"If These Walls Could Talk"

While the house at 470 Hopkins Street is not on the National Register, it has a rich history that can help explain the changes over time in the Railroad Island neighborhood. The stories of the people who lived here were discovered by a researcher for the Minnesota Historical Society. The work of discovering the house’s story was done by Benjamin Filene, who also curated a major exhibit called “Open House: If These Walls Could Talk ” that opened at the History Center in 2006.

It was constructed in a manner that resembled the interior of the house. Visitors could walk through and experience how the structure changed through the years. They could see what the place looked like, how rooms were furnished, examine photos and other documents and hear spoken reminiscences. At least fifty families passed through 470 Hopkins Street between 1888 and 2003. Here are some of their stories:

Albert Schumacher, a German immigrant, took out a building permit and had a home for his family constructed in 1887. He was a successful pharmacist and even appeared in the Dual City Blue Book, a listing of prominent people in the Twin Cities. When people enter the parlor in the exhibit, they experience how Albert Schumacher mourned after his wife, Henriette, died in 1894. Remaining family members stayed there until 1908 and, while they then moved away, Albert stayed in the neighborhood, and duplexed the old house, becoming a landlord.

Filomeno Cocchiarella, his wife Rose, and a cousin bought the house from the Schumachers in 1923 and Italian relatives and friends soon joined them. Filomeno was a track repairman for a railroad and died in an accident on the job in December, 1945. Michelina D’Aloia, Filomeno’s niece, had moved into 470 Hopkins in 1932, shortly after she and her mother arrived in America from Italy.

When Michelina was learning English, she taught her mother the new language as well. She also helped neighbors study for their citizenship papers. “I taught them how to answer the questions and everything,” she recalled. “It was kind of scary, but when I went with them, I think they had a lot of confidence.” Michelina married Russell Frascone and they raised their family in the Hopkins Street until 1956 when, like other Italians, they moved to a newer part of the city. As people open the oven door in the historical exhibit, they hear the story of how her brother made sure there was enough food at her wedding, which took place during the meat-rationing days of WWII. He bought over seventy-five baby chickens and raised them in the basement of the house.

When you open the door of the simulated bathroom in the Historical Society exhibit, the story of Dick and Angie Krismer is revealed. They lived in the house between 1958 and 1967, a time in which many Italians were leaving the area and were being replaced by Asians, African American and Latinos. The Krismers had what at the time was called a “mixed marriage”--he was German and she was Italian. Dick worked at a slaughterhouse in South St. Paul and the screams of the pigs permanently damaged his hearing. They raised four children in a small unit and remembered having to have an “assembly line” when it was bath time.

In the 1960s and 1970s, there were fewer ethnic people who moved in and most of those newcomers were poor. Though they often had blue collar skills, there were fewer jobs because of industrialization. By the 1980s and the 1990s, the people that lived at 470 Hopkins were diverse. African American, American Indian, Latino, and Hmong were among the residents.

The phrase “Nyob Zoo!”--hello in Hmong-- is written over the door as people enter the 2002-2005 era in the exhibit. Pang Toua and his wife Mai Vang, lived in the house during that time. Pang was a soldier in the CIA-supported Hmong army in Laos. In 1975., after the American forces withdrew from Southeast Asia, he and his family of six children fled. After spending four years in a Pathet Lao work camp and two more in a Thai refugee camp, they reluctantly left their homeland and arrived in Minnesota in 1986. There is a Hmong shaman shrine In the living room and the view out the window dissolves into scenes of Laos and Thai refugee camps.

470 Hopkins is a triplex today with a new side entrance. The spacious front porch shown in an early photo has long been enclosed and the third floor where Italian families cured sausages is gone, destroyed in a 1970 fire. All of the Victorian decorations on the exterior have disappeared and the structure is now sheathed in smooth pink siding. This ordinary house was picked almost at random by Minnesota Historical Society, because they had an old photo of the location. It was a good choice, because this house turned out to be a rich microcosm of the stories that help explain the development of the entire neighborhood. So in a way, walls can talk.