When one thinks of Tangletown houses today, the first vision that comes to mind are the two imposing shingle-style residences built by Harry Wild Jones in the 1890s on Nicollet Avenue. Later in the mid 20th century, the iconic row of Lustron homes also captures your imagination. But few today have heard of one the most prolific builder-contractors of the district — a woman named Ellen “Ella” C. Pendergast.
The years between 1925 and 1928 were a hubbub of activity in Washburn Park. More than 100 houses were constructed in those four years. In 1925 alone, the number was a staggering 43. The hillsides must have been thrumming like an anthill of workers — carpenters, masons, plasterers, electricians and plumbers — their myriad voices shouting in an anvil chorus of languages. The sounds of hammers and saws never slowed down until 1929. Shouting in their midst was Ella Pendergast.
From 1918 to 1930, this mighty little woman not only owned the properties but was the general contractor of 16 homes, six of which were located in what is known formally as Washburn Park, more commonly called Tangletown. Adolph Thelander, a budding young graduate of the University of Minnesota’s school of engineering, designed the first three in 1925. Another young architect Ella hired in 1926 was Roland Wilcken. By the end of 1927, she partnered with her son John “Jack” Pendergast, who designed the remaining residences.
Jack and Ella formed a profitable business investing in building lots and speculating in the fast-growing real estate market. From 1925 through 1930, the duo designed and built over 20 homes in Tangletown, 13 on Dean Parkway, several near Bde Maka Ska and at least three on Lake Harriet. Throughout the City of Lakes and the Edina Country Club district, they built at least 69 structures in all.
Ellen Theresa Corbett was born in 1866 in Minneapolis. She married George Redmond Pendergast, a carpenter and barrel cooper, in 1888, and together they raised three children — Jack, Florence and Raymond. George died in 1923, which left Ella free rein to capitalize on the booming Minneapolis real estate market.
The Pendergasts’ classic enduring designs remain among the most livable, quality houses in Washburn Park/Tangletown and the lake district south of Franklin Avenue. Distinguished typically by three styles — Tudor, Norman and Spanish Revival — the homes were built at an average cost of $7,000, a substantial sum in the 1920s, even for the growing professional middle-class.
Ella’s influence in the design and use of high-end materials is clearly evident in Tangletown’s homes. You can see the attractively detailed stucco exteriors and the well-lit interiors featuring sunken living rooms, expansive multi-pane windows, hand-hewn beamed ceilings and amusement rooms for casual entertaining. The interior spaces often showcase arched doorways, wrought-iron railings and flagstone floors — features that are just as desirable today as they were 90 years ago.
Her other children’s contributions to the family history were also remarkable. Her son Raymond founded not only the Pendergast Candy Company, located at 2526 Nicollet Ave., but also developed a fluffy creamy nougat that became known as the Minneapolis Nougat, the primary ingredient of the Fat Emma and Pie Face candy bars. Later, Franklin Mars improved on that nougat and created the Milky Way and 3 Musketeers bars.
The last home that Ella Pendergast is known to have owned and built was constructed in 1930 at 2736 Ewing Ave. S. near Cedar Lake.
Ella Pendergast passed away in 1938 at the age of 71 and is buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Minneapolis alongside her husband, George. Her son Jack, who died in 1954, rests nearby.
Very little else is known of the life of this remarkable woman, but her legacy remains in the many outstanding homes she left on the tangled byways of the city.
Southwest Homes Contracted and Built by Ella Pendergast
- 2736 Ewing Ave. S.
- 2931 Ewing Ave. S.
- 2723 Dean Blvd.
- 4932 Oliver Ave. S.
- 5004 Newton Ave. S.
- 5125 Aldrich Ave. S.
- 4904 Harriet Ave. S.
- 336 W. Elmwood Place
- 227 W. 52nd St.
- 223 W. 52nd St.
- 216 Valleyview Place
- 220 W. Minnehaha Parkway
- 108 Pratt St.
- 38 W. Minnehaha Parkway
- 107 E. 51st St.
- 5236 2nd Ave. S
Kathy Kullberg is a local historian dedicated to illuminating the lives of Minneapolis’ memorable residents, architects and builders and their contributions to the city’s past and present.