A Cinderella Story

May 20, 2014
Lexington-Hamline, Summit-University  10.3 Miles

The for sale sign in the front yard of 869 Fuller Avenue.

The for sale sign in the front yard of 869 Fuller Avenue.

Today was as close to perfect as you can get. The temperature sat just shy of 80 degrees with low humidity and the air filled with a delightful bouquet of violets, crab apple and choke cherry blossoms occasionally mixed with the enticing scent of barbecue ribs and burgers. Even better, the nemesis of warm weather-mosquitos-hadn’t hatched yet.

I set off to meet Kris Kujala and Paul Scharf of Ramsey County’s Tax Forfeited Land Division, for a 6:15 p.m. tour of a tax forfeited house in Summit-University that had been renovated and was about to go on the auction block. The ride, unusual because of the pre-arranged meeting, led me to take the most direct route so as to be on time. Despite that, I hit the brakes at 1482 Concordia Avenue (the south frontage road along I-94) for some unusual signage.

The yellow and black sign is in protest of a proposal to directly connect the nearby Ayd Mill Road to I-94. The distance markers below it point toward various cities and towns to the west. Cripple Creek is a small Colorado town near the base of Pike’s Peak made famous in a 1969 song by the band “The Band”.)

The yellow and black sign is in protest of a proposal to directly connect the nearby Ayd Mill Road to I-94. The distance markers below it point toward various cities and towns to the west. Cripple Creek is a small Colorado town near the base of Pike’s Peak made famous in a 1969 song by the band “The Band”.)

 

I made it to 869 Fuller about 15 minutes ahead of schedule which gave me time to take exterior shots of the stunning 1887 Victorian.

869 Fuller in Summit-University after restoration.

869 Fuller in Summit-University after restoration.

The charming look of the home belies the troubled history that brought it within days of demolition.

An alley view of 869 Fuller.

An alley view of 869 Fuller.

The reclamation of 869 Fuller is the result of Ramsey County’s innovative “Reuse, Recycle and Renovate for Reinvestment”, or 4R Program. According to Kris, Ramsey County commissioners created the 4R Program in response to the dramatic escalation in tax forfeited properties from 2008 through 2011, brought on by the recession, “Their (Saint Paul’s) vacant building list went from 400 to 600 to 900 to 1300. I mean they were seeing numbers just going crazy,” which she emphasized by snapping her fingers. Kris added, “They didn’t have the staff to address it. They didn’t even know what buildings were vacant. With mortgage companies frequently out of state, they wouldn’t have any idea that homeowners left, stripped the house…”

Prior to 4R, a Saint Paul ordinance made it almost impossible to sell the worst of the City’s tax forfeited properties. The so-called Bostrom ordinance (authored by Council member Dan Bostrom) was conceived to protect unknowing home buyers from unscrupulous sellers. Those sellers frequently made just enough cosmetic improvements to hide major problems, then sold the property to an unknowing buyer. Instead of forcing sellers to correct major code violations, the ordinance usually led to ‘Category 3’ properties remaining boarded up, blighting a block until they decayed to the point of City-ordered demolition.

The 4R program gave Ramsey County, the eventual owner of tax forfeited properties, the authority to make major repairs, sell the properties and return them to the tax rolls. As far as Kris can determine, the 4R Program is the only one of its kind in the country.

Paul and Kris explained that taxes on the renovated homes and those sold “as is” are up to $5,000 a year each. In contrast, to clean out, remove asbestos and lead and demolish a house, and properly dispose of the remains (including recycling) costs between $30,000 and $35,000. The empty lots that remain are valued for tax purposes at about $7,000 which generate between $200 to $300 in property tax a year.

Paul explained the 4R program caused some friction with Saint Paul, “The program wasn’t welcomed with open arms by the City of Saint Paul, partially because they do the development in their city; even though that city is in Ramsey County, we’re sort of stepping on their turf.”

“There are some homes that, given the market today, unfortunately, we’re not going to get that back in full. But it’s getting taxable again, it’s getting a hundred more years out of it and helping the neighborhoods, increasing their values.”

The seed money used to start the 4R Program came from Ramsey County’s solid waste disposal budget. Kris said, “As long as we were salvaging, reusing the products or the materials or using sound recycling, green practices, they (Ramsey County Commissioners) felt that it fit the same mission as the solid waste department.”

Renovations use salvaged and green materials when possible. For example, new windows must meet a specified level of energy efficiency; reduced flow faucets and toilets are installed and high-efficiency appliances replace energy hogs.

As for 869 Fuller, Paul said some City of Saint Paul and Minnesota Historical Society staff asked that it be put into the 4R Program because of its architecture and stature on the block. After the demolition order was revoked, renovation work began.

The exterior of 869 Fuller just after Ramsey County took possession. Courtesy Ramsey County

The exterior of 869 Fuller just after Ramsey County took possession. Courtesy Ramsey County

The restoration should have taken 90 days from clean out to completion, an ambitious deadline. Kris and Paul requested bids only from contractors who could meet that, but between the tough winter and contractor issues, the house wasn’t finished and ready for auction until May 2014, about 60 days later than planned.

The sight that greeted Kris and Paul upon their first visit to the Victorian after Ramsey County took possession.

The sight that greeted Kris and Paul upon entering 869 Fuller for their first visit to the Victorian after Ramsey County took possession. Courtesy Ramsey County

Litter covered much of the rear bedroom on the first floor.

Litter covered much of the rear bedroom on the first floor. As part of the renovation, this became the master bedroom. Courtesy Ramsey County

The stench is what Kris remembers most vividly from her first visit. “You can’t even describe the smell. It’s a combination of mold, dirt, dead animals, garbage, sewer. So take all that and put it in a room and that’s what it smells like when you walk in. You can barely stand it.”

