BY WILLIAM BURLESON
Much has been written about the former White Castle on the corner of 33rd and Lyndale in South Minneapolis. It is certainly a curiosity. Something about it says it doesn’t belong there, this prefab fast-food restaurant in a largely residential neighborhood on a shady tree-lined street. It feels like the iconic little metal building is simply not in its native habitat, like a slider at a Minikahda Club wedding.
However, as story-worthy as this small building is, the better story is about the people who moved it: South Minneapolis’s Calamity J. Contracting.
The building, now located at 3252 Lyndale Ave. S., was constructed in 1936. Known as Building No. 8, the Southside is its third home, the first being Washington Avenue in Stadium Village. The small metal building was one of the few made to be portable, with the idea that with the land under it rented, it could be disassembled and moved to another location easily. This is in fact what happened, when in 1950 it was moved to 329 Central Ave. in Northeast Minneapolis. There the tiny building stood, serving the iconic square burgers into the 1980s, when it was decided they needed a bigger location. Apparently, 28 by 28 feet wasn’t cutting it any longer. A new White Castle opened in 1983 a few blocks away.
There was a groundswell of interest in saving the building. The Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission went looking for a buyer who would move the building once again. They found Calamity J. Contracting, who bought it for $10.
Calamity J. Contracting started out in 1978 as a feminist collective founded by Rose Morin, Cathy Bryson, Joan Meyer, Kristin Wilson and Rita Pippinger. They had their office in South Minneapolis at 24th and Lyndale.
“When I joined in 1979, they were all there working away,” says Kathy Berven, formerly of Calamity J. and a longtime Southside resident. “I was playing on the amazing Amazon [bookstore] softball team that summer … and they said, ‘Kathy, come and join us. You want a job?’”At the time, Berven was going to school at the U of M and working nights at UPS. “I said, ‘Well, yeah!’”
At the time Berven knew little about construction, and neither did many of her coworkers. “We started out painting houses … up on 40-foot ladders, hauling those things around.” But they learned. On a bathroom remodel, Berven remembers how she and a coworker had to look up in a book how to put in a window. “Thank God homeowners are away during the day,” Berven said.
Being a woman-owned construction company garnered a lot of attention. Berven remembers working on a roof and people going by, then circling the block for another look. However, Berven doesn’t recall getting a lot of flak. “Maybe I just wasn’t aware of it … I think we got a lot of credibility from just being in business, being visible and being respectable and respectful.”
As their business grew, they started thinking about ways to get noticed. They were “reaching for anything to differentiate ourselves, to put our name out there,” says Berven. The idea was hatched to buy the White Castle and use it as their office. “I remember going down to Central Avenue and looking at that thing, and it looked pretty sore.”
They bought it but needed to move it. So they did. Down Central Avenue, across the Mississippi, through downtown, and finally to South Lyndale. They didn’t take advantage of its design allowing for it to be disassembled. Instead, “we just lifted it up and wheeled it down the street. It cost like $10,000 to move it, I think,” Berven recalled. As it went down Blaisdell Avenue, it passed the White Castle on Lake Street. “The workers came running out with bags of hamburgers for us. It was so cool!”
Once in its new location, the old White Castle made a good office and even served as a showroom. Unfortunately, Calamity J. Contracting wasn’t long for the world, closing just two years later in 1985. According to Berven, “We just didn’t have the business acumen, we didn’t have the capital, we didn’t have enough projects with enough profit built in, and it just started sinking down.” She adds, “It’s really a tough business.”
After Calamity J. Contracting left, the building has been home to a variety of businesses, from antiques to musical instruments to jewelry.
However, Calamity J. left its mark in more ways than one.
Four decades later Berven is still working construction, although perhaps starting to slow down, moving incrementally into retirement with her life partner, Barb.
“We just thought we could do anything. It was the women’s lib era, and we were just doing whenever we wanted to do.” Berven adds, “The seventies were like a golden era.”
While Calamity J. Contracting is long gone, signs of this golden era remain, with one woman’s career and one oddly situated, tiny White Castle, now on the National Register of Historic Places.