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In 1941, a newspaper photographer snapped an image in downtown Minneapolis that I've always found particularly striking.

The photo, taken from a vantage point overlooking S. 3rd Avenue near 7th Street, shows the demolition of a Victorian-era mansion and a two-story shop and office building in front of it.

Both were built, about 30 years apart, by the same man — Charles H. Prior. A railroad builder and entrepreneur, Prior left his footprints across the Twin Cities and the Upper Midwest. (He's also the namesake of the suburban community of Prior Lake.)

There are plenty of photos of buildings being razed in Minneapolis, but the 1941 image is a rarity because it shows two generations of buildings on the same lot being simultaneously demolished. As such, it offers a unique look at two key phases in the history of downtown Minneapolis, beginning in the 1880s and culminating with World War II.

Prior's involvement with the property began around 1872, when he built his mansion at 306 S. 7th St. Just 39 years old, he was then a division superintendent for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad (better known as the Milwaukee Road), and a very wealthy man who also had extensive real estate holdings.

Only three photos of Prior's mansion exist in public collections. The brick house, a Tudor-Gothic concoction, supposedly had 28 rooms. Among its notable features were a handsome porch with delicate paired columns and a two-story front bay beneath a prominent gable. Unlike many of its Victorian peers, the house was quite subdued, suggesting Prior was a man who saw no need for ostentatious display.

When Prior built his house, the surrounding area formed the largest mansion district in Minneapolis. Many of the city's wealthiest families — the Washburns, Crosbys, Pillsburys, Rands and others — built their first mansions in the neighborhood in the 1860s and 1870s.

Prior mansion, c. 1880.
Prior mansion, c. 1880.

Minnesota Historical Society, Star Tribune

By the time Prior joined the crowd, 50 or more mansions stood within a six-block radius of his new home. Most occupied lots of at least a quarter-block, and a few, like the William Judd mansion at 6th Street and 5th Avenue S. (where the Armory now stands), took up an entire block.

But nothing tends to last long in American downtowns, where new projects are always churning and where change is the only constant.

By the early 1900s, as Minneapolis' population grew rapidly, downtown experienced a major period of upheaval driven by expansion of the commercial core to the south and east — and into the old mansion district. Dozens of mansions fell to the wrecking ball or were converted to apartments as their owners sold them off and built new (usually even grander) homes elsewhere in the city.

Prior, with his expertise in real estate, would have been well aware of this trend. In 1907, he added a commercial component to his property to take advantage of the situation. Conveniently, his mansion sat well back on its nearly quarter-block lot, which gave Prior enough room to construct an L-shaped shop and office building around the home.

The building, of no great architectural pretension, consisted of nine storefronts. An open-air passageway cut through the building on 7th Street to provide access to the old mansion, which had been converted into a rooming house. Prior, meanwhile, had moved to a house on Willow Street, overlooking Loring Park.

Prior's gambit of creating a new and completely separate commercial building around an old house was unusual and perhaps even unique in the history of downtown Minneapolis. It was far more common to put a new commercial front on an old house, and there were once many examples of that approach downtown.

Prior himself was an interesting character. A Connecticut-born Yankee trained as an engineer, he made his way west in the 1850s and eventually settled in Minneapolis to work for the Milwaukee Road, the tracks of which extended through what would become Prior's namesake community. He's also the eponym of Prior Avenue in St. Paul.

Prior Mansion demolition c. 1941.
Prior Mansion demolition c. 1941.

Eric Mortenson, Minnesota Historical Society, Star Tribune

And if you happen to be biking on the Midtown Greenway in south Minneapolis, you can give a tip of your helmet to Prior. The greenway follows the route of tracks built beginning in 1879 as part of the Milwaukee Road's so-called Short Line between St. Paul and Minneapolis. (The trench occupied by the greenway was built later but on the original Short Line route.)

Prior was in charge of the Short Line project, a huge undertaking that required building a steep grade up the bluffs near downtown St. Paul as well as construction of a new bridge across the Mississippi River gorge north of Lake Street.

After Prior retired from railroading in the 1880s, he went into real estate full time and helped develop the Merriam Park neighborhood in St. Paul, which is how Prior Avenue came to be named after him.

Prior died in 1921 at age 88. A page 1 obituary in the Minneapolis Tribune described him as a "pioneer railroad builder of the Northwest."

I don't know why both Prior's mansion and the shop and office building were torn down in 1941, but they were replaced by nothing other than a parking lot.

After World War II, yet another great period of change refashioned downtown as modern skyscrapers rose from the ruins of numerous small buildings like the one Prior had built on his lot.

One of those skyscrapers was the 24-story Hennepin County Government Center, built in the 1970s on the block where Prior's unusual mix of home and offices once stood.

Larry Millett is an architecture critic and author. He can be reached at