We know Prince grew up in Minneapolis — but where, exactly? In what house or apartment did he tap out his first tune, and where, exactly, did he flourish when his father moved out and he was free to play piano whenever he wanted? Even if you think you know, you might be wrong. We were.
To celebrate Prince’s legacy, we’re going all-Prince on our Local Current stream of Minnesota music every day through Wednesday, Oct. 12, from 11 a.m. to noon. Then, starting at 10 a.m. on Oct. 13, we’ll play our entire Prince catalog from A-Z — over 24 hours of Prince. Listen on our website and via the MPR Radio app for iOS and Android devices.
New research from the Minnesota Department of Transportation has provided key insights into Prince’s movements during his early years in Minneapolis. Wait — MnDOT? That’s right. Kristen Zschomler is a historian with the state agency, and she’s been looking into Prince’s early history with an eye towards preserving potentially significant properties.
“Federal and state laws require evaluation of a project’s impacts on historic properties,” Zschomler explains, “so MnDOT has a staff of historians and archaeologists who study buildings and bridges and archaeological sites to determine if they are significant and warrant protection.”
Zschomler explains that “after Prince’s passing, the Star Tribune noted that Prince’s childhood home, where he wrote his first song ‘Funk Machine,’ was at 539 Newton Avenue North in Minneapolis. That house just happened to be in the project area for the proposed Bottineau Transit Line, so it needed to be evaluated to determine if it warranted listing on the National Register of Historic Places.”
The Star Tribune wasn’t the only publication that thought Prince lived on Newton Avenue as a child: my own rundown, on this very blog, of the properties Prince owned when he died also identified 539 Newton Ave. N. as Prince’s childhood home. Nope — at least, it’s not where he lived at age seven.
“MnDOT historians pulled the deed record for the Newton house,” explains Zschomler, “only to find that it was owned by Ronald and Ester Barberg from 1952 to 1972. Perhaps the Nelson family rented it from the Barbergs? A fortunate encounter with the Barbergs’ son Harvey provided the answers. Harvey said that he lived in the Newton house until 1966, when he graduated high school, and that his parents lived there until 1972, when they sold it to John Nelson. Prince would have been 14 in 1972, so while the Newton house has a connection to Prince, it is not the place he began writing songs.”
So where did Prince live at age seven — and eight, and nine, and ten, and so on? Drawing on archival records and interviews, with input from The Current’s Andrea Swensson, Zschomler has established the following timeline of where Prince lived as a child.
In the beginning
Prince’s parents, Mattie Della Shaw and John Lewis Nelson, married Aug. 31, 1957 in Northwood, Iowa. Yes, Iowa.
“Prior to 1979,” Zschomler explains, “Minnesota residents had to wait six months from the date of a previous divorce before remarrying, and since John’s divorce to his first wife Vivian Nelson was not final until March 13, 1957, John and Mattie traveled to Iowa to marry. Almost nine months to the date later, the Nelsons had their first child, Prince Rogers Nelson.”
On June 7, 1958, Prince was born at Mount Sinai Hospital in Minneapolis. The hospital, closed in 1991, has since been renovated and now contains the Phillips Eye Institute.
Prince’s first home
When Prince was born, his parents lived at 2201 5th Ave. S., Apt. 203. Just a few blocks from the hospital where Prince was born, the building now faces the I-35W freeway wall. The family remained here until the end of 1958.
Prince’s early childhood home
On New Year’s Eve 1958, when Prince was still a baby, his parents moved to 915 Logan Ave. N. The family lived here when Prince’s sister Tyka was born on May 18, 1960. The house Prince’s family occupied was later demolished; the house now standing at this address was built in 1995.
Numerous sources indicate that Prince started playing piano as a very young child, so it seems likely that it was here that he had his very first experiences playing music.
The 8th Avenue house
On March 25, 1965 — when Prince was seven years old — his parents purchased this house, at 2620 8th Ave. N. They retained ownership of the Logan Avenue house, and it’s here that things start to get complicated.
