University Grove spotlights Minnesota architecture

In their backyard, under a grand canopy of old oak trees, spouses Miranda Joseph and Erin Durban come upon a turkey feather. Durban plucks it from the grass, holds it in the air.

“A good one,” Durban declares, bigger than those they’d collected in a jar upstairs.

The couple love that their backyard — which blends into their neighbors’ backyards — is frequented by turkeys, by deer, by the neighborhood’s children.

On occasion, architecture buffs stop by, too.

The two professors live in University Grove, a collection of 103 architect-designed houses tucked into Falcon Heights, not far from the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul Campus. In 1928, U vice president William Middlebrook set aside the slice of rolling landscape, arguing that the neighborhood could help recruit star faculty members and administrators.

Custom-built through the late 1960s, along curved streets and without fences, the houses differ in style and era.

There are English tudors and stately colonials. But those architecture aficionados are hunting for the mid-century modern gems, designed by some of Minnesota’s best-known architects, including Ralph Rapson and the team of Elizabeth and Winston Close. In 1989, the New York Times called the neighborhood “a living time capsule of vernacular modern architecture in America.”

But to those who live here, it’s simply “the Grove.”

“It was the only house I knew,” says Kay Cashman Cahill, of the Rapson house that her mother, Veryl Andre, describes as “shaped like a square donut,” with an open courtyard in its center.

“My parents, and especially my mom, really liked the minimalist design of it — with lots of big windows and trees and nature,” Cashman Cahill says. “There were white walls, white curtains, square edges.

“It was a while before I realized that not all houses looked like that.”

For many years, the architects were part of the landscape. The Closes lived in the neighborhood in a home they conceived, and Rapson, the U’s longtime dean of architecture, would drop by his creations, sometimes with students in tow.

One day, Rapson showed up unannounced on the doorstep of Jennifer Ford Reedy’s home. He poked around the house, played with Reedy’s son.

“On the way out, he was walking down the front steps, which we thought were kind of dangerous, and said, ‘Somebody should have put a railing here,’ ” she says. The family took that as an invitation to make small updates to a house whose history they’d revered.

Reedy, president of the Bush Foundation, and her husband only qualified for the house in 2006 because it had been marketed to full-time faculty and staff for 90 days without a buyer.

Even today, university employees have first dibs.

“The fact that most of the folks who live in the neighborhood are connected to the university in some way means that you have super interesting neighbors,” Reedy says, “and fascinating debates at neighborhood meetings.”

Moving to Minnesota to join the faculty at the University of Minnesota, Joseph and Durban had never heard of University Grove. But they fell in love with the two-story, flat-roof house, covered in brick and redwood — the first the Closes designed in the neighborhood, in 1939.

“When I learned it was a professor neighborhood, that actually made me not want this house,” Durban says.

“Our kid will already grow up in a bit of a university bubble,” explains Joseph, professor of gender, women and sexuality studies. They worried about the history of strict, exclusionary rules about who could buy a home in the neighborhood, on university-owned land.

For decades, it was tenured faculty, only. So most homeowners were male and white.

“What effect does that legacy have in the neighborhood,” Durban says, “in terms of what it looks like now?”

Years earlier, Elizabeth and Winston Close shared those concerns.

“They feared the Grove might resemble a ‘company town,’ meaning a neighborhood that was too rule-bound and homogeneous,” said Jane King Hession, author of the 2020 book “Elizabeth Scheu Close: A Life in Modern Architecture.”

But they would design 15 homes in the Grove, including their own.

Hession credits the neighborhood’s cohesion partly to a cost-cap — $18,000 to $27,500 in the ’40s and ’50s — that limited houses’ size. Close homes exemplify modern design’s best traits, Hession said, including efficient, open planning and handsome, unexpected materials.

“But Lisl was not driven simply by style,” she said. “Her ultimate goal was to give the client a house that suited their needs and would serve them long and well.

“She likened architectural design to problem solving — something she was very good at.”

In the end, Durban and Joseph picked their house for its smart design, including the way it reflected the light in winter. The fireplaces didn’t hurt.

“Everyone loves a fireplace,” Winston Close told the New York Times in 1989, “but professors love them more.”

Still, the professors knew they needed to dig into University Grove’s history.

In 2020, amid the pandemic, Durban designed an anthropology course that allowed students to research the neighborhood remotely. They filmed a walk to the convenience store, a trip to the archives. Students interviewed residents via Zoom.

“I really wanted our students to be able to work on a project about racism and racial justice,” Durban says. “Maybe you don’t live here, in this neighborhood. But you all go to the University of Minnesota, a land-grant institution. What are the ways we need to learn about the institutions we’re attached to?

“They took that really seriously.”

They talk to their kid about all of it — how unusual it is to have two professors as parents, how strange it is to live in “this weird professor-ville.” But also, how rare it is to live in a neighborhood without fences, where kids cavort among the cottonwoods.

“Through this project, a lot of things have become clear to us about the legacy of this neighborhood,” Durban says. “But it’s also grown on us, living here.”