Apr 032010
 
UNTIL REX HARDWARE was bulldozed in August 2011, it was possible to stand on the corner of 26th and Lyndale in Minneapolis and glimpse something of the city in its youth.
Rex hardware exterior, 2601 Lyndale Avenue, Minneapolis

The boarded-up Rex Hardware just before it was razed in summer 2010.

Built in May 1914 by Clark J. Allen to house his Allen & Co. Hardware Store, the one-story red-brick structure at 2601–03 Lyndale Ave. S. known since 1944 as Rex Hardware was an integral piece of a streetscape linked to the full weave of the city’s social history.

The Allen/Rex storefront was part of a remarkably intact cluster of storefronts from the era when city neighborhoods first took shape, one of the commercial nodes that sprang up corner to corner between 1890 and 1930 as the city pulsed outward from downtown along new streetcar lines.

In the teens and twenties, the corner of 26th and Lyndale could boast a small grocery, a pharmacy, and hardware store—the trifecta of many streetcar nodes of the era. The Allen building at 2601-03 Lyndale completed a bustling business node dating to 1884, the year the first horsedrawn streetcar carried passengers down Lyndale Avenue. The streetcars, electrified in 1891, ran along what became the Twin Cities Rapid Transit Company’s Bryant Line.

The business node at Lyndale and 26th, along with similar clusters at 22nd, 24th, and 28th streets, developed in tandem with a real estate boom that filled in surrounding blocks (today’s west Whittier and east Wedge neighborhoods). The overwhelming majority of the Queen Anne Victorians, Craftsman four-squares, and multi-unit buildings that now stand within a six-block radius of 26th and Lyndale were built between 1900 and 1907.

Fast forward: Feel free to jump ahead to our inventory of the buildings that remain at 26th & Lyndale.

As a City of Minneapolis report noted, the corner was one of the last to be developed along the Lyndale Avenue streetcar corridor between Franklin and Lake Street. It was part of a city subdivision called Hoblitt’s Addition, named for Rev. J.C. Hoblitt, a Minneapolis Civil war veteran, Baptist minister, and—wait for it—real estate tycoon who decamped to California in 1902.

1922 newspaper ad for Allen & Company Hardware, Minneapolis

Like other hardware stores of the era, Allen & Company featured a wide merchandise mix: tools, kettles, bicycles, newfangled clothes-pressing irons, lamps, and even furnaces. Plumbing supplies were a specialty for Allen, who was a master plumber. Mpls. Morning Tribune ad, 10/28/1922

The hardware store begun by Clark Allen at 2601–03 Lyndale enjoyed a 91-year-run, as Allen & Company from 1914 to 1944 and as Rex Hardware from 1944–2005.

It was the longest operating original hardware store in Minneapolis. That fact was much reported at the time of the store’s closure in 2005, but it was not the whole story.

The Allen & Company hardware store in fact began at 26th and Lyndale at least five years earlier. Catty-corner across the street, at 2556 Lyndale Ave. S. now Common Roots cafe), the original Allen & Company shows up in the 1909 Minneapolis City Directory, owned by Clark J. Allen and Mack R. Allen.

Historical records show Mack Allen (age 29 in 1909) and Clark Allen (age 26) were brothers, both born in Pennsylvania, both graduates of Calhoun Elementary School (3016 Girard, 1887–1974), and both master plumbers. Mack (and spouse Maybelle) resided at 2644 Pleasant Ave. S. in 1909; Clark (and wife Ella) lived nearby at 2604 Harriet Ave. (then in rooms at 2609 Lyndale, and eventually in a house at 2617 Lyndale).

Clark J. Allen bought the lot at 2601–03 in April 1914 from K. G. Terwilliger and wife for $3,400; in May he obtained a city building permit for a one-story “brick stores” whose construction cost was estimated at $2,500.

Clark J. Allen died April 2, 1931; cause unknown. It appears his brother E. Floyd Allen ran the store from 1931–44 (listed in the 1909 city directory as a partner with William D. Allen in the Allen Bros. hardware store at 1528 Nicollet Avenue, E.F. Allen is listed as the owner of 2601–03 Lyndale on a city repair permit pulled in 1932, Mack Allen, incidentally, lived until 1965.) (The city historic designation study failed to find these details.)

The property was bought in 1944 by Bernie Shom, a U of MN business grad, and his spouse Anne Shom, who renamed it Rex Hardware and Glass. Bernie died in 1983; Anne ran the store until closing it in 2005.

Original city building permit, Clark J Allen store, 2601-2603 Lyndale

Clark J. Allen original building permit, 1914; architect is the notable John Koester (click to enlarge)

The earliest roots of the Allen hardware business at 2556 Lyndale were overlooked in a historic designation report on the building prepared in 2010 by the Minneapolis Department of Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED). Dating the business only to the 1914 construction of the building at 2601–03 Lyndale, the report did establish that the store was “the longest operating hardware store in Minneapolis that was originally built as a hardware store.”

 

Even more significant to the city department was the storefront’s place within a remarkably intact business node linked to the formative streetcar era. “Commercial-retail sites are underrepresented as historic landmarks in Minneapolis,” the report said; only 7 of the 148 landmarks in the city are of this ilk—and none dates to the decade 1910–19, a significant decade of city growth and development.

Recommending to the City Council that the exterior of the Allen/Rex Hardware building be saved as a Minneapolis landmark, the CPED concluded that:

” … the Rex Hardware building is a prime example of an early 20th century streetcar development, captures the history of Minneapolis neighborhood hardware stores, and is a high quality example of a commercial building built in an early Utilitarian architectural style.”

