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Welcome to Summit Avenue. An impressive street filled with impressive homes - as well as some fabulous greenspaces and beautiful churches. We’ll begin in the little park, known as Lookout Park, on the corner of Summit, between Western and Arundel. Once we get moving, I’ll let you know when we’re going to move onto the next stop, what the address of that stop will be, and mention anything else you might want to notice as you walk along. Just press pause whenever you need a little time and follow along with the map. Remember, this tour moves geographically, not chronologically. The houses that you see on Summit today are a mixture of styles and eras. They were built between 1860 and 1960, so don’t fool yourself - in some cases, neighbors would have had to step over the hydrangeas and through a time warp to borrow that cup of sugar.
If you’re in the park, I’ll let you in on a little history secret. The park where we’re standing, known as Lookout Park, has been a public park since the late 1800s -in fact, this was one of the first public parks in St. Paul. However, around one hundred and fifty years ago, a hotel was built into the side of the hill - Carpenter’s Hotel. St. Paul was the head of the navigable part of the Mississippi River, so many people getting off the steamboats needed a place to stay. But this hotel, away from the river, might have been more of a destination, overlooking the river valley below. By the 1890s, the hotel had been torn down and it’s been a public park ever since. The sculpture of an eagle that you see was originally on the New York Life Insurance Company, for a brief time graced a parking garage, and has been in Lookout Park since the early part of this century.
We’re standing at one of the best views along Summit Avenue. We think it’s a perfect place to begin. Take a moment to just stand still. Take a deep breath. Look around. What do you see? See the bluffs in the distance? The big trees along the avenue? The pedestrians, joggers, cars, homes? The corner where we are standing, with Ramsey Hill coming up to meet Summit Avenue, has seen a lot of activity over the past 100 years. Since the beginning, Summit Avenue and the neighboring streets were a social area -the people who lived here worked together, socialized together, went to church together, and their children married one another, and frequently they moved into other homes in the area. So as you stand here, imagine all the activity that this corner has seen over the decades. All the comings and goings, rushings and strollings, heart breaks and first kisses that make up the daily lives of Saint Paul residents along Summit. It’s a lot like our own lives… but maybe just a little more decadent.
Find where you are again, if you’ve wandered off. We’ll be heading West. Towards Dale Street. Away from downtown. And our first official stop will be just across the street on the corner of Summit and Ramsey Street at 420 Summit. Press ahead to the next track when you’re ready. I recommend you cross the Ramsey Street to get a better, up-front view. See you there!
Just in front of you, you can see the University Club, situated at a prime location on the corner of Ramsey Hill and Summit Avenue, with a great view out the back windows over the river valley. This building was designed by Reed and Stem in 1913 – the same architecture firm that designed the St. Paul Hotel and who co-designed Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Check out the front: it has a center entrance with two large wings to either side. That style is Tudor Revival. There are three elements of this style you can see. First, the steep roof line. Second, the half-timbered exteriors, the section of white walls accented with brown vertical lines, which would have originally been wood in Tudor England. Third, the gables, the line of the roof that looks like an upside-down V in the center and on the sides of the building.
This men’s club was founded by many of the second-generation sons on Summit Avenue. The story for many families on Summit was that the initial wealth to buy a home on the Avenue was earned through hard work, frequently by men without a college or even a high school degree. Anxious for their sons to have a good education, many were sent off to boarding schools and universities out east, where University Clubs were all the rage. Returning to St. Paul, they decided to build their own University Club – to which, ironically, their fathers would not have been allowed membership, not possessing university degrees. Today, people without university degrees can also become members through a special application, and women are allowed to be members, too!
Take a look next door. That’s where we’re headed. 432 Summit Ave, also known as the Livingston Griggs House. Press on to track 3!
We’re standing on the sidewalk, in front of 432 Summit, looking up the walk to the second oldest house still standing on Summit Avenue. When it was built in 1862, there was a hotel across the street on the site of Lookout Park, where we started, and there were a total of six other houses on Summit Avenue. This house was here for fifty years before the University Club next door was built!
The house was built with the latest technology of the time, including gas lighting and hot and cold running water, and cost $22,000 to construct in 1862. The original owner, James Burbank, was a transportation entrepreneur, involved with steamboats and stagecoaches, as well as other business ventures. Today the house is frequently referred to as the Burbank Livingstone Griggs house, named after three of the earliest residents of the house.
Architecturally, the house is considered to be in the Italian villa style. Looking at the house, one of the first features of the style is the low-pitched roof, low-pitched meaning that the roof is not very steep. Also you can see decorative brackets, what look like supports just under the roof. Another feature you notice instantly is the cupola, right in the center of the roof. A few changes have been made to the outside of the house over the years, including multiple versions of the front porch, and the addition of the three beautiful round-topped windows to the right of the door in 1884. However, the most extensive changes cannot be seen from the outside. In 1925, Mary Livingston Griggs, the fifth owner of the house, began to make significant changes inside. Mary wanted her house to have not only European influence, but European decorations. She purchased actual rooms from French and Italian houses that were being demolished, installing literally everything, from the furniture, fixtures, wall coverings, and so forth into the house – most of which are now believed to be forgeries. Can you imagine this house, with each room representing another country? In the 1930s, she added an art deco ballroom in the basement, said to be for her teenage daughter’s birthday party – wouldn’t you love to be her!