The marriage between John and Mattie was failing, and Mattie filed for divorce in September 1967. The divorce decree gave Mattie ownership of the Logan house as well as a lot at 122 Sunnyridge Ln. in Golden Valley. (The Golden Valley property remains a bit of a mystery. No structure stands at that address, and it’s possible the address just indicated a parcel of land purchased as an investment.)
Records indicate that from 1966 to 1968, the Logan house was occupied by people under the name of Fleming — presumably renters. In 1969, though, John Nelson (Prince’s father) is double-listed as occupying both the 8th Ave. house and the Logan Ave. house. On Aug. 1, 1970, the Logan Ave. house was sold.
The scenario that seems most likely is that the family collectively moved to the 8th Ave. house in 1965, intending to rent the Logan Ave. house. The Flemings then moved into the house on Logan, but then were gone by 1969 (possibly earlier, since property records can have a lag); it’s possible that the Nelsons stopped renting the Logan house so John could move back there after the divorce went through. In 1970, Mattie remarried, to a man named Hayward Baker, and that couple continued to reside at 8th Ave. N.
It seems to be here on 8th Ave., then, where Prince primarily resided from 1965 to at least 1970. This is probably the actual house where Prince first took a serious interest in music and started to write songs on his father’s piano, and where he was able to play the instrument even more freely after his dad moved out.
Prince’s father’s apartment
From 1970 through 1972, Prince’s father was listed in city records as living at 1707 Glenwood Ave., Apt. 105. This building also still stands today.
In interviews, Prince talked about disagreeing with his new stepfather — Hayward — and asking to go live with his dad. André Cymone, who befriended Prince in the early 1970s, has memories of Prince going to his dad’s apartment.
Prince’s father’s house
Finally, the story makes its way to Newton Avenue. In 1972, the Barbergs sold this house to Prince’s father. André Cymone also remembers hanging out with Prince here, and John lived here until the mid-1980s — when Prince, by then a superstar, upgraded from his purple lakeside house in Chanhassen to a larger Chanhassen house and allowed his dad to move into the purple house.
John Nelson died in 2001. At the time of Prince’s death, he owned the Newton Avenue house, and his sister Tyka has listed that house as her address in probate filings.
As for Prince’s mother, she and Hayward continued to live for some time at 8th Avenue. Eventually, it seems, that couple moved to 115 King Creek Rd. in Golden Valley — a house that Prince also owned at the time of his death.
André Cymone’s childhood home
In 1973 or 1974, Prince was kicked out of his dad’s house after being caught in bed with a girl. That’s according to Prince, though he said the incident occurred when he was a few years younger — possibly the discrepancy is because, in Prince’s early career, his label was trying to pass him off as a couple years younger than he was so as to make him seem like even more of a prodigy.
Prince went to live with his friend André Cymone, who was living at 1244 Russell Ave. N. At first, Prince shared André’s room, then he moved to the basement. This is the last new place Prince would move to before he became an adult — and a star. (As it happens, this house is part of a district that’s also historic in another way: for its association with the Jewish settlement of the area between 1910 and the 1960s.)
If you had to pick a birthplace for the Minneapolis Sound, you might very well point to the basement of this house, where Prince and André jammed and formed their first band together. Next door at their bandmate Terry Jackson’s house (1248 Russell), Morris Day successfully auditioned to be their new drummer, and rehearsals would bounce back and forth between the two properties.
Are any of these properties eligible for historic preservation? Maybe. “For a property to be listed, or eligible for listing, on the National Register,” Zschomler explains, “it needs two things: significance and integrity. A property can be significant if it is associated with person important to our past. A property also needs to look like it did during the time the person lived there.”
If properties associated with Prince are to be listed, Zschomler says, the strongest candidates to start with are probably Paisley Park and First Avenue — both unambiguously associated with Prince at the height of his success.
Though this research helps establish the timeline of Prince’s movements in his early years, Zschomler would like to get more evidence, likely from family members or friends, that it was on 8th Avenue where Prince hunkered down with his dad’s piano and had those crucial first experiences as a songwriter.
Whether or not they ultimately receive any official designations, every property on this list was part of Prince’s history-making story.