Since they were entrepreneurs first, Melvin and Harley Bennett didn’t want to go by the way of the horse and buggy—literally.
The brothers had built a barn on Second Street in downtown Excelsior in 1899 for their horse, buggy and wagon rental business, but they didn’t rest on its laurels. The Bennetts also delivered water and coal oil, and assisted the town undertaker with tombstones, caskets and a hearse, according to an article written by Stephen Bolles.
But the Bennetts weren’t done there. Historic Excelsior, a 1982 book from the Excelsior-Lake Minnetonka Historical Society, reads, “In 1915, the Bennetts were preparing for servicing [sic] automobiles by having been granted a village permit for a gasoline filling service tank inside the curb.”
The wood-framed building in which they made a name for themselves still stands today, a foundation of brick filled with a rich entrepreneurial spirit. And oddly enough, the Bennetts’ original business acumen remains the same 111 years later as a diversified group of small business owners share the three levels and 9,600 sq. ft. that make up Bennett Place.
Chuck Gross, who bought the building in 1974, says an estimated 50 tenants have set up shop inside its doors. “They love to be downtown,” Gross says. “Excelsior has always had an interesting mix. People like to get away from the shopping crowds to privately-owned businesses that are merchandising unique things.”
What was once known as Bennett’s Livery Barn—now Bennett Place—is No. 22 on a list of local historic places, according to the Excelsior Heritage Preservation Commission. “This wooden, false-front former livery barn, reminiscent of the ‘Old West,’ is Excelsior’s only remaining vestige of that style of early business structures,” reads Historic Excelsior. “It looks much the same as it did when built in 1899.”
Bennett Place has also incubated some thriving businesses which have since moved out on their own. With the advent of the car, Ray and Frank Mason started Mason Motors—a service garage and dealership for Star, Durant and Willys Overland cars—and ran it out of the building from 1922 to 1946 before moving to Water Street where it still tunes up cars today, the historical society says.
The restaurant Antiquity Rose started out in the front of Bennett Place in 1974 and remained there for two years, says its owner Bernadine Blader. Then, like Mason Motors, Antiquity Rose moved across the street to thrive on its own.
The historic building was also a trendsetter. Handiwash, one of the area’s first coin-operated laundromats, resided in a section of the building from 1946 to 1982, the historical society says.
“That’s one of the things about the building: There have always been entrepreneurs in it,” says Julie Woodward, herself an entrepreneur selling European home accessories and gifts at My European Treasures.
The Excelsior Heritage Preservation Commission has worked with building owner Gross to maintain the historic look of the building in regards to signage, colors and architectural modifications. “They want us to be as coordinated and as quaint as possible,” Gross says. “What we’ve tried to do is accentuate the nature of the building on the inside, so when you walk into a store, you get a feel.”
In Deli By the Bay inside Bennett Place, Gross has a poster on the wall from September 15, 1915, which advertises the live auction at Bennett Brothers’ Livery Stable. “It says free lunch at noon,” Gross says. “I think it’s kind of neat.”
While technology has changed and the horse-and-buggy means of transportation has become a thing of the past, the Bennetts’ spirit and former home of their nineteenth-century business lives on, remaining strong into Excelsior’s future.