Historic Structures

Berman Buckskin Building - Home Insurance Company Building, Minneapolis Minnesota

Date added: October 19, 2018 Categories: Minnesota Commercial

Before the Home Insurance Company Building was constructed in late 1894 and early 1895, the comer of Hennepin A venue and North First Street was wellknown throughout the City of Minneapolis as the site of the city market. Harlow A. Gale's City Market was constructed here in 1876 from designs by Minneapolis architect LeRoy Buffington. Although Gale had a business on the corner as early as 1857, he did not own the site until 1873.

The City of Minneapolis played a role in economic development at Bridge Square in the 1870s. Bridge Square was the area of lower Hennepin Avenue between the river and the junction of Hennepin and Nicollet avenues where the bridge crossed the Mississippi River into downtown Minneapolis. This 1854 suspension bridge, the first across the Mississippi River leading into Minneapolis down Hennepin Avenue, was a private venture, with shares sold to private local investors. These investors were compensated by the tolls collected. In 1876, the city built a second stone-towered suspension bridge to replace the original woodtowered suspension bridge. And it awarded a municipal franchise to Harlow A. Gale to construct a city market. The resulting City Market building functioned as the city market until its municipal franchise expired in 1891. The 1876 market building remained standing and vacant from 1892 until the fall of 1894 when it was torn down.

The demise of the city market was caused by traffic congestion on the west approach to the Hennepin Avenue bridge. Local gardeners had centered all the wholesale commission business around the city market, and the result was gridlock. Indignant contemporary accounts mentioned 300 teams blocking all attempts to pass through the area. In 1891, the city market then moved farther away from the river and to the west edge of downtown Minneapolis in the block bounded by Second and Third avenues and Fifth and Sixth streets away from congested downtown streets.

Bromley writes that the city market was "one of the most picturesque buildings on the square," for Gale "not only made the market famous as the gathering place of the farmers of the country but also inaugurated there, in the hall over the market a series of literary and musical entertainments" Gale's market was a multi-use facility which leased space for market stalls on the first floor and on the street around the building. In 1885 the building's second floor contained a hall with stage and scenery. The central portion of the floor provided a seating area, including a gallery. On the southern portion of the building's second floor, the Y.M.C.A. maintained its Bridge Square branch.

Contemporary accounts of the replacement of the City Market note the decline in the Bridge Square area. In covering construction of the replacement building which still occupies that comer today, the Minneapolis Journal announced: "The old market house comer on Bridge Square has been sold to New York parties, the Home Insurance Company, who have already contracted for the erection of a fine, five-story, modem commercial building, which is to cover the entire lot, 80 x 160 feet. Leighton & Co., the contractors, are already at work clearing out the debris of the old market, and have engaged to have the new building completed and ready for occupancy by Jan. 1 [1895] .... The old market house, since abandoned for market purposes, has been but little less than a nuisance, occupying as it has one of the most central and commanding comers. The improvement of this site is likely to stimulate lower Hennepin and Nicollet avenues to renew business and building activity."

The same article applauded the Home Insurance Company of New York for their acquisition of the property and their decision to replace the old building with a modem one already leased by Northrup, Braslan and Goodwin, Company, a growing Minneapolis seed firm and predecessor to Northrop, King and Company. The original name of the Home Insurance Company Building comes from several 1894 sources, including newspaper accounts, the Abstract of Title, and articles in the 1894 and 1895 Improvement Bulletin.

In 1905, the Minneapolis newspaper noted that Northrup, King and Company's purchase of the Home Insurance Company Building and planned new railway depots in the area would presage further economic development.

However, by the turn of the century the heart of downtown Minneapolis had moved away from Bridge Square. Saloons had replaced earlier businesses on the block and city planners would spend the next hundred years drafting plans to address the problem of cheap bars and lodging houses that had become the area's defining characteristic after 1891.

From 1884 until 1922, the Northrup, King company maintained a presence on the first block from the river on the northwest side of Hennepin A venue at Bridge Square. Their last location in the area was the Home Insurance Company building on the comer of Hennepin and First Street North. In 1884, Jesse E. Northrup and Charles E. Braslan founded Northrup, Braslan and Company, a retail seed store, at 22 Hennepin A venue on Bridge Square. The business, with Northrup as president and Braslan as general manager, occupied the first floor and basement of the building for retail sales and storage. Both men had been raised in the seed business in the east and hoped to take advantage of the business opportunities afforded by the Midwest. Minneapolis seemed a perfect location for their enterprise because both men were interested in the development of seeds produced in northern climates and because the Minneapolis location provided an excellent distribution center for the emerging agricultural areas of the Midwest.

The small store at 22 Hennepin Avenue was the first of four Bridge Square locations used by Northrup, King and Company and its predecessor company during its early years of operation. In addition to retail sales, Northrup, Braslan, and Company also developed a seed catalogue for distribution through the circulation department of the Farmer's Weekly Tribune. Catalogue sales would prove a crucial step in establishing the firm's market position and growth. By 1886 Augustus H. Goodwin had joined the firm as secretary and treasurer, which was renamed Northrup, Braslan and Goodwin Company. The company moved a few doors east to a three story building at 18 Hennepin A venue. Still growing, in 1887, they moved to still larger facilities in 10-12 Hennepin Avenue, where the Wisconsin Central Freight Building now stands.