Previous tenants trashed the living room of 869 Fuller.

Previous tenants trashed the living room of 869 Fuller. Courtesy Ramsey County

The home’s five bedrooms had been split into 10 using curtains, there were holes in the walls, and bars on the windows. Mouse feces sat on floors and counters from one end of the house to the other, spoiled food festered in the refrigerator, used condoms and drug paraphernalia, including needles, littered the floor and clothing accumulated in piles four feet high.

Despite all that, it took very little time before Kris said they began to see signs of life. “The boards come off (the windows) and then there’s light. And then things start getting swept up. And we start taking things out. And you start taking the bad things out. It’s like the house starts breathing again. It’s got life again. And then it becomes this,” she said emotionally, gesturing in all directions.

Perhaps unexpectedly, a few neighbors became irate when they learned the house wouldn’t be torn down after all. One next door neighbor was the most upset because, according to Kris and Paul, he and his family were subjected for years to the drugs, prostitution and the other horrible things that went on at 869 Fuller. For a long time, the neighbor pressed City officials to declare the house a ‘Category 3’ nuisance and schedule it for demolition. Said Paul, “Living next to that for so long and when you have children growing up in your home and putting up with I could only imagine the horror stories… “…his hopes and dreams were dashed and he was very upset and he let me know that. And it was very hard trying to explain our motives and what the final finished product that we’re going to leave here in this neighborhood to better it, will be like. And I can see it was hard to envision the dramatic change that took place here…”

Kris added that the neighbor very clearly expressed his anger multiple times to Paul and her about the decision to move forward with the renovation, “But when we had our first open house he was the first person to come in the door, and introduced himself and took a walk through, then thanked us.”

The new kitchen.

The new kitchen with new cabinets, counters and lighting.

The exterior of 869 Fuller is close to original but the main level floor plan has been opened up for today’s lifestyle and a first floor laundry area was added. Many of the aesthetics and characteristics remain from when it was built more than 135 years ago.

The living room has been lovingly restored.

Paul Schaff stands in the lovingly restored living room.

Kris and Paul agree that 869 Fuller was their most difficult and most satisfying rehab to date. Both got emotional almost to the point of tears when talking about it. Paul explained it this way, “I put a lot of time beyond my work hours because I love what I do so much and the time that was spent on getting this house to be where it is now and the issues and the arguments and the contractor babysitting all play a part in what I’m going to miss on this property and how it all happened.”

A few closing thoughts;

The 4R Program is a very creative and successful response to the vexing problem of tax forfeitures and how they can lead to neighborhood decay. Imaginative solutions to community issues like this deserve praise and encouragement.

The 4R Program is more than a job to Kris and Paul. They believe so strongly in what they do and the positive effect it’s having in Saint Paul (and other parts of Ramsey County) that they willingly work 60 to 70 hour weeks and more to make the program succeed.

The rehabilitation of 869 Fuller Avenue cost about $225,000 and it sold for $190,000 at the May 23rd auction. Several other properties, both houses and vacant land, sold for more than the minimum bid price. Click on this link for full results of the May 23rd auction: http://www.co.ramsey.mn.us/NR/rdonlyres/59EA071A-2A9F-442E-8F47-6644D3113767/37758/AuctionResultsList_052314.pdf

This is the fourth year of the 4R Program, during which time about 14 structures have been rehabbed and more than 30 have been demolished.

Additional details on the Tax Forfeited Land department are here: http://www.co.ramsey.mn.us/prr/tfl/index.htm

Here is the map of the entire May 20 ride: http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/468912562

 

New Neighbors, Old Neighbors, Soon-to-be Neighbors

May 18, 2014
12.1 Miles
Lexington-Hamline, Summit-University (Ramsey Hill)

I get the classic car part of this garage door painting but I'm confused about the presence of the eagle. Photo taken in an alley off St. Clair and Wheeler in Mac-Groveland.

I get the classic car part of this garage door painting but I’m confused about the presence of the eagle. Photo taken in an alley off St. Clair and Wheeler in Mac-Groveland.

People were outside wherever I rode today. It mattered not what block of what neighborhood, young and old enjoyed the sunny, warm Sunday.

The soon-to-be-owners of 1179-1181 Dayton Avenue discuss the many projects they're planning.

The soon-to-be-owners of 1179-1181 Dayton Avenue discuss the many projects they’re planning.

As I rode along the 11-hundred block of Dayton Avenue I saw a couple huddled together in front of a house, demonstrably gesturing at the house and yard. They were exhibiting “we just bought this house” behavior. Gina DiMaggio and Tony Pavelko’s purchase offer on the triplex at 1179-1181 Dayton had been accepted and they were about to take a last walk through before Tuesday’s closing.

Tony Pavelko and Gina DiMaggio, stand in front of the triplex they're buying with the current homeowner, Bob.

Tony Pavelko (left) and Gina DiMaggio (center), stand in front of the triplex they’re buying with the current homeowner.

I asked Gina and Tony what they know about their new neighborhood, and Tony replied, “I know Pizza Luce is right behind us,“ and then laughed. Gina added, “I really like that there seems to be a mix of property styles. There are duplexes and rental properties and there’s a nice spread which makes for a very healthy neighborhood.”
Tony told me about their plans for the house, “Right off the bat we’re going to do all the landscaping. We’d like to paint at some point. Then the inside, we want to redo all the kitchens, and refinish the hardwood floors and paint and update some light fixtures.”
Gina and Tony intend to move into the house in July and start the landscaping, then remodel the third floor kitchen and rent out that apartment. Next they’ll renovate their first floor living space. Gina and Tony will do much of the cosmetic work themselves and hire people for plumbing and electrical improvements.

