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.
Update 2/26/19: This post has been updated to reflect new information from a City of Minneapolis music history report.
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 an addiction recovery center.
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.
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: renters from the Nelsons. 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 family moved to the 8th Ave. house in 1965. The Flemings then moved into the house on Logan as renters. In 1970, Mattie remarried, to a man named Hayward Baker, and that couple continued to reside at 8th Ave. N.
Living here from 1965 to 1971 or 1972, Prince first took a serious interest in music and began to develop his piano skills. Both his sister Tyka and his cousin Charles “Chazz” Smith remember Prince playing the piano avidly here, and while there’s no firm evidence regarding any particular songs the young prodigy might have written here, this is certainly where he began developing his chops.
After Prince moved out, his mother and stepfather continued to live here until 1985, when Prince bought a house for them in Golden Valley.
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. John started looking for a house to buy because this bachelor apartment didn’t have enough room for both father and son.
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.
Prince just lived on Newton Avenue with his father for a short time; no more than a year passed before he and John had a falling out and Prince moved out.
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.
Aunt Olivia’s house
Between living with his father and moving in with his friend André (see below), Prince spent some time living with his aged aunt Olivia at 3837 4th Ave. S. — probably for convenience while he attended Bryant Junior High School in South Minneapolis, and to get some distance from his father when relations were strained. For reasons including his developing music career and tight Northside ties, Prince ultimately left his aunt’s and moved in with André.
André Cymone’s childhood home
In a 1983 interview, Prince said, “André Cymone’s house was the last stop after going from my dad’s to my aunt’s, to different homes and going through just a bunch of junk. And once I got there, I had realized that I was going to have to play according to the program, and do exactly what was expected of me. And I was 16 at the time, getting ready to turn 17.”
Cymone 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 with Prince’s cousin Chazz. 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.”
Whether or not they ultimately receive any official designations, every property on this list was part of Prince’s history-making story.
Stream Purple Current
|Get the latest stories about Prince’s musical legacy and updates on what’s playing on Purple Current.|