Abandoned Buildings, Newspaper Archives and Ghosts
Historical fiction in process
In my last post, I wrote about how I didn’t know what the future of this newsletter would be. The next day, my friend Liz visited from New York, and while we picnicked by the river on Nicollet Island, splitting a bottle of Nero d’Avola, she suggested I write some behind-the-scenes pieces detailing my process for researching historical fiction. I decided Liz’s idea was a good one; buckle up, because it gets nerdy from here on out.
Last year, for Halloween, I published a story called “The Terror of Sweet Briar.” It tells the stories of several people who live in the Sweet Briar Flats, where bats haunt fourth-floor apartments, cats tumble from windows and police officers dread to answer calls. The story moves backward in time, from the building’s present-day as a moldering, shuttered hulk back to its beginning as a swanky home for Victorian newlyweds.
The Sweet Briar flats are based on a real building: the Laurel Flats in Minneapolis, located at 1502 Laurel Avenue. It’s one block off the main drag, but if you can’t see it from Hennepin Avenue, it’s because a large parking garage sits handsomely in front of it. The Laurel Flats have stood on the corner of Laurel and W 15th Street since the 1890s, but I only discovered them in 2020. I don’t know what drew me to that corner in April of that year; I had walked down Hennepin Avenue a million times but I’d never meandered onto those side streets before until lockdown boredom prompted me to take an alternate route.
What I saw thrilled me: a five-story red brick building with Romanesque details…and boards nailed to the windows on the lower floors. It was gorgeous and terrifying all at once. Reader, I’ve always wanted to try urban exploration, but have always been too chickenshit to actually do it. I didn’t go inside the Laurel Flats that day, but I did glimpse everything I could through the windows.
Through the un-boarded windows, I could see empty rooms, broken doors that looked like they’d been kicked in during police raids and clothes hangers left behind by the people who had to move out quickly when the place was condemned. One window on the 15th Street side had a parabolic crack in the glass, and I could just barely make out some writing on the wall: YOU LIE ALL THE TIME. It was written in black marker, scrawled by some enraged individual whose name and complaint I will never know.
My hair stood on end. There was also something very creepy about the building’s air shaft. I can’t explain why, but somehow all the empty windows didn’t look so empty. While I was looking at it, I noticed a door was open, and I decided to book it the hell out of there.
Searching the Archives
When I got home, I researched 1502 Laurel. I used Newspapers.com for the bulk of that research. I discovered that the Laurel Flats were erected in 1893 and were, at that time, "The most elegant flat building yet erected in this city.”
A news bulletin in a 1906 edition of The Minneapolis Journal notes that the building sold for $100,000 and “contains 38 flats, from four to eleven rooms in size.” The flats featured Victorian mantlepieces with tile surrounds and the kind of wooden millwork that you’d find in the grandest homes of the era.
Over the years, the building changed hands several times, and every new owner sliced and diced the apartments into smaller units. Eventually, those 38 flats turned into 102, the hallways narrowed, residents had to share communal bathrooms, and the building went into steady decline until, in 2017, it was declared unfit and its tenants had to find new accommodations.
Through my research, I made several interesting discoveries. One was a story from the 1930s about a dispute between two neighbors that resulted in one neighbor throwing the other’s cat out the window. The accompanying photo showed the Laurel’s facade, as well as a diagram of the unfortunate feline’s fall.
Another more personal discovery was finding my great-aunt’s wedding announcement at this address. As it turns out, her husband and his parents not only lived in the Laurel Flats but were the caretakers of it. When I showed her the pictures I’d taken and told her that the building was rundown, she said, “It was rundown in the ‘50s!” It seems that once it was no longer luxury housing for the wealthy, very little was done to keep it up. (My initial draft of “The Terror of Sweet Briar” doesn’t contain anything based on this bit of history, but a new draft will -- keep an eye out for it in time for Halloween.)
Most of the results that come up in the searches are old classified ads. Though they’re short, you can learn a lot about a building from these ads, and you can watch the price -- and the building’s offerings -- change over time.
Urbex? Well, Not Quite
Urban exploration -- the act of exploring abandoned buildings -- has long been an interest of mine. But I’ve never actually done it. Why? Because I don’t want to step on a rusty nail, or a needle, or a patch of dry rot that will send me tumbling into some pitch-black basement. I don’t want to run into someone who might stab me, and I don’t want to get arrested for trespassing. I don’t want to end up in a place I can’t get out of without help from the fire department’s rescue squad.
So, as much as I wanted to sneak into the Laurel Flats and see its creepy hallways and broken doors for myself, I was just too afraid. A few weeks after I first walked by the building, a construction crew began working on it. I asked one of the workers, jokingly, if he needed help, and he said, “Sure, grab a hard hat.” I wanted to ask if I could go inside, but…again, I couldn’t work up the nerve. I asked if it was scary, and he said it was dirty: there was a lot of mold.
He probably wouldn’t have let me go inside, but I still kick myself for not asking. However, in my research, I did manage to dig up a document that was created by the city’s historic preservation board that described the state of the building and included photos of it. I did manage a peek inside, even without setting foot in the building.
The Laurel Flats have since been brought back to life. For the most part, the walls were torn down the studs, but the workers did manage to save the Victorian mantlepieces. Folks who rent apartments there now get to enjoy large windows and (from some units) views of the Basilica of Saint Mary. As an ardent preservationist, I’m relieved that this building got a second chance and that it has retained some of its historic details. That’s no mean feat, especially in a city like Minneapolis that loves nothing more than to destroy historic buildings.
More often than not, when writers set out to write ‘experimental’ fiction, they experiment with structure and not much else. In my view, it’s far more interesting to experiment with blending genres. “The Terror of Sweet Briar” blends horror with historical fiction, stitching together scary vignettes that happen at different points in time.
After some reflection, I’ve decided historical fiction is where I’d like to go in life, and I hope readers will find the research and historical facts as interesting as the fiction that results from it.