 

The mostly unplanted Oxford Urban Farm is two blocks east of Gina and Tony’s at Dayton and Oxford.

The Oxford Urban Farm at Dayton and Oxford.

 

The Thomas and Susan Welch House.

The Thomas and Susan Welch House.

Continuing east for several blocks, I came to an unmistakably historic house at 785 Dayton. I intended to grab a few photos and hop back on the bike. Instead, the homeowner stuck his head out of the front doors and queried me about my presence. After a quick explanation, Ryan Knoke agreed to come outside and talk about his home, the Welch House.

Ryan Knoke sits on the front step in front of his Clarence H. Johnston-designed home at Dayton Avenue and Avon Street.

Ryan Knoke sits on the front step in front of his Clarence H. Johnston-designed home at Dayton Avenue and Avon Street.

According to Ryan’s research, Clarence H. Johnston, one of Minnesota’s most prolific architects, designed the house for former state senator Thomas Welch and his wife, Susan. Just before ground breaking, Thomas died, but Susan had the house built anyway and moved in with two of her single daughters and a handful of servants.

The detail on the front doors is fantastic. Note the leadded glass on either side.

Fantastic detail on the front doors of the Welch House.

Ryan told me very few changes have been made to the house in the 120 years since it was constructed, “I was really grateful that they didn’t modify. I’m kind of a purist and so the more original a house is to me, the better, inside and out and they didn’t modify anything. No walls got moved; nothing got torn out. It looks as it did in 1893…”

“Everything is so original. All the servants quarters are still intact, which is really fun. So for a history geek like me, it’s just gold.”

Even so, says Ryan, he’s been updating the Welch House since he took possession in last fall, starting with the kitchen, “The layout was really good. It’s just that all the cabinets needed to be refaced. We had all the hardwood floors done, TONS of electrical, we had the whole house replumbed the water pressure was terrible. So we’ve really been doing a lot of the bones. But now we’re moving on to certain rooms and cosmetics.”.
Ryan’s sudden and unexpected move to Saint Paul came after many years in Minneapolis and extensive involvement in the historic preservation movement there. A call from a realtor friend who told him the Clarence Johnson-designed Welch House was available.

A mustachioed man door knocker.

A mustachioed man door knocker.

According to Ryan, preservationists on that side of the river have realized Saint Paul has much to offer, “Saint Paul has done such a better job of preserving their housing stock and not demoing it for every big development project that comes along. Minneapolis has always been fond of being progressive and trendy and new and along with that mentality has come a vicious cycle of tear down and rebuild, tear down and rebuild.”
I asked Ryan if I could shoot a few pictures of the interior of his home but unfortunately, he declined. Ryan explained that he promised two publications the chance to do features on the house and felt obligated to them. He did allow me to come in for a quick look at the foyer and nearby rooms. I can’t describe them other than to say exquisite is the word that comes to mind.

 

Dayton Presbyterian Church at 217 Mackubin at Dayton.

Dayton Avenue Presbyterian Church, 217 Mackubin at Dayton.

The Dayton Avenue Presbyterian Church has long occupied a prominent spot on Dayton.  Designed by Cass Gilbert and built sometime between 1885 and 1888, Gilbert also penned two additions, a large hall for the building in 1903 and a Sunday school-addition seven years later.

Dayton Pres 2

I’m curious as to how roofers replace the shingles on the steeple of Dayton Avenue Presbyterian.

According to the Cass Gilbert Society website, Gilbert asked The Tiffany Glass Company to craft the stained glass windows for the church, but the budget was so meager that a Tiffany representative replied that they could not afford to make the windows at the price Gilbert offered. (Cass Gilbert may have had help getting the commission to design Dayton Avenue Presbyterian. His mother was a founding member of the congregation, according to SaintPaulHistorical.org)

The doors at the main entrance of Dayton Presbyterian.

The doors at the main entrance of Dayton Presbyterian.

 

 

Today these three Dayton Avenue buildings are part of the YMCA, which has its main entrance on Selby Avenue. Built in the early 1880s, all three contained businesses for many years. (Thomas Finn Roofing was one venture in the easternmost building, 270 Dayton.

Today these three Dayton Avenue buildings are part of the YMCA, which has its main entrance on Selby Avenue. Built in the early 1880s, all three contained businesses for many years.

Thomas Finn Roofing was one venture in the 270 Dayton building, now part of the YMCA.

The 370 Dayton Avenue building, now part of the YMCA.

Thomas Finn Roofing was one venture in the easternmost building, 370 Dayton.

Thomas Finn Roofing was one venture in the easternmost building, 370 Dayton, circa 1935. Photo courtesy Thomas Finn Roofing.

One C.R. Biglo operated a tinware business in the white brick building at 374 Dayton. Tinware usually referred to eating utensils crafted from tin.

A C.R. Biglo operated a tinware business in the white brick building at 374 Dayton. Tinware usually referred to eating utensils crafted from tin.

 

The castle-like Lasher-Newell House at 251 Dayton Avenue.

The castle-like Lasher-Newell House at 251 Dayton Avenue.

The 200 block of Dayton Avenue is dominated by the spectacular Cathedral of St. Paul. But for 50-some years before the construction of the Cathedral, the castle-like mansion at 251 commanded the attention of passers-by. Maris and Norma Permalietis have owned the 6,000 square foot Lasher-Newell House since 1975 and how they got it is a remarkable story. In the 1970s, homeowners were fleeing Crocus Hill and surrounding neighborhoods in alarming numbers. The construction of the freeway and high crime created a situation where many homeowners abandoned their properties. The City of Saint Paul sought to breathe new life into Crocus Hill and Ramsey Hill neighborhoods by offering houses to people for one dollar if they agreed to fix up and live in the home.

