Historic Mendota Gallery

I had some free time last weekend so I decided to venture down to historic Mendota. You may remember my photos this summer from the Sibley Historic Site, but there are a few other places nearby that I wanted to see.

I stopped at the Sibley and Faribault houses first, then spent some time at the historic St. Peter’s Church, and finally walked through the church’s historic cemetery. If you love historic cemeteries, be sure to put this one on your list. It had all of my favorite things—pretty monuments, graves dating back to the 1860s (or later, many were too weathered to read), and a lot of quiet time to reflect. 

Finding the Extraordinary in University Grove

University Grove is an eclectic jumble of 20th-century homes situated on tree-lined streets in a secluded area near the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota. The 103 architect-designed homes are virtually all owned by University of Minnesota faculty and administrators. Considered by many to be an architectural time capsule, the Grove evolved from a couple of blocks of English Tudor and Colonial homes to eight blocks of contemporary vernacular architecture.

In 1928, University vice-president William Middlebrook devised a unique leasehold system in an attempt to attract new professors to the University by offering them high quality, yet affordable housing. Under this scheme, residents build or purchase the home, but the University retains ownership of the land it sits on. The University then leases the land back to residents for between $75 and $200 annually. This arrangement allows the University to control the evolution of the neighborhood without the risk of developing it themselves.

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Sibley Historic Site in Mendota

Over Memorial Day weekend, I was lucky enough to attend the pre-grand opening of the Sibley Historic Site in Mendota with several of my DAR friends. After a brief reception, we were given a private tour of the buildings at the site while reenactors from the fur trade era set up tents and replicas of a birchbark canoe and bateau on the lawn. The site is open to visitors on Saturday and Sunday from 1:00 until 4:00 pm, Memorial Day through Labor Day. Even if you can’t make it to one of the tours, there are interpretive signs and a small self-guided audio (via your cell phone) tour.

The Sibley House was built in 1836 for Henry Hastings Sibley. Sibley lived in the house for eight years before marrying Sarah Jane Steele. In May 1840, their home served as the temporary territorial headquarters while Territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey visited Sibley in Mendota.

The people of Minnesota elected Henry Sibley to be their first governor on May 11, 1858. He narrowly beat out his friend Alexander Ramsey for the job. In 1862, Sibley moved to St. Paul and sold his home in Mendota to St. Peter’s Catholic Parish. The house was subsequently leased to several parties but was later abandoned. Railroad transients took over the house and used the hardwood floors, stairway, and millwork for fires. The house was left in ruin.

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The Gates of Stonebridge

In 1907, St. Paul businessman and inventor Oliver Crosby purchased twenty-eight acres of land on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River in St. Paul. There, he built a twenty thousand square foot brick estate that he called Stonebridge. In his book Once There Were Castles, author Larry Millett claims that Stonebridge was “the greatest estate ever built in St. Paul.”

The house was remarkable, but the grounds were what visitors raved about. There were two artificial lakes, large sunken gardens, a 100-foot-long pergola, and a reservoir that fed a series of waterfalls that flowed beneath the picturesque stone bridge that gave the house its name.

Crosby only lived at Stonebridge for six years; he died in 1922. Most of the property around Stonebridge was sold off after Crosby’s wife Elizabeth died, but the mansion stayed intact until 1944 when it was tax-forfeited to the state. Unable to find a use for the mansion, the state demolished Stonebridge in 1953.

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The Olympis Quartet

Meet the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railway’s singing porters. This group of gentlemen were known as the Olympis Quartet in 1922. Many railway lines throughout the country trained their porters in quartet singing to entertain train guests.

Photo courtesy of the New Brighton Area Historical Society.