With the exception of 26th and Lyndale, none of the major stops on the Bryant Avenue Streetcar Line remained intact, the report noted, pointing to the parking lots that had replaced storefronts at other Lyndale Avenue intersections—as well as along Bryant at 46th and 50th.

But when the Rex Hardware building ended up in the hands of a developer bent on razing it, not everyone rushed to its rescue. Local blogs and chat boards hotly debated the historic preservation case. In the end the City Council voted 7–6 against preservation. The swing vote was cast by Council Member Gary Schiff, who couldn’t seem to get his head around the idea that a building might be worth saving for reasons other than architectural sizzle.

“It’s a nondescript building. It’s not a distinct style of architecture,” Schiff said in making the motion to deny historic designation to the building. Joining Schiff in dooming the 91-year-old building were Cam Gordon, John Quincy, Lisa Goodman, Betsy Hodges, Don Samuels, and Barb Johnson.

Cover of 2010 Rex hardware historic designation study, Minneapolis

City study of Rex Hardware

It’s true the Allen/Rex storefront wasn’t much of a looker. It was, however—as the CPED report noted—”a typical Utilitarian-style commercial building” of the city’s formative streetcar era.

Moreover, the Allen/Rex hardware building had been designed by an architect of some note,  John V. Koester, whose several significant works include the 1917 Chittenden & Eastman Building near St. Paul’s Midway (originally M. Burg & Sons, 2402–2414 University Avenue) and the 1915 classical revival pile near the University of Minnesota now known as the Dinkydome (originally the Scandinavian Christian United Bible College, 1501-1509 University Ave. S.E.).

THE CASE FOR PRESERVING the Allen/Rex hardware building, however, was little about architectural provenance; it was about the city’s collective past and historical continuity.

The loss of Rex Hardware is deeply disappointing to all of us who understand the importance of allowing the Lyndale Avenue of 1914 to live on in the streetscape of 2010. The pulse of a city may quicken constantly with change, but its old bones hold the keys to its stories, its collective memories, its identity, its soul.

As many exponents of “vernacular” preservation argue , communities of buildings—even clusters of ordinary urban storefronts—matter. When the wrecking ball left Rex to rubble in August 2010, thus destroying a streetcar node that had survived remarkably intact for a century, the historical context of the corner—and the city—took a hit in the process. You see it—and feel it—when you pass the now vacant lot at 2601–03 Lyndale.

Rex Hardware signs: We sharpen everything but your wits ... Keys made, locks repaired ...

Rex Hardware's iconic signs.

The loss feels all the sharper because Rex Hardware was a place of such abundant history and character. For 61 years, Rex Hardware was a valued fixture in the life of the community. It supplied customers from nearby neighborhoods (including Whittier, Wedge, East Isles, Lowry Hill, and LynLake) with hard-to-find parts for older houses and with micro-services such as glass cutting, picture framing, and screen repair.

Rex customers treasured the store for its homely old-fashioned feel, complete with creaking screen door and scuffed wooden floors. You could find just about anything you needed in Rex’s packed aisles, with bins of nails nudged up against Victorian house geegaws. Skate sharpening was on the house. Jaunty yellow signs conveyed Rex’s signature boast that “We Sharpen Everything But Your Wits.”

When longtime owner Anne Shom was ready to sell the business and retire, she was keen to ensure that the storefront remained a community-based business, according to an article in the Minneapolis Southwest Journal.

That didn’t happen. The sad coda to the Rex Hardware story is that its demolition destroyed something of the past that had value while making way for … nothing at all. According to several accounts, the Rex property is in the hands of an inexperienced and undercapitalized developer who couldn’t pull off initial condo plans for the property. In seeking a demolition permit in April, Machelle Norling of SMJ Investments openly admitted her intention to “leave the land vacant for an indefinite time.”

The Southwest Journal quoted a sharply worded rebuke to Norling from City Council Member Meg Tuthill, one of the six votes for saving the building:

“That building has sat there vacant, you have done nothing to market it, the brick is falling off it, you’ve done nothing to maintain it, but yet you come to us and ask us for permission to tear it down, so you can then leave us with a vacant lot that is going to be littered, have weeds and a fence around it—that’s not going to work.”

History of the 26th & Lyndale Corner: Continue reading on next page»

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  2 Responses to “History Interrupted (or Rex Wrecked): Rex Hardware, 1914–2010”

  1. Thanks for this very interesting and well-researched historical article. You may have seen that City Pages named 26th and Lyndale “best corner” a few months back. I just found the link, you will appreciate the last line:
    “Even the wreckage of former mainstay Rex Hardware, less an eyesore than a monument to a gilded past, serves as a fond reminder of what Uptown looked like in its pre-Soho salad days.”

  2. I was an employee of Rex Hardware for 10 years(80-90) and am so sorry and sad the building and business are gone. It was a iconic place that even the rich and famous shopped. Politicians, sports heroes and TV celebs needed toilet parts and window repairs and many made Rex their go to store.. They meshed in well on many a busy Saturday with the loyal locals who shopped there everyday and sometimes just stopped to chat. I did manage to obtain an extra sign that hung on the north side of the building that we decided not to rehang in 85′ after painting the others and I still have it in my garage along with the clippings from the best of Twin Cities articles. My favorite Rex phrase is “WE SHARPEN EVERYTHING BUT YOUR WITS” As I did a majority of the sharpening in those days, It still remains a favorite in my vocabulary. Minneapolis and Minnesota lost a piece of its soul with the demolition of 2601 Lyndale S.

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