So in 1975, said Maris, “We had the dollar list and we were driving around and checking off which ones were interesting houses, and they were all beautiful homes. Some of them are quite run down but that’s no big deal, you just have to recondition. So we’re doing that and we notice this house and my wife says ‘I’ll go and ring the doorbell.’ And I said, ‘It’s not on the list, (it’s) privately owned,’ ‘I’ll ring the doorbell anyway.’ So the lady, a really elderly old Irish lady, says, ‘Yeah, I was thinking of selling it and going back to Ireland.’
‘We’ll take it! How much do you want?’
‘Thirty eight-five,’ she says.
“Thirty eight-five was kind of an odd number so we asked her why and she said, ‘Well that’s all I need to break even.’”

An undated picture of the Lasher-Newell House.

An undated picture of the Lasher-Newell House.

Maris said the earliest history of the house is murky because the City’s record keeping was haphazard until the 1880s. It is said the home was built in 1864 or ’65, but he and Norma believe it was as early as 1860. Alpha Lasher had the home built from limestone excavated from the same quarry on the far side of the Mississippi River as the stone used for Fort Snelling. “Barges, horses and wagons, that’s how they hauled all those rocks over here. They are terribly heavy and it’s all hand worked.“

Stanford Newell, a part of Saint Paul’s high society in the late 1800s and early 1900s, was the second owner. An attorney, member of the first Saint Paul Park Board, and U.S. Minister to the Netherlands from 1897 to 1906, Newell Park is named for him.

Ladders are stacked on a back wall of the house as  renovation.

Ladders and scaffolding are stacked on a back wall of the house as renovations continue.

The weather was cold in 1975 when Maris, Norma and their three children moved in. The massive home had an oil furnace, which burned $600 of fuel oil the first month (equal to more than $2,500 today!) They put a new gas-fired forced air furnace in as soon as possible, cutting their heating bill significantly.

A complete lack of insulation compounded the problem, “You couldn’t do it (insulate) from the outside ‘cause it’s (limestone walls) two feet thick in places. And so they drilled holes from the inside through the plaster; there’s a cavity between the stone and the plaster; they tried to fill that up.

“Everyday a truck would pull in the driveway here and barrels of two chemicals that they mixed together and they pump it through hoses to make foam. I counted the barrels and I figured it out and there was close to 10,000 gallons of foam went in the house…somewhere. We don’t know where it is,” Maris said, chuckling.

As Maris remodeled, he found where the insulation went-between joist spaces under the floor so it did little, aside from the sound proofing it continues to provide.

The original oak woodwork in the parlor remains in pristine condition more than 150 years after construction.

The original oak woodwork in the parlor remains in pristine condition more than 150 years after construction.

Maris told me the house originally had 18 rooms, was heated by coal and illuminated by oil lamps. He said it had been converted to a 12 room boarding house, so the first step in rehabbing it involved gutting it, “I counted 40 dumpsters back there that we filled up. Twelve refrigerators, 12 stoves, out the window.”

A cabinet and intricately carved woodwork in the parlor.

A built in cabinet and intricately carved woodwork in the parlor.

The biggest challenge of owning such a sizable, distinctive and historic home?  “It’s probably money. You never have enough. It’s impossible.“ Maris figures they’ve spent at least $400,000 renovating their home.

The beautiful tile surrounding the fireplace is also original.

The beautiful tile surrounding and in front of the fireplace is also original.

Then there are the strangers (like me) who visit, “There have been thousands of people here in 40 years that stop by and say, ‘What is going on with that house?’” Among the visitors have been several former residents. Maris and Norma can expect much more curious company as long as they call the Lasher-Newell House home.

Norma and Maris

Norma and Maris Permalietis on the front step of their home.

The route of today’s ride can be found by clicking on the link below.

http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/441759544

The End of the Line

May 4, 2014

9.8 miles
Macalester-Groveland, Union Park (Merriam Park, Midway)

The intersection of Snelling and Jefferson Avenues.

The intersection of Snelling and Jefferson Avenues.

Snelling Avenue is one of Saint Paul’s best known, most diverse and busiest streets. Snelling is slightly more than six miles from Saint Paul’s border with Falcon Heights on the north to the southern end at West 7th Street. Also known as State Highway 51, everything from homes, apartments, restaurants and schools, to churches, hardware stores and two colleges line Snelling Avenue in Saint Paul.
Today I rode two different segments of Snelling totaling about a mile and a quarter.

 

betty and carl sign

An old neon sign for Betty and Carl Cafe is the first site that stopped me. The sign sat on the lawn outside an antique store at Snelling and Palace. I stumped Google trying to find a clue about where the Betty and Carl Cafe is or was.

The building that now holds a nail salon and fitness center at Jefferson Avenue and Snelling previously was home to Macalester Bike and Skate. Although it closed at least 20 years ago, the business’s old sign clings tenaciously to the south brick wall.

nail salon

mac bike & skate 1

Remnants of the long departed Macalester Bike and Skate are still visible.

 

This is how Snelling Avenue at St. Clair looked in 1952.

This is how the intersection of Snelling Avenue at St. Clair looked in 1952. Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society.

In the days of the streetcar, multiple businesses sprang up at the corners of intersecting lines. Snelling Avenue and St. Clair Avenue is a good example. In many cases, apartments were constructed on the second floor of the buildings.

St. Paul Corner Drug hugs the northeast corner of St. Clair and Snelling. Other business there include an Italian restaurant, a veterinary clinic and an Oriental medicine clinic.

St. Paul Corner Drug hugs the northeast corner of St. Clair and Snelling. Other business there include an Italian restaurant, a veterinary clinic and an Oriental medicine clinic.

The restaurant on the southwest corner features a great neon sign.

The restaurant on the southwest corner features a great neon sign.

