Local Current Blog

First Avenue, Sound 80, and Prince’s childhood home may receive National Register of Historic Places consideration

The North Minneapolis house where Prince began playing music. (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Paisley Park may be the most widely recognized brick-and-mortar locus of Prince Rogers Nelson’s half-century spent creating and producing in Minnesota; until quite recently, little was done to recognize or even protect the other homes, studios, and venues where the artist spent many years honing his sound, recording some of his best-known work, and playing for the communities that helped shape him as a musician and man.

Within the past couple years, new information has surfaced on where Prince spent significant portions of his formative and early productive years — including many locations on the Northside of Minneapolis — and there are new efforts to preserve these sites on both the national and local levels.

Research began in 2016 after the Minnesota Department of Transportation drafted an extension of the Bottineau Line with a planning zone that included a house on Newton Avenue in North Minneapolis that was long thought to be the home where Prince lived as a child and composed his first song.

Following this discovery, MnDOT historian Kristen Zschomler and associates prepared a Multiple Property Documentation Form (MPDF) to act as a guide for determining the historical significance of Prince-related properties yet to be discovered. That document was included as an appendix to the City of Minneapolis’s sweeping 161-page Music History Context Study completed in December 2018.

Denis Gardner, the National Register historian at the State Preservation Office, explained, “If we come across any Prince-related properties [in the future] and we want to find out whether or not they’re eligible for listing in the National Register [of Historic Places], we can basically plug them into this MPDF.”

Citing a range of sources including property deeds, census records, oral interviews with Prince’s family and associates as well as secondary biographical accounts, the document lists 51 locations where the artist either spent a lot of time or produced a significant body of work before Paisley Park opened in 1987.

The properties range from rehearsal locations to recording studios to performance spaces, though the MPDF notes that due to the frequency with which Prince moved throughout the community, property types often “blur traditional lines,” and may “fall under more than one type.”

“For example, he recorded his music in every house he lived in as an adult, at live performances, and at professional studios, so instead of creating a ‘Studio’ property type, they are grouped here as ‘recording locations,'” the document states.

“You see a lot of things about his childhood that were sort of getting repeated,” Zschomler said, “but it didn’t appear that anyone had really gone back and done the primary research and that’s really what I did.” She added, “I hope the work that we did becomes the basis for so many people — scholars, politicians, city planners, everybody to be able to think about how we incorporate this history to be able to tell it so that it’s not hidden,” she continued.

Multiple Property Documentation Forms are commonly used to evaluate a particular set of sites grouped by either historical era or architectural significance (i.e., a series of bridges or railroading properties). It is rare, according to Gardner, to see an MPDF under the National Register’s Criterion B (properties associated with individuals), especially when the locations in question gained significance within the last 50 years.

“This is just really different because even though we’re still focusing on places like buildings, we’re doing it only because of their association with one man,” Gardner said. “We don’t often see an MPDF where the property we’re looking at is a Criterion B association property. That is very different.”

Gardner can only think of one MPDF technically under Criterion B. He continued, “We have one MPDF on a [man who] constructed log cabins, but it’s an old MPDF going way back.” Even these log cabin sites technically under Criterion B gain significance in part due to architecture. With respect to the Prince locations Gardner explained, “We’re not looking at the architecture, we’re not even really focusing on the history. What we’re focusing on is the property’s association with Prince and strictly that.”

Prince’s impact on history, Zschomler and Gardner both said, is great enough to justify the classification regardless of the unprecedented nature of the form. As Zschomler said, “It’s not going to be terribly common to do this sort of document on individuals because there’s just not that many individuals that have the influence that [Prince] does.”

Of the 51 listed properties, the document concludes that at least half have been either demolished or altered beyond what would be recognizable “by Prince or his associates from that era,” and are thus ineligible for listing. Of the remaining sites three — Sound 80, Prince’s childhood home on 8th Avenue (the actual site where he began devoting serious attention to music), and First Avenue — meet the requirements for national listing. Zschomler hopes to submit the MPDF to the National Park Service along with her first individual nomination: the Sound 80 studio in Seward where Prince recorded the demo tapes that landed him a contract with Warner Bros.

A listing in the National Register of Historic Places, or being considered eligible for listing, does not restrict individual owners from making alterations to a property, but does require that public projects consider whether an undertaking (such as the construction of a highway) could harm a property. On the local level, historic designation would require property owners to get the city’s approval for any changes. “That’s where the teeth of historic preservation tend to come in,” Gardner said.

Sites commonly receive local designation if they are listed on the National Register or are thought to be eligible. A trip to the City of Minneapolis’s heritage preservation website reveals that most of the properties listed are more than 50 years old. According to Jason Wittenberg, who serves on the Community Planning and Economic Development Committee of Minneapolis, “A large percentage of our landmarks are listed for reasons other than their cultural or pop culture significance. They’re more early city industry [focused].”

Additionally, Zschomler points out that a disproportionately low number of officially recognized sites are connected with African-Americans or African-American history. Previously, only a couple of properties [in Minneapolis] associated with African-Americans or African-American history were considered eligible for listing in the National Register, she said.

“We started with the biggest star, but obviously, like Andrea Swensson has written, Prince didn’t come out of a vacuum. There were a lot of musicians who came before him who may not be significant enough to be considered historic under this Criterion B, but the places they recorded or performed certainly could be considered significant under the broader music context,” Zschomler continued.

Even if only a small number of Prince-related properties receive formal placement in the register, Zschomler hopes to ultimately increase awareness of their existence. “I think the value of place is so deep,” she said. “When you go there, you see it; you smell it, you hear it; it’s just a different level.”

For her part, Zschomler has guided over 500 people on tours of Prince-related sites throughout Minneapolis. In the future, she hopes to see more art installations, public talks, and community events highlighting Prince’s legacy in the area.

“Last time I was [on the Northside] I was talking outside his childhood home, and there were [some] kids in the neighborhood who were playing nearby,” Zschomler said. “I said [to the kids], ‘When he was your age this is where Prince lived. This is where he learned to play the piano.’ They said, ‘Really? Prince lived here? Prince was from here?’ and I just said ‘Yup.'”

Lydia Moran is a music and arts writer in Minneapolis.