St. Patrick’s Day parade in St. Paul

More than 300 people were on hand for the first St. Patrick’s Day parade in St. Paul in 1851. For several years the parades were led by the Irish Catholic Temperance Society, and in 1856 the Benevolent Society of Erin hosted a dinner complete with toasts of cold water instead of liquor. After the Civil War, the festivities began to get rowdy and lasted much of the day and well into the night. By the turn of the century, Archbishop John Ireland had enough of the indulgent celebrations that had turned into what he called “midnight orgies”, and put a stop to the parade and celebrations.

It wasn’t until 1967 that another St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in St. Paul. Planning for the parade took place in just two months, but many traditions we see today came from that first parade, such as the swath of emerald paint down the center of the parade route. The tradition of crowning Ms. Shamrock began with that first parade too–Agnes Sullivan was the lucky lady. The parade started at noon and left from Hilton (now the Radisson) and proceeded down Kellogg Blvd. to the St. Paul Hotel; the entire parade lasted only 40 minutes.

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St. Agatha’s Conservatory of Music and Art

As the nineteenth century began to wind down, the residents of Minneapolis and St. Paul became eager to establish institutions that would nurture American culture while enhancing a reputation of philanthropy within the music and art communities of the Twin Cities. The task of enriching residents with these types of cultural institutions was taken up by notable names like William Dunwoody and James J. Hill—both contributors and trustees of The Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts, and T.B. Walker—founder of the Walker Art Gallery. From there, establishing schools of fine art and music education was made a priority. The first of these schools, St. Agatha’s Conservatory of Music and Art, was established in 1884. The Northwestern Conservatory of Minneapolis (1885), The Minneapolis School of Art (1886), and the St. Paul School of Fine Arts (1894) followed soon after.

Originally established under the name St. Agatha’s Conservatory and Convent, the school was conceived by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St. Paul Province, under the guidance of Mother Seraphine (a.k.a. Ella Ireland—sister of Archbishop John Ireland).  The initial school and convent was located in a rented home at Tenth and Main Street in St. Paul. It housed twenty sisters who taught in parochial schools around the city. The convent was intended to be entirely self-supporting. Classrooms were added so the sisters could teach music and needlework in the evenings in order to generate the funds needed to run the facility.

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Artist Nicholas Brewer

Nicholas Brewer was a prominent 19th-century portrait and landscape painter. He was born in Olmsted County and was raised on a farm along the Root River. He was a student at the National Academy of Design in New York, where he also exhibited. Once he moved back to Minnesota, Brewer painted a crucifixion scene in the Cathedral of St. Paul. He was highly sought after as a portrait painter in the Twin Cities. He painted portraits of notable citizens such as Theodore Hamm, Frank Kellogg, and John Ireland, among others. This photo from 1900 shows Brewer in his St. Paul studio. The large portrait on the right is of Father Thomas J. Ducey, founder of St. Leo’s Roman Catholic Church in New York City.

Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The Emporium

The Emporium opened in downtown St. Paul in 1920. It was located on the corner of Robert and Seventh Streets, which was a busy shopping district at the time. Rothschild’s, the Golden Rule, Schuneman’s, and Donaldson’s were all within a few blocks at one time or another. The Emporium’s millinery department and crystal shop rivaled those of the bigger-named stores. The Tea Room was a favorite lunch spot for shoppers and people who worked downtown. The Emporium and Tea Room closed in 1968. Although the façade has drastically changed, the building still stands and houses offices.
Photos courtesy of the Pioneer Press Archive

Travel in style!

Here is an interior view of the North Coast Limited All-Pullman train. The train went into service on May 16, 1930. The modern Pullman car was exhibited for a week before going into service at Saint Paul’s Union Station.

Photo courtesy of the New Brighton Area Historical Society

Indian Mounds Park Toboggan Slide

Toboggan slide at Indian Mounds Park in St. Paul. When these photos were taken in 1939, the park covered 135 acres and included this slide, a warming house, refectory house, two tennis courts, and six horseshoe courts.

Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

James J. Hill’s North Oaks Farm

James J. Hill was the preeminent transportation pioneer in the American Northwest. He arrived in St. Paul, Minnesota on a steamboat in 1856 and planned on becoming a trapper and trader. Instead, he found work with a steamboat company. During the Civil War, Hill learned the business of buying, selling, and transporting goods. Through connections made during this time, he was able to move into a more lucrative position with the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad. His entrepreneurial spirit lead him to start a new business which would supply the StP&P with coal for fuel. Skip ahead to 1883 and Hill had acquired the StP&P and incorporated it into the St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba Railway Co. and was now the railway president. Under Hill’s direction, the railway prospered and its net worth increased by $24 million in just five years.

As James J. Hill’s professional interests took his railway west to the Pacific, his personal interests were firmly locked in Minnesota. He dreamed of experimenting with cutting-edge agricultural practices that would improve farming for the immigrants that were flooding into Minnesota on his railroad. In 1880, he acquired 160-acres of land on Lake Minnetonka’s Crystal Bay. He named it Hillier Farm. Hill set his mind to use the farm to breed stock that would improve the cattle available to farmers along his railroad lines. In December of 1881 Hill began purchasing land in the fertile Red River Valley near Hallock, Minnesota. The 45,000-acres of land he purchased became known as Humboldt Farm and was run as a basic bonanza farm. Eventually, 3,000-acres of Humboldt would be split off and managed by Hill’s youngest son, Walter, under the name Northcote Farm. Finally, in 1883 Hill purchased 3,500-acres of land in Ramsey County for $50,000. This investment would expand to nearly 5,500-acres and serve not only as a farm, but also as Hill’s country estate. It became known as North Oaks Farm.

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Wilder Public Baths

It’s hard to imagine a time when taking a bath or shower in your own home wasn’t possible, but the convenience of showering on a regular basis is a modern luxury. One hundred years ago, a great deal of working-class homes in St. Paul lacked bathing facilities. People living in rooming houses and along the Mississippi flats didn’t even have running water. Public beaches were a popular way to wash away the dirt and sweat from hard work, but they were only available in the summer. Recognizing the public need for a year-round facility for people to clean themselves, the Amherst H. Wilder Charities established a facility where anyone could have a “shower bath” — no matter the weather.

Cornelia Day Wilder was the only child of Amherst and Fanny Wilder. She grew up on St. Paul’s swish Summit Avenue, just two houses down from the James J. Hill house. As a child, Cornelia recognized her privileged position in St. Paul and decided to use it to help the poor. Throughout her life, she volunteered her time and money to help the less fortunate. Through her stories from the front lines of helping the poor, Amherst and Fanny recognized the need to provide funds to benefit people in need.

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Hamm’s Homes of Sky Blue Waters

From the Land of Sky Blue Waters,
From the land of pines, lofty balsams,
Comes the beer refreshing,
Hamm’s the beer refreshing.

The Theodore Hamm Brewing Company was established in 1865 when Theodore Hamm foreclosed on a struggling brewery in the Dayton’s Bluff area of St. Paul. After just a few years under his guidance, Hamm’s became one of the largest breweries in the country. Theodore and his wife Louise had six children — William, Louisa, Wilhemina, Josephine, Marie, and Emma.

While away on an extended trip to Europe, the Hamm children built a red brick home at 671 Cable Street, now Greenbrier Street, for Theodore and Louise. The twenty-room, Queen Anne style home was completed in 1886 atop a hill that overlooked the brewery. The mansion and family homes on Cable Street were all heated by steam that was piped up the hill from the brewery. After Theodore’s death in 1903, William and his family moved into the mansion and lived there until his death in 1931. The home then became a boarding house for a few years. A teenage arsonist set fire to the vacant home in April 1954. The damage wasn’t extreme, but it was extensive enough to make the home unsafe. The mansion was demolished.