In a moment we’ll proceed to your right. Feel free to start walking. You’ll notice, just to the right of the Livingston Burbank house, a little alley-like street called Summit Court. We’re not going this way, but make sure to explore it on your own. This is one of my favorite spots in Saint Paul, hidden away behind the houses on Summit Avenue. Let’s move on, take your time, and I’ll see you again at 516 Summit, a yellow brick house on the corner of Summit and Heather. If you’re counting, it’ll be the 8th house on your left. While you’re walking, check out the houses in between. See if you can name any aspects of the styles we’ve learned so far…
We’re standing in front of 516 Summit, a little gem of a house that was built for a member of the Butler family, a family known locally for Butler Brothers construction, who among many other things built the MN State Capitol. This house was finished in 1914 – so if you’re tracking, the year after the University Club, the first building we saw today. This house is considered to be in the Italian Renaissance style. That style is very closely related to the Italian Villa style we just saw on the Burbank Livingston Griggs house – take a moment and see if you can spot any details of the Italian styles! I’ll give you a hint –look at the roof and you should see two features - the low-pitched roofline and the decorative brackets, both of which were introduced on our previous stop. A new feature, and a great word for Scrabble players, are the decorative white stone pieces you see wrapping around the corners of the house, called quoins, q-u-o-i-n-s. The yellow color of the brick, a more romantic color not seen very often on Summit Avenue, has caused at least one person to nickname this house the “lemon meringue” house.
For a brief time in 1917, author Sinclair Lewis lived in this house. Rumor had it he was working on a book on James J. Hill, but that book was never completed. [St. Paul is actually one of many towns that has claimed to be the fictional Zenith in Lewis’ work, Babbitt.] But Sinclair Lewis is not the only literary connection to Summit Avenue. F. Scott Fitzgerald had ties you’ll be hearing more about in a bit, as did the 1930’s screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart. In more modern times, the Summit Avenue neighborhood has been home to playwright August Wilson, Minnesota author Patricia Hampl, and author and radio personality Garrison Keillor.
Well, it’s time to move on to our next stop. Enjoy the variety of styles of houses and apartments you’ll see on your way. I’ll meet you at 590 Summit Avenue.
If you’re taking this tour on foot, to get the best view of 590 Summit I recommend that you stand a little to the left of the house, so you’re able to see the side of the house and the Japanese-inspired gardens.
Now, you might think that this house looks much more modern than many houses we’ve discussed and passed so far on Summit Avenue, but in fact it was constructed in 1913 - the same year as the University Club and the year before our previous stop at 516 Summit. Like most houses on Summit, this home was designed by an architect - actually, a pair of architects, and their firm is still around today as Ellerbe Becket. Here in St. Paul, you can see a recent example of their work at the Science Museum of Minnesota - they designed the Omnitheater/IMAX double screen there - one of my favorite movie theaters in town!
But back to the house. One of the features causing it to look more modern is the lack of ornamentation. Take a look - there isn’t any carving, there aren’t any pillars, there aren’t any decorative brackets. Instead, this house is built in a style known as the Prairie Style, best known by the work of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. This style was designed to reflect the Midwestern prairie terrain, with a horizontal emphasis. As you look at this house, you will notice the straight lines throughout the house - primarily horizontal. Look again and you notice the lack of curves. One of my favorite features on this house is the dark red trim around the windows, another feature of many Prairie-style houses. I particularly like the way it pops with the green of the garden. The Prairie style was gaining momentum in the Twin Cities around this time, the early 1910s, but you will find very few houses in the Prairie style along the 4 ½ mile length of Summit Avenue - and this is the only one we’ll see on our tour today.
Our next stop is certainly not the only one we’ll see today -it’s an apartment building. I’ll tell you a little more about the history of apartments on Summit Avenue when I meet you next in front of 610 Summit Avenue.
Imagine for a moment that you live in one of the grand houses we’ve stopped at already, or perhaps another favorite you’ve discovered along the way. As you’re living in your dream home, the empty lot next door is suddenly under construction – and instead of building a house, they’re building an apartment building! How do you think you’d react?
Well, in the early 1900s, as this started to happen here on Summit, the residents did react – they got together and petitioned to create Summit Avenue into one of the first residential-only neighborhoods in St. Paul. After a lot of back-and-forthing, by the early 1920s, Summit Avenue was officially a residential-only area – meaning no more apartment buildings could be built.
Now look at the building in front of you. What you see are two apartment buildings, and they were actually built in the late 1920s. How’d that happen? This site, and a few others in the area, were left out of the Summit Avenue residential district at the request of the landowners – who didn’t want to loose potential money by being forced to build single family homes.
Today, and probably at the time, even having an apartment on Summit provides that Summit Avenue cache –which people have been wanting since development on Summit Avenue first started, way back in the 1850s. One person I’ve already mentioned definitely wanted that cache – F. Scott Fitzgerald. For parts of his early life, his parents moved almost every year – and nearly every move was within the four block area just north of where we’re walking today. As an adult, Fitzgerald continued this pattern – an extreme example of early 20th century mobility!
Our next stop is actually one of the places where Fitzgerald lived. However, it’s on the other side of the street from where we’re currently standing, so it’s time to cross Summit Avenue. Please walk up the street to Dale, where you see the stoplight, to cross to the other side of Summit using the crosswalk. If you have to wait for the light to change, note the red house on the northwest corner of the street -across Summit and on the other side of Dale. That house was actually built for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s grandmother, Louisa McQuillan, in the late 1890s.
Once you’ve crossed Summit, head back down the street -toward our starting location today. I’ll meet you in front of 599 Summit Avenue.
People often ask me, “Where’s F. Scott Fitzgerald’s house?” Well, as you know, the truth is there isn’t just one house – but frequently, this one is the one people are looking for. 599 Summit Avenue is one of two Fitzgerald residences that have a plaque commemorating the author – the other is at his birthplace, a few blocks north of here, at 481 Laurel Avenue.
I’ve already mentioned how frequently the Fitzgeralds moved when Scott was a boy – particularly when they returned to St. Paul from Buffalo, New York, in 1908, when young Scott was 12 years old. Those moves were all in apartments and houses in the blocks just north of where we’re standing at the moment. Now fast forward about ten years, and Fitzgerald is a struggling author, trying to make his way in New York City. His fiancée, Zelda, has broken off their engagement, partially because she doesn’t think he can support them with his writing. So F. Scott Fitzgerald, sad and dejected, returned to St. Paul to make one last attempt to revise his manuscript and get it published. By this point his parents were living here, at 599 Summit, and although they didn’t approve of his choice of profession, they allowed him to live on the third floor while trying to finish his book. That fall, Scribner’s accepted the manuscript, and in the spring of 1920, Scott and Zelda were married and This Side of Paradise was published, launching F. Scott Fitzgerald to instant fame.
In case you’re wondering about the house, it’s not quite an apartment and it’s not quite a house – it’s actually a row house, with each three-storey having its own door.
Our next stop is a bit different once again – this time, it’s a garden. I’ll see you up the street at the garden gates just past 533 Summit.
We’re pausing just for a moment here to look at Summit Avenue’s own secret garden. This is a rather unusual re-use of land on Summit - the house that originally stood here was torn down in 1970. Why? - I don’t know. At some point after that, the land was purchased by the people in the house behind it, on Portland Avenue. Apparently before they decided to plant the garden, the owners wanted to install a swimming pool – as you can probably guess, that didn’t meet the zoning requirements for Summit Avenue, so the garden was designed instead. Please respect the fact that it is a private garden, but as you walk past, keep your eyes out for some lovely sculptures, including a rather large rhinoceros.
Our next stop is a few houses down, at 445 Summit. On your way, you’ll have a great view of the houses across the street. The one with a large skylight in the top floor was used as an art school in the 1930s, during which time the skylight was added. I’ll see you at 445 Summit.
Here we are at 445 Summit, a superb example of another house style popular in the 1880s and 1890s, called Queen Anne. This house is believed to be the first Queen Anne-style house in St. Paul. It was started in 1882, and many local architectural historians consider it one of the finest examples of the style in the city.
Why? Well, quite a few of the architectural details that make up the Queen Anne style can be seen here, combined in a visually pleasing manner to give it subdued architectural oomph.
Here are three features to notice: One, look at the roofline. Not only does it have a much more steeply pitched roof than the Italianate styles, but it has gables and dormer windows throughout the entire roof. Two, note the multiple materials used in the house – stone on the bottom, stucco and wood in a Tudor pattern on the 2nd floor, and slate under the windows on the 3rd floor. Three, the façade, or front of the house, is not flat – it has protrusions sticking out. For a great comparison of all three elements, look across the street to the Burbank Livingston Griggs house.
This house is also usually referred to by the names of its first owners, so may heard it referred to as the Shipman Greve house.
Our next and final stop is around the corner and actually just across the street from the University Club. The address is 435 Summit. Look for the wooden lady holding her parasol – I’ll see you there.
Here we have yet another house style - the 1950s rambler. You might be thinking - what is this house doing on Summit Avenue? Like many of the houses we see on Summit today, this was not the first house on this property - it’s actually the third. The first 1870s house was replaced with a newer one in the 1890s, and, well, that was torn down in the 1930s. The house you see in front of you was built on the vacant lot in 1954.
Just as all the houses on Summit Avenue were built in the popular style of their time, this house was built in the popular style of its time. Today Summit Avenue is a historic district, which means that anything 50 years or older must be treated as a historic property – and that means that this is safely part of Summit’s history, just like all the turn of the century mansions.
The wooden lady you see in front of the house by the fence is a chainsaw sculpture made from burr oak. The current owners name this lady as Nina Clifford, Madame of one of St. Paul’s early brothels. Here she is, nearly where we started, enjoying one of the best views along the Avenue, looking down over the Mississippi River Valley below.