House detectives

Ever thought about the number of people who have called your home, well, home?

Viewed from a historical perspective, most of us become not owners so much as caretakers of our houses and their physical transformations.

Owners sometimes remodel before moving to other cities, moving down the block, divorcing their spouse or dying. And while shows such as HGTV’s House Detective take advantage of our growing interest in the physical modifications to our houses over the years, Minnesota Historical Society senior exhibit developer Benjamin Filene has spent much of his waking, working hours these last five years delving into the sociological histories of just one house: a turn-of-the-century Railroad Island home built in 1888 by a German family at 470 Hopkins St..

Through World War 1, the Great Depression, World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars up to the present, dozens of families have called this old house their home as it was transformed first into a duplex, then a triplex, then back into a duplex.

It’s been the job of Filene and others at the Historical Society to track down this house’s surviving owners — or their children or grandchildren — in order to create an exhibit opening Jan. 14 at the Minnesota History Center called “Open House: If These Walls Could Talk.”

“We chose a single ordinary house and have been digging around to uncover the stories of people who have lived there over time,” says Filene, “from the German immigrants who built it in 1888 through Italians who followed them, and then more recently there have been African-Americans and now Hmong families who have lived there.”

Over time, says Filene, 50 owners have called this home their home, and it has become a treasure-trove of memories for the Historical Society researchers to uncover.

Memories like those from Angie and Dick Krismer, who lived in the house from 1958-1967 with their four children and joke about being from a “mixed marriage” because one’s Italian and the other’s German.

The Krismers’ tales include:

• dealing with the alcoholism issues of their upstairs neighbors.

• creating an assembly line to give their kids baths in tight quarters.

• Dick’s working at a South St. Paul slaughterhouse (his kids said he was a “pig babysitter” says Filene, because he didn’t actually do the killing) and losing his hearing from the constant pig screams.

• flying kites with other neighborhood kids, sending kids down to the corner store to get more string until the kite would break and they’d all pile into the car to follow it.

And there’s many more: Current resident Elizabeth Young (2002-present) tells how her father served in the South Vietnamese Army before the whole family fled to Thailand and came to St. Paul as refugees. June Cramer Mayer and her daughter Diane Hegner (1957-1979) talked about the day the third floor caught on fire.

“It’s not just an immigration story, but that’s one of the interesting things — to see all the differences and similarities of the people over time,” says Filene. “These stories range from little vignettes of day-to-day life to more heavy things that reflect bigger historical dynamics.”

By way of example, Filene says Krismer’s hearing loss “is a much more vivid way of understanding the price you pay for that kind of work.”

And that’s one of the reasons Filene so enjoyed being one of the people interviewing close to three-dozen residents over these five years.

“By choosing such a specific and narrow slice of history, you get to see all these different historical dynamics all together. You get to see work and family and ethnicity and religion and they are all in play at the same time, just as they are in everyone’s real life.”

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