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Secret Ruins Give Clues to an Opulent Past

Before Summit Avenue became a magnet for the state’s empire builders, St. Paul’s elite built their estates in the Sherburne Hill neighborhood (today known as Capitol Heights.) By the time construction on the State Capitol was complete, many of the 15 mansions that stood on the hill had faded into shabby gentility or been razed, leaving barely a trace of the opulent park-like neighborhood that stood above the saintly city. This area, however, still holds secret ruins that are a clue to its grand past.

Today, the Cass Gilbert Memorial Park features a banal concrete overlook that gives visitors a view of downtown from above. The view is nothing short of spectacular on clear summer evenings. This panorama was coveted by the progenitors of St. Paul as well.

In 1882 William Merriam built an imposing, Queen-Anne style home atop Sherburne Hill. Sherburne Avenue was extended to accommodate the mansion, but ended nearby in a grand cul-de-sac that became known as Merriam’s Overlook. After completing the plans for Merriam’s home, architect Clarence Johnston designed a curving stone retaining wall to match the red stone exterior of the home. Lining the edge of the hill, an ornate wrought-iron fence added elegant refinement to the wall, and a small but opulent fountain made of brass sat at the end of the cul-de-sac. A walkway and stone steps allowed pedestrians to access the outlook from Robert Street below. Elegant street lamps were added after the turn-of-the-century to illuminate the road and walkway.

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Who Killed Ruth Munson?

On Thursday, December 9, 1937, the badly burned body of Ruth Margaret Munson was found in the southwest corridor on the second floor of the Aberdeen Hotel in St. Paul. Munson and two friends were laughing and happy as they danced and listened to the orchestra for four hours at the Ace Box Bar, 2360 University Avenue, the previous evening. So what happened to Ruth between 12:30 a.m. when she left the bar, and 7:00 a.m. when her body was discovered?

St. Paul’s Oakland Cemetery

Under the cover of darkness, the living and the dead would come together to Jackson Woods. Here, the living would offer their final goodbyes to their loved ones before burying them in an unmarked grave under a canopy of old oak trees. Much to the chagrin of Mr. Jackson, his wooded paradise on the northern edge of St. Paul had become a popular burial site for those who couldn’t afford a proper burial or lacked ties to a local church. By 1853 Mr. Jackson had petitioned the city to allocate funds to purchase property that could be used for non-sectarian burials.

That same year, a group of prominent citizens gathered the money needed to buy a 40-acre parcel of oak savannah with gentle rolling hills just to the north of Jackson Woods to be used as a city cemetery.  Promoters of this new cemetery boasted that the site was so remote that there was little chance that “the hum of industry would ever disturb its rural quiet.”1 As the cemetery slowly developed, and more land was purchased, Chicago-based landscape architect Hoarce W.S. Cleveland was retained to fashion the cemetery into the rural garden design that was popular for cemeteries at the time. In 1873, Cleveland took the rectangular tract of land, 80-acres at this time, and designed an open curvilinear plan that did not try to change the nature of the topography, but enhance it and maximize its beauty. Winding pathways followed the natural contours of the land and groves of giant oak trees offered visitors a sense of serenity and comfort.

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The Grandest Apartment Hotel in the Twin Cities

The Aberdeen Hotel may not have been the first luxury apartment hotel in the Twin Cities, but it was undeniably the grandest of them all. Built in 1889 for $250,000, the hotel was located just three blocks from St. Paul’s exclusive Summit Avenue and catered to high-end clientele seeking the comforts of home without the annoyance of keeping house. Governor John A. Johnson called the hotel home from 1904 to 1910, and St. Paul Cathedral architect Emmanuel Masqueray lived at the Aberdeen for several years.

The main floor of the hotel featured an opulent lobby and a grand ballroom. The café offered meals by request for residents and visitors in an elegant dining room. Fourteen of the hotel’s units were available as single rooms for travelers, while the other seventy-eight were arranged as two- to eight-room residential suites that could include a reception room, kitchen, pantry, dining room, library, and a balcony. Every unit in the hotel had a private bath, which was not a common amenity at the time. For five dollars per night, two dollars more than any other hotel in St. Paul, the Aberdeen offered guests every possible convenience for comfortable family living.