The increased capital of the new organization allowed Northrup, Braslan and Goodwin Company to move into the areas of seed production well as distribution. By 1889 the company had 1,800 acres under contract, and by 1893, they opened a branch office and warehouse in Chicago to handle the wholesale operations. This was the year of the panic. The firm had so overextended itself that it was unable to meet its financial obligations. Fortunately, Col. William S. King, a wealthy Minneapolis pioneer, came to the company's financial rescue. The colonel's son, Preston King, joined the company as secretary. With King's financial backing, Northrup, Braslan and Goodwin Company again sought a new, larger facility, at Bridge Square. This is how they came to lease part of the Home Insurance Company Building at 26 Hennepin Avenue when it was completed in early 1895.

When Northrup, King and Company purchased this building ten years later, newspaper reports expressed hope that the building's appearance and location would help to spur economic development in the Bridge Square area. Northrup, Braslan, and Goodwin Company moved their retail store into the first floor of this building and used several of the other floors for catalogue sales and packaging purposes. The top floor and part of the first floor retail space on Hennepin Avenue was leased by Henry J. Putman, a shoe and boot manufacturer. However, even William S. King's financial help was not enough to stave off Northrup, Braslan and Goodwin Company's creditors. In May, 1896, the company was declared bankrupt. Realizing that more attention should have been paid to the lucrative retail and catalogue business in Minneapolis, which had continued to make money for the firm, Jesse Northrup and Preston King scraped together enough money to buy out the remaining assets of the company. With Northrup as president, King as treasurer, and Charles Massie, a former employee, as secretary, the reorganized Northrup, King and Company took over the Bridge Square space in November, 1896.

While the company's own written history reports that growth was slow during the next few years, by the turn of the century it was shipping seeds to countries throughout Europe and as far away as South Africa and Australia. The company opened another retail store in the new Dayton's (Department Store) Block at 714 Nicollet Avenue in 1902. Thus, Northrup, King and Company joined the flow of retailers up Nicollet Avenue from the Bridge Square area.

Northrup, King and Company eventually took over most of the Home Insurance Company Building at Bridge Square and in 1905, tired of paying rent, they purchased it for $60,000 from the original owners. H.C. Putman & Company remained in the building until 1911-12 as the other major tenant.

The company's initial use of the Bridge Square building was as "a retail store on the first floor, and several additional floors for storage purposes. The retail store at the corner of Hennepin Avenue and North First Street "played an important part in the company's growth." It was located adjacent to the trolley cars and routes between downtown and the East Side and accessible for drop-in traffic. In the early years, the company was in the retail Christmas tree and wreath business from the Hennepin Avenue location.

In less than ten years after moving to the Home Insurance Company Building, the small warehouse space in its Bridge Square building forced it to look elsewhere. By 1902 it had leased warehouse space in the old Mehlin piano factory on Main Street S.E., across the river on the East Side. In 1905 it made arrangements to use the six-story Warehouse "B" at 724 North First Street for supplementary storage. By 1910, the company was also renting a twostory seed corn warehouse in St. Louis Park and "other scattered warehouses about the city."

In 1914, Preston King died, and Jesse Northrup resigned as president because of ill health. The new president, Charles Massie, took the firm away from downtown Minneapolis, building a huge complex of buildings in northeast Minneapolis at Fifteenth A venue and Jackson Street N.E. The company occupied its new quarters in 1917, consolidating all operations into one unified plant. The retail store stayed at Hennepin Avenue for "several more years" after the move to northeast Minneapolis. During the last years in the Home Insurance Company Building, from 1912-1917, Northrup King was still a smaJl seed company with an annual sales volume in 1912 of around one million dollars. Northrup, King and Company's historic association with Bridge Square is clear, as is its association with the Home Insurance Company Building, the fourth and last of four buildings that Northrup, King and Company and its predecessor company occupied on this block facing Hennepin Avenue.

Northrup King sold the Home Insurance Company Building to the Northwestern Druggist Realty Company in 1922. The building became the home of Northwestern Drug Company until 1964 when the building was sold to Berman Buckskin Company. Northwestern Drug was a drug wholesale business who sold to retail outlets and druggists in the upper Midwest. When Northwestern Drug was in the building, it was a cooperative. Under the leadership of its president, Robert Buchanan, after 1951, it became "one of the most innovative and progressive independent wholesalers in the industry."

Berman Buckskin Company bought the building in 1964 and the Berman family continued to occupy it as a leather manufacturing and business headquaters, retail store, and rental property until February 1994. From 1964-1983, the first floor and part of the second floor contained retail space for Berman Buckskin Company. The Company's offices occupied the remainder of the second floor. The Bermans sold Berman Buckskin Company to Wilson Leather in 1983 and closed their retail operation and business. Pioneer Shoe Company, a tenant, occupied the fifth floor from 1964-1980. In 1980, the Berman brothers, Morris and Sander, took over the fourth and fifth floors for a new business, Rodeo Leather, a wholesale and manufacturing company. Rodeo remained in the building until the end of February 1994 when the building was vacated.