The Snelling Avenue entrance to the Snelling Apartments.

The Snelling Avenue entrance to the Snelling Apartments.

The businesses in the complex on the southwest corner of Snelling and St. Clair. The Snelling Apartments occupy the second floor.

The businesses in the complex on the southwest corner of Snelling and St. Clair. The Snelling Apartments are on the second floor.

A window display of slippers at Snelling and St. Clair.

A window display of slippers at Snelling and St. Clair.

 

The Macalester College, a.k.a. “Mac,” campus occupies seven blocks along the west side of Snelling from St. Clair to Summit Avenue. Macalester was established in 1874 as a liberal arts college by the Reverend Edward D. Neill. The college relocated from Minneapolis to the present location in 1885.

Macalester College stadium abuts the northwest corner of Snelling and St. Clair.

Macalester College stadium abuts the northwest corner of Snelling and St. Clair.

The Macalester Stadium building, opened in 1965, interestingly includes student housing on the second and third floors.

The Macalester Stadium building opened in 1965. The second and third floor windows are dorm rooms.

Macalester had the windmill installed in 2003.

Macalester had the windmill installed in 2003. There isn’t much electrical generation happening today.

The view westward at Snelling and Grand Avenues. The two buildings on the right are part of Macalester.

The view westward at Snelling and Grand Avenues. The two buildings on the right are part of Macalester.

For you celebrity spotters, Garrison Keillor owns Common Good Books at 38 South Snelling.

For you celebrity spotters, Garrison Keillor owns Common Good Books at 38 South Snelling.

And the Macalester Bookstore, Highlander, is next door at 32 South Snelling.

And the Macalester Book and school store, Highlander, is next door at 32 South Snelling.

The northeastern edge of campus at Snelling and Summit. The bookstore is in the background.

The northeastern edge of campus at Snelling and Summit. The brick building in the background is the bookstore.

 

At Summit Avenue, I went west two blocks and traveled north along Pierce Street until I came to a curiously painted and long-dead tree in front of 1664 Hague Avenue. Three portraits of exotic, and possibly mythical women adorn the trunk.

Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, perhaps.

Looking west, Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, perhaps?

 

pierce tree2

This woman has what looks to be a pet lion.

pierce tree 3

Shading, brushwork and the subtle hues of the paintings are apparent up close.

An array of art, including a neon address sign, decorate 1664 Hague.

An array of art, including a neon address sign, decorate 1664 Hague.

The Amtrak train “Empire Builder” crosses Pierce Street about six hours late on its way east to Milwaukee and Chicago.

The Amtrak train “Empire Builder” (named after Saint Paul’s James J. Hill) crosses Pierce Street about six hours late on its way east to Milwaukee and Chicago.

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Snelling-U sign 1

Yes, more light rail construction along Snelling and University Avenues.

Back on Snelling where, just north of I-94, a digital display and orange cones and warning signs foretell more Midway construction and congestion. Chicago-based Walsh Construction is ripping up and replacing faulty concrete panels that the company screwed up at Snelling and University. Green Line officials aren’t saying what mistake Walsh made to cause cracks in the concrete at this and 10 other intersections along University Avenue but have been quick to say the construction company is paying for the fixes.

The zoom lens used to take this picture compressed the distance along Snelling between University Avenue and the State Fairgrounds. The State Fair Space Tower and water tower are in the background.

The zoom lens used to take this picture compressed the 1.7 mile distance along Snelling between University Avenue and the State Fairgrounds. The State Fair Space Tower and water tower are in the background.

 

A large tract of land surrounded by cyclone fence sits immediately east of the digital warning sign. Nearly two blocks long and a block deep, the area served as the staging area for light rail construction equipment and supplies. Now, many remnants of the project are haphazardly situated along the fence next to Midway Center.
construction area 2

Concrete barriers are stacked neatly along the north fence.

Concrete barriers are stacked neatly along the north fence.

The eastern portion is a temporary graveyard for old Metro Transit buses and shelters, while the largest section of the lot sits virtually empty, an unsightly but valuable wasteland; prime property begging for redevelopment.

The view south across the large parcel of land that stretches from Midway Center to St. Anthony Avenue. Light rail construction equipment is on the left and the homes and building in the background are on Concordia Avenue, on the south side of the I-94 corridor.

The view south across the large parcel of land that stretches from Midway Center to St. Anthony Avenue. Light rail construction equipment is on the left and the homes and building in the background are on Concordia Avenue, on the south side of the I-94 corridor.

It’s the end of the line for these decommissioned Metro Transit buses, which are reflected in a large puddle.

It’s the end of the line for these decommissioned Metro Transit buses, which are reflected in a large puddle.

Seats and electrical parts have been salvaged from this bus.

Seats and electrical parts have been salvaged from this bus.

It's not just buses. Surplus bus shelters sit…and lay…ready for disposal.

It’s not just buses. Surplus bus shelters sit…and lay…ready for disposal.

Shelters take on a distorted look when viewed through the translucent roof of another shelter.

Shelters take on a distorted look when viewed through the translucent roof of another shelter.

This tract of land (and the area now occupied by Midway Center) used to be home to the main streetcar manufacturing, repair and storage facility.

snelling car shop 53

The Snelling shops in 1953, about a year before streetcars were replaced with buses in the Twin Cities. Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society.

 

A block west of Snelling, two churches occupy corners of the intersection of Shields Avenue and Roy Street.

Bethlehem Lutheran Church In-the-Midway.

Bethlehem Lutheran Church In-the-Midway.

central baptist 1

Central Baptist Church. The steeple of Bethlehem Lutheran is in the background.

Bethlehem Lutheran Church In-The-Midway (as it’s called to differentiate from another Bethlehem Lutheran on the East Side) is on the northeast corner and Central Baptist Church sits just across Shields on the southeast corner. Considering the extreme difference in architecture of the churches I am surprised they were both built in the early 1910s. Central Baptist is one of the few Prairie Style churches in Saint Paul. An addition, now the main part of Central Baptist, was built in 1974.

bethlehem 3

The cornerstone at Bethlehem Lutheran.

The cornerstone of Central Baptist.)

The cornerstone of Central Baptist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Across the street, 6-year-old Zakias was riding his scooter along the sidewalk with his mom, Zuki Ellis, when we struck up a conversation. The neighborhood is very quiet, despite being within two blocks of I-94 on the south, Snelling to the east, and University to the north. Zuki told me it’s one of the things she loves about the area. “It’s so funny because he (Zakias) said, ‘Look! There are people!’ because you usually don’t see kids unless it’s early in the morning catching the bus. During the weekend it’s usually pretty quiet.”

Another thing Zuki really appreciates about the neighborhood is that so much, including the grocery store and the doctor’s office, is close enough to walk to.

zakiasZuki added she just enjoys walking Snelling Avenue to see its slow evolution.

“I was just walking down that way (south) on the other side of the freeway and they’re doing all of this construction. And I was like, ‘When did that start?’ Because I guess I hadn’t even been down that way. And then this way (north) walking in the opposite direction toward Minnehaha and toward Midway Hotel and there was a coffin store. At first I thought I read that wrong and I was like I have to check that out when I come back this way. It’s always changing down Snelling, both ways.”

Zakias and Zuki Ellis.

Zakias and Zuki Ellis.

Zakias wanted to start another lap around the block so Zuki and I said our farewells and I rode the opposite way, to Midway Center.

 

Midway Center 2014

Midway Center, 2014.

Midway Center, on the southeastern corner of Snelling and University, is one of several large shopping districts nearby along University Avenue. Like the others, it features mostly national and regional chain stores, a phenomenon I call “Anytown U.S.A.” The Midway Center property went from the main mass transit hub in the Twin Cities to retail center in 1960, after buses replaced streetcars.

The Snelling-University intersection and streetcar shops in the mid-1920s. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

The Snelling-University intersection and streetcar shops in the mid-1920s. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

A billboard announced the pending development of Midway Center. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society.

A billboard announced the pending development of Midway Center. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society.

The recently opened Midway Center in 1960. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society.

The recently opened Midway Center in 1960. University Avenue is in the foreground. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society.

Spruce Tree Center office building is nothing if not eye-catching.

The eye-catching Spruce Tree Center office building.

Despite its sprawling size of Midway Center, it is overshadowed by the nearby Spruce Tree Center, the peculiar Kelly green office building on the southwest corner of Snelling and University. Distinctive doesn’t quite capture the feeling. With its blocky design, including the tiles, windows and sections of the building, there is nothing like it in Saint Paul and likely far beyond. Although not obvious to me, Spruce Tree Center’s design resembles a spruce tree, according to a 2008 article in the “Midway Monitor”.

Does anybody know what time it is? Does anybody really care? Rock group Chicago

Does anybody know what time it is? Does anybody really care?

The green tiles and windows along the University Avenue side of Spruce Tree Center.

The green tiles and windows along the University Avenue side of Spruce Tree Center.

Spruce Tree Center is Green too.

Spruce Tree Center is Green too.

 

A test train eastbound on University awaits the green light at Snelling Avenue. Spruce Tree Center is in the background.

A test train eastbound on University awaits the green light at Snelling Avenue. Spruce Tree Center is in the background.

The light rail tracks on University have been placed in almost the exact position of the Twin City Rapid Transit Company streetcar tracks that were removed some 60 years ago.

Metro Transit employees ready a broken down bus for the trip to an East Side maintenance base.

Metro Transit employees ready a broken down bus for the trip to an East Side maintenance base. One of the mechanics told me an average of one bus a day breaks down on routes in Saint Paul.

Buses still roam University Avenue, at least for the time being, although this one, not so much.

There were a lot of sights packed into today’s relatively short ride. One last one is the beautiful 30-plus year old “woody” station wagon parked on Herschel Street.

I love “classic” cars like this Chevy Malibu Classic Estate station wagon with faux wood paneling. It’s a 1978, ’79 or ’80. Hershel Street, slightly north of St. Anthony Avenue.

I love “classic” cars like this Chevy Malibu Classic Estate station wagon with faux wood paneling. It’s a 1978, ’79 or ’80. Hershel Street, slightly north of St. Anthony Avenue.

Click on the link below to view a map of today’s ride.

http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/copy/408120322/

Easter Leftovers

April 21, 2014
Merriam Park, Desnoyer Park, Union Park and Hamline-Midway

9.7 miles

It really felt great to be back on the bike tonight. The last time I rode outdoors was March 30. (Pedaling with the bike attached to a stationary rack in the basement is dull, even with the original Hawai’i Five-0 on TV.)

Such a deal!

Such a deal!

The ride provided some amusing and unusual photo ops, the first a short distance from home. Maybe it’s a Water Utility worker displaying his or her sense of humor or perhaps it came from a neighbor. Either way, I don’t expect anyone is going to grab the hydrant and the eight feet of lead pipe attached to it, no matter how badly they want to.

Easter bunny 1

The Easter Bunny relaxes under a tarp at 2102 James Avenue.

Several blocks away, I had my first encounter with the Easter Bunny. Benign looking at first glance, but a double-take changed my opinion.

Those eyes are creepy!

A sinister Easter Bunny.

He's got giant Peeps in his basket!

He’s got giant Peeps in his basket!

Another Easter Bunny, this one avant-garde, adorned the front yard at 1882 Sargent.
avant-guarde bunny

 

The removal of the hockey rink signals the re-emergence of the ball field.