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The Rise of the Selby Avenue Streetcar Line

As the population of St. Paul grew, people began moving out of the city’s core and into quieter, cleaner residential areas west of downtown. One of the most popular areas to live in the late 1800s was the St. Anthony Hill (now known as Cathedral Hill) area. People still needed to get from their homes on top of the hill, to the offices, factories, and shops downtown, as well as into the transportation hub – Union Depot. To facilitate this, the Selby Avenue streetcar line was built in 1888 and was quickly extended to the Merriam Park neighborhood in 1890. By 1906 even more westward expansion was needed, so the Selby line merged with the Lake Street line in Minneapolis – which had just been completed the year before. In order to bring the two lines together, track was laid across the wrought-iron Lake Street bridge. At that time the bridge, originally built in 1889, was the second oldest bridge in use over the Mississippi River.

With the newly christened Selby-Lake line up and running, the streetcars were making more runs between Minneapolis and St. Paul at all times of the day. Most of the ride was steady and uneventful; people often remarked how lovely it was to ride with the gentle rocking of the car and the various things to see along the line. But once the streetcar reached the 16 percent grade of the St. Anthony Hill, the ride became slower, rougher, and there were often long backups because the counterweight system could not handle all of the cars fast enough to avoid delays – especially in the winter.

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The Metropolitan Hotel in St. Paul

Built in 1869-70, the Metropolitan Hotel once stood at the corner of Washington and Third Street in St. Paul. On June 27, 1870 proprietor Gilbert Dutcher opened the hotel in grand style. The Metropolitan was identified as St. Paul’s premier hotel for many years. Prominent local businessmen and out-of-town movers and shakers would meet at the hotel to discuss business and politics.

The Twilight Club, an informal club involving so many prominent men and exerting, without any glare of ostentation or publicity such a marked influence on public opinion that it should have honorable mention in any catalogue of the city’s valuable institutions, met at the Metropolitan Hotel from  1889 until 1893 when the club disbanded. Some say the Twilight Club shared many members with the Minnesota Club, which was founded by Henry Sibley and Norman Kittson in 1869. When the Minnesota Club grew out of its original space on Cedar Street, they began looking for a new home.

With the opulence of St. Paul society at the turn of the century, the Metropolitan Hotel began to fall out of favor with St. Paul’s elite.  Several proprietors had come and gone and the hotel was becoming dingy and catered more to the average citizen than society’s upper crust. Most knew the hotel’s days were numbered.

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The End of the Line: Wildwood Amusement Park

Take any car for Wildwood at Wabasha and 7th Streets. Fare to Wildwood, each way, 15 cents; time, 40 minutes; distance, 12 miles. Past North St. Paul and Silver Lake, with pretty farms and ever-changing verdant pictures on all sides, the line sweeps into Wildwood, the beautiful, where one may find rest, comfort, coolness, and kindred delights of the good old summertime.
– Twin City Rapid Transit Company Advertising

What’s your favorite summertime memory? Swimming? Roller coasters? Fishing? Dancing? For many young people in St. Paul, a trip to Wildwood Amusement Park on the shores of White Bear Lake would have been worth boasting about on the first day back to school.

In 1899, the Twin City Rapid Transit Company extended it’s reach to the southeastern shore of White Bear Lake. The rail line ran to and from St. Paul along present-day Lincolntown and Old Wildwood Roads. To encourage city-dwellers to ride the streetcars out of the city, they built a large amusement park. From Memorial Day until Labor Day you could ride from St. Paul to the end of the line where you would exit the streetcar, descend some steps, and enter Wildwood Amusement Park through a low tunnel under the rails. Admission to the amusement park was always free.

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