On the first cool, cloudy day of autumn, ASID members gathered for our Fall Social. This year, the event was a Summit Ave Walking Tour and happy hour at Moscow on the Hill.

As the Cathedral bells chimed 4 PM, a group of about 40 designers split into two smaller groups to begin the tour. Jessica Sutherland, leader of our group and Program Manager at the James J. Hill House, provided an enjoyable mix of history of the area, the families who lived there, and the architecture they’ve left behind. There was even a splash of information regarding present-day affairs including hints about current-day occupants, renovations, and new developments in the area. What follows are a few highlights from the tour along with photos of some of the grand estates.

Summit Avenue is an example of a “monument boulevard” and all four miles of it are on the National Historic Registry. Monument boulevards were established during the Gilded Age, which is the time between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War I (1870-early 1900s).  It is one of the most well-preserved avenues in the country with predominantly original architecture. The only other monument boulevard in existence in the Twin Cities is Park Avenue, which is located in Minneapolis.  Families like the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Carnegies, and the Hills established the neighborhoods as they rose to power through their great financial success with enterprises such as railroads, banking, and the urbanization of the country.

Saint Paul is a city that keenly used city planning to reflect its social order. As one climbed the social ladder, they climbed the river bluffs as well. At the top of it all is Summit Avenue. Doctors, lawyers, bankers, and business owners are currently the primary demographic of this neighborhood, which are similar in occupation to the historical owners.

In 1850, the port at Saint Paul, which officially became a city in 1854, was the northern most navigable point of the Mississippi River. Summit Avenue’s first two homes were built in 1855 and 1856. By 1860, the city had a population of 10,000 and there were six houses on the avenue. There were no trees in the area at the time because the lumber companies had cleared the land.  Between1882 and 1900, the area acquired plumbing, electricity and water.  James J. Hill purchased these first two homes and demolished them to build his own home in 1882.

The James J. Hill house was home to the Hills and eight of their ten children. When it was built, it was the largest and most expensive home in Minnesota and state of the art with its central heat, electricity and indoor plumbing. It is 36,000 square feet of living area with 42 rooms, including 19 bedrooms and 13 bathrooms. The home was built in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, defined by its rough, rusticated red sandstone, asymmetry, large pillars and rounded arches.

Next on the block was the home of James Hill’s third son Louis, who succeeded him as President of the Great Northern Railroad. He built the home as a wedding gift for his son. The original home was built by Clarence H. Johnston, also known for his work on the Glen sheen Mansion in Duluth, MN.  In 1912, another 25,000 square feet was added to the home, including a ballroom and an indoor swimming pool.

Across the street is a classic example of the “conspicuous consumption” of the Gilded Age. This age was defined by a drive to spend lots of money, but only where it matters and where you can see it. The front half of the house looks like many of the properties on the avenue, but the back is barely recognizable as the same building. The bare bones architects didn’t waste any money on the alley side of the project.

Of particular interest along the route are the more recent projects that led to the development of the Summit Hill Association. They are a nonprofit organization that represents all who live or own a business in the area. In 1977, the first condos were built along the avenue with garages along the road, which was something that was not previously present. The original homes along the avenue have their carriage houses in the back of the property. This new development made the association realize that restrictions on new architecture needed to be established. (This particular property solved the garage door issue by planting a large hedge row. This was not the ideal solution, but an adequate one.) In the 1980’s, a second condo building went in, which was built in a Cape Code style and utilized some of the original landscaping. In 1995, the most recent condo building arrived and the historical society dictated the aesthetic.

Another interesting, if sad, point along the route was the Saunder’s House at 323 Summit Ave. This property is an example of a home in a historic district that is not being maintained. The Historic Society can dictate the upgrades you make to a home, but they cannot make you keep it up.

The avenue supports a wide range of architectural styles. The Richardsonian Romanesque style of the Hill House is repeated a few more times down the row. Other styles that make an appearance are:

  • Georgian homes with their symmetry and lovely porticos, slate rooftops, and marble accents.
  • Victorian homes with pitched rooflines, asymmetry, and details galore.
  • Italianate Style homes with their defining corbels, and quoins, pediment windows and doors, and roof balustrades.
  • Queen Anne Gothic Style homes with gables and detailing.

Some homes have evolved into a combination of several styles. The Lightner-Young Double House is a large brownstone that was originally intended to be built in a Georgian style, but ended up leaning more toward the Richardsonian Romanesque style that was so popular at the time.

Many of the homes along the avenue are now broken up into condos or multi-unit homes. 344 Summit Ave is on its way to becoming a boutique hotel. The Commodore Hotel, which was a favorite haunt of the Saint Paul gangsters, still operates on the avenue, as does the University Club. (They were designed by the same architects who created Grand Central Station in NYC.)

After the tour, the group moved to Moscow on the Hill for a bit of socializing.  Thank you to our sponsors the Tile Shop, ProSource Wholesale, and Express Window Fashions, who hosted our appetizers and drinks. Moscow on the Hill rolled out a substantial spread of their greatest hits. They provided their Zakuski Platter filled with assorted deli meats, cheese, and pickled vegetables, Mushroom and Spinach Blintz, Moscow Fries, and the oh-so-delicious Pelmeni served with sour cream and vinegar.