1996 and was condemned in 1997 for lack of housing rental maintenance.
For a time, 695 Lowry served as a church, the Prophetic Praise Christian Center. The church is listed as inactive by the Minnesota Secretary of State. The last signs in the windows were for Living Hope Ministries which has relocated to 1737 Adams St. NE. Hennepin County acquired the property through tax forfeiture in 2014 and through the city of Minneapolis a request for redevelopment proposals went out in 2016.
The county sought to sell the property to someone would “create a community amenity that invigorates the Lowry/Monroe intersection and helps catalyze adjacent development along the Lowry Avenue corridor,” according to the RFP. The county wasn’t overly interested in saving the buildings, calling them “fully depreciated and at the end of their economic life.” The Holland neighborhood was interested in building affordable apartments on the site.
Then along came Blanc, McDill, Potek and Van Wyk, who formed a partnership between their businesses, Clay Squared to Infinity and Potekglass. With help from First Ward Council Member Kevin Reich and the blessing of the Holland Neighborhood Improvement Association, their project, managed by the California Building Company (John Kramer and Jennifer Young of Northeast’s California Building), secured the winning bid for the block, for $157,000.
The hard work of rehabilitation began. The buildings truly were decrepit. One architect told the group the ceiling in the 695 building was within six days of falling down. Workers took advantage of this structural defect when they replaced the roof and added six skylights to the area, bringing in natural light that helps them save money on their electric bills.
With the help of architect Timothy Gaetz, Raven Construction and their subcontractors, they re-oriented the building entrance away from Lowry Avenue, installing new entrances on the Howard and Monroe Street sides. They created a wide, mall-like hallway between Potek’s studio and Clay Squared that they use for exhibits and social activities.
Potek said they found many garage doors had been bricked up and sheet-rocked over. One was a carriage-style door from the 1920s on the Howard Street side. They exposed it to the world again, adding character to the street. They filled one door cavity on the Howard Street side of the building with windows that look like a garage door. Inside, they installed glass garage doors as entrances to their respective studios.
Wherever they could, they took pains to preserve reminders of the building’s industrial past. Garage door springs remain in place above the carriage doors, and part of Potek’s studio contains the original exterior brick wall from the Edison Service Garage.
They removed a very short (anyone over six feet tall would bump their head on the ceiling) men’s bathroom from the Clay Squared space and put a kitchenette and small storage mezzanine in its place. Common restrooms were built along the hallway and Blanc tiled them with his own creations. “We have the fanciest janitor’s closet in town,” he joked.
At the 699 end of the building, they angled the Lowry Avenue entrance to create an early twentieth century feel and put in big retail-style windows. They updated the upstairs apartment, and Blanc re-tiled the walls. The building is the new home of Klash Drums. Owner Jeremy Kreuth sells drums on the first floor; the second floor provides retail space for guitars and studio space for lessons. An additional rental space on the Monroe side houses a fine art shipping service.
Potek said, “It’s very important for artists to own property in Northeast. It helps the sustainability of the Northeast Arts District.” He said the mom-and-pop aspects of the new Flux Arts building are intrinsic to Northeast. “You’ll never see a Starbucks in here,” he declared.
The Flux Arts Building at 2505 Howard St. NE is open for the respective businesses’ regular business hours and will be part of the Minneapolis & Saint Paul Home Tour on Saturday, April 27, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday, April 28, from 1-5 p.m. (More info on page 8).
Below: This engagement announcement for Genevieve Swanson seems quaint now, but was standard newspaper coverage in the 1940s. Edison Service Garage repaired and sold Willys-Overland cars. (Source: Wikipedia Commons). Malcolm Potek now has a table full of torches where the filling station’s gas pumps used to be. (Photo by Cynthia Sowden)