The removal of the hockey boards signals the re-emergence of the ball field at Groveland Recreation Center on St. Clair.

 

A jumbo high chair, tinted in Minnesota Vikings’  purple and gold, shouts out to all, “Vikings fans live here!” and “This is a bachelor pad!” 672 Fairview Avenue North.

A jumbo high chair, tinted in Minnesota Vikings’ purple and gold, shouts out to all, “Vikings fans live here!” and “This is a bachelor pad!” 672 Fairview Avenue North.

 

This forlorn little park has old merry-go-round and swings and a small climbing area. On the positive side, there is plentiful open space for children to run around. Although it sports no signage, Clayland Park is bordered by Hewitt Avenue and Hewitt Place, Fairview Avenue and Clayland Street.

This forlorn little park has an old merry-go-round and swings and a small jungle gym. On the positive side, there is plentiful open space for children to run around. Although it sports no signage, Clayland Park is bordered by Hewitt Avenue and Hewitt Place, Fairview Avenue and Clayland Street.

(5553 )

Perpetual spring thanks to the green paint on 778 Howell Street.

It always feels like spring here thanks to the green paint on 778 Howell Street.

 

boxing signThe green and neon orange sign blares at drivers, pedestrians and bikers who pass by the otherwise plain former warehouse at 655 Fairview Avenue North. Upon setting foot into Element Boxing and Fitness, an assortment of sounds-the pounding beat of workout music, the clanging of barbells, the thump, thump, thump of boxing gloves hitting pads and the grunts of patrons training-greeted me. So did Cerresso (pronounced sir-EE-so) Fort, co-owner of the club. I could tell that something cool is happening at the 3-year-old business.

Dalton Outlaw (left) and Cerresso Fort (right), owners of Element Boxing and Fitness. Photo courtesy Element.

Dalton Outlaw (left) and Cerresso Fort (right), owners of Element Boxing and Fitness. Photo courtesy Element.

Cerresso and Dalton Outlaw own and run Element, which, according to Fort, opened in 2011 with a simple but important mission. “(We’re) just trying to help change lives. You know, help kids, trying to get them in the gym, teach them something like boxing to keep them from doing negative things.”

Cerresso and Dalton are successful and well-known in boxing circles and their accomplishments give them and their training routines credibility. They target their work with local youth from 6-years-old up but welcome any and all to their gym, “I have a friend, his grandmother comes up here to work out. I’ve got a kids program, adults, a good mixture. With the women, the girls, it’s a good balance and that’s why I love it,” Cerresso told me.

A trainer explains the treadmill to a young customer.

A trainer explains the treadmill to a young customer.

Honing their boxing techniques is the goal for some clients, while many others come to get fit. “Boxing is a good workout, you’re working the full body out. A lot of people watch the ‘Rocky’ movies and see how he trained. If you come here, just do the training piece. You don’t gotta get in the ring and moan and groan with the fights…”

Dalton helps a client with her punching technique.

Dalton helps a client with her boxing technique.

Justin Claiborne is a new client at Element who visits the club almost every day after work. “I just started here a couple weeks ago and I’ve been training with Cerresso. I heard about this gym from a friend and I heard it was a good place. And I heard there was a couple pros (boxers) here and Ceresso is one of them so I figured he was a good guy to learn from.”

Justin Claiborne (left) with Cerresso Fort.

Justin Claiborne (left) with Cerresso Fort.

Dalton and Cerresso, Saint Paul residents and long-time friends, moved Element Boxing and Fitness to the much larger Midway space last June because the growth of the business. In just three years, Element has become the largest boxing club in Saint Paul.

Cerresso and Dalton obviously enjoy their work and are good at it. I’m sure Element will flourish as a business and improve the lives of at risk youths in Saint Paul. Go to Element’s website at http://www.elementboxingandfitness.com/ for more information about the club.

Here is the link to the map of my route:

http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/copy/398302984/

Thank You!

April 20, 2014

Thank you to Almanac, TPT’s news and public affairs program, for having me on the April 18th edition of the show. Thank you to David Gillette, who invited me to appear on Almanac and conducted the interview. Thank you to TPT’s floor crew and rest of the behind the scenes staff for they did. I enjoyed everything about the experience, including seeing the coordinated efforts of about 15 people necessary to make a live television show look so good.

Click here to view the Almanac segment from April 18, 2014 hosted by David Gillette.

http://www.mnvideovault.org/index.php?id=26512&select_index=6&popup=yes#6

Lights. Camera. Action!

The media spotlight will again shine on “Saint Paul By Bike.” I am very excited because I’ve been invited to appear live this evening on Almanac, TPT’s news and public affairs program. David Gillette and I will talk about the blog and some of the things I do to prepare for my rides.

Almanac airs live from 7 to 8 p.m. tonight on TPT (Twin Cities Public Television), channel 2. The program will be replayed on Saturday, April 19 at 1 a.m. and Sunday, April 20 at 9:30 a.m. on TPT 2.

Almanac will air on TPT’s Minnesota Channel tonight at 10 p.m. and Saturday, April 19 at midnight, 6 a.m., noon and again at 6 p.m.

Almanac is also available on line at http://www.tpt.org/?a=almanac

The Best Laid Plans

March 30, 2014
14.7 miles – Highland Park, West End, Downtown

One of many dozens of potholes I encountered on the ride.

One of many dozens of potholes I encountered on the ride.

Saint Paul is a beautiful place but like any city fighting its way out of winter’s lassitude, finding its charms is more difficult at this time of year. Winter clings in the form of dirt crusted snow banks, grit lined roads and potholes of assorted size and shape. The obvious signs of spring like greening grass, emerald colored leaves on trees and the rich yellows, scarlets and purples of tulips and irises, remain some weeks out.
It is those realities that prompted me to plan today’s ride to the industrial area around Holman Field on the West Side. The early spring dormancy would detract little from light industrial buildings and concrete.
The journey began with a cruise down a couple of streets in Highland Park that I’d not ridden. (completing one section of the City will give me a sense of progress.) There wasn’t much to see besides snow, potholes and some stray holiday decorations, but numerous upbeat people emerging from six months of hibernation.

There was the usual Saturday flurry of activity along West 7th Street.

Packed ice is in retreat but still covered most of this section of sidewalk in the 1900 block of West 7th.

Packed ice is in retreat but still covered most of this section of sidewalk in the 1900 block of West 7th.

 

I like the artwork on this sign for a chiropractor in the 1300 block of West 7th

I like the artwork on this sign for a chiropractor in the 1300 block of West 7th

 

Nice weather brings folks to the car wash. To my surprise, Soapy Joe’s Car Wash had only a short line of cars waiting for a bath.

soapy joe's 1

A car enters Soapy Joe’s Car Wash at 1340 West 7th.

Joe Lindsay, general manager and co-owner of Soapy Joe’s, told me this weather is usually perfect for business. “This is ideal right here. High temperatures where people are going to get the itch, driving around with their windows down, you want a clean car.”

Joe Lindsay in stands under the sign for his car wash.

Joe Lindsay in stands under the sign for his car wash.

Soapy Joe’s opened about 2 and a-half years ago with equipment from a Chaska car wash that closed. “There was this other car wash that went out of business and they wanted us to buy the whole building. We offered to buy just the used rack of equipment and they went for it. So we took it apart piece by piece, brought it up here, put it in here, and we added a few other items as well.”

The great weather made fixing one of the vacuums a pleasant task.

The great weather made fixing one of the vacuums a pleasant task.

Soapy Joe’s strives to cut water use by recapturing water, processing and reusing it.

The grime of winter gets wiped from a car.

The grime of winter gets wiped from a car.

Joe encourages everyone at the car wash to be personable. “We’re really pushing our people to smile, show your personality, have fun. I want people to wake up and enjoy coming to work, not, ‘Shoot, I gotta go punch the clock.’”
Despite 12 hour days, six days a week, Joe couldn’t be happier. “I really enjoy it. There’s a lot of people that come in who are just genuinely happy. I’ve met a lot of people through here. My employees are great.”

The sheen of a freshly cleaned car reflects two car wash employees.

The sheen of a freshly cleaned car reflects two car wash employees.

 

I jumped off West 7th to escape traffic and explore the nearby residential neighborhoods. I rode upon streets with women’s names like Ann, Emma and Grace (which actually isn’t having been named after Bishop Thomas Grace in 1872.) About a block away, on Banfil Street, is a uniquely renovated building that is home to an advertising agency.

The eclectic look of 159 Banfil Street befits the headquarters of an ad agency.

The eclectic look of 159 Banfil Street befits the headquarters of an ad agency.

A second story window and an old City Club Beer sign above it at 159 Banfil.

A second story window and an old City Club Beer sign above it at 159 Banfil.

 

A few doors to the east, Julia Reimer was working on her yard at 261 Banfil. She sincerely told me she lives in the best neighborhood in the City. “It’s people who are pretty community-minded. People really watch out for each other.”

Julia Reimer sits on her front steps at  Banfil Street.

Julia Reimer sits on her front steps at 261 Banfil Street.

Julia also told me about the neighborhood garden on Dousman and West 7th and a puppet theater that performs in the summer in what is known as the driveway tour or garage tour.


“It’s very diverse in terms of income, in terms of ethnicity, but people get along, partly because it’s (the street) blocked off on both sides, it’s pretty quiet.”

“People who really know Saint Paul, it’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah. I do know where that is.’ But really, there’s this block and on the other side of 7th there’s maybe four or five more blocks. But it’s just a really small street. I think that’s one of the things that makes it a hidden treasure.”

Julia discovered Banfil Street about a dozen years ago when visiting friends who live down the block. “It just happened that this house was for sale. I had lived in this general neighborhood before, just on the other side of Smith. The history is part of it. The fact that you are on the street here and you have to get to know your neighbors. So you can sit on your porch and you see people, you’re not just shut away in your house all the time and I really wanted something like that.”

Julia Reimer's home, 261 Banfil.

Julia Reimer’s home, 261 Banfil.

Some of Saint Paul’s oldest homes line Banfil and other nearby streets. Julia believes her house was built in 1858 by a shoe store owner with the last name of Dolan. The age of the homes means some unusual ‘charms.’ “Everybody has limestone basements, everybody has garter snakes in their house ‘cause you kinda can’t help, the snakes get in there. Kinda yucky basements but some really neat details on the inside of houses.”

Another draw is the many small businesses. A favorite of Julia’s is the nearby Claddagh Coffee Shop on West 7th. “One of the things that’s particularly wonderful about it is it used to be an adult book store. Jeffrey, the guy who owns the whole building, he kinda polled the neighborhood and said, ‘What would you guys want to see there because I don’t want the adult bookstore to be here anymore.’ And people said, ‘A place with wine, a coffee bar kind of place.’”

Moving on from Banfil Street, I cruised several other side streets, then on to West 7th. I didn’t know it then but the planned Holman Field trip was about to get canceled. On 7th, just east of Forbes Avenue, a van with two women and five children inside sat in the parking lane with a flat tire. I stopped and offered to change the flat. I don’t change tires like a NASCAR pit crew, but I’ve changed enough tires to be confident in my skills. Stephanie and her family piled out of the car and onto the sidewalk and I began lowering the spare tire stored underneath the back of vehicle. For some reason the