You could call builder Orrin Thompson the father of Minnesota’s suburbs. And Coon Rapids was one of his darlings.
Thompson built about 25 percent of the homes in the Anoka County suburb starting in the 1950s. The new neighborhoods were called “Thompson Park” and “Thompson Heights.”
Coon Rapids and Thompson’s building boom are part of “Suburbia: Land of 10,000 Dreams,” a Minnesota History Center exhibit on the birth of Twin Cities suburbs.
Historic photos of the affordable cookie-cutter ramblers in Coon Rapids mass-produced for young families lead off the exhibit, which explores the mass marketing and mass construction that defined the era.
Interest in preserving this slice of suburban history is riding a wave of popularity, said Ned Storla, Coon Rapids’ staff liaison to the city’s historical commission.
“They have stood the test of time,” Storla said of Thompson’s ramblers. “People just seem to like them.”
According to a 1958 Minneapolis Tribune report, “Thompson was the first of the major homebuilders in the state to realize that people would live what was then a long way from downtown in order to have a home they could afford.”
Thompson built more than 25,000 houses in the Twin Cities, with concentrations in Coon Rapids, Cottage Grove and Apple Valley — a name Thompson selected.
Storla and others started to document Orrin Thompson homes a decade ago. That’s when the first generation of ramblers turned 50. The rise of midcentury modern styling, à la “Mad Men,” bolstered interest.
“That is when we started to research and give classes on maintaining and appreciating ramblers,” Storla said.
Most of the first generation of Orrin Thompson homes had three bedrooms and one bathroom and measured around 960 square feet. Prices ranged from $11,650 to $15,300 and a 40-year financing plan helped bolster sales, according to the 1958 article.
Homes once maligned for their sameness are now lauded for their quality construction by the people who still live in them. “They are just amazed by the quality of the materials and the workmanship they have in their houses,” Storla said.
‘A real quality home’
In 1958, Thompson brushed off the cookie-cutter criticism, saying, “In only two or three years after trees have grown a bit and a few fences and garages are built, a street doesn’t look the same.”
Thompson, who died in 1995 at age 81, had an opportunity to see the communities he planted, as well as the suburbs in general, flourish.
The number of Twin Cities suburbanites outnumber city dwellers by three to one today, according to Metropolitan Council numbers.The Thompson neighborhoods around Northtown Mall are some of the most established in Coon Rapids.
Coon Rapids Mayor Jerry Koch, a real estate agent, said the homes are still an asset to the city.
“One thing about the Orrin Thompson home is, he built a real quality home,” Koch said. “They are very quality construction and they’ve got some durability.”
Many of Thompson’s signature features have come back into fashion. For instance, one-story living has gained popularity with people looking to age in place.
Usually priced under $200,000, his original homes still are one of the most affordable options for new home buyers, Storla said.
Staff researcher John Wareham contributed to this report. Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804
SUBURBIA, LAND OF 10,000 DREAMS
“ ‘Suburbia’ reveals the sometimes quirky, always fascinating history of our seemingly commonplace suburban environment,” as the Minnesota History Center puts it. The exhibit is underway at the History Center, 345 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul. For more information, go to www.minnesotahistorycenter.org/exhibits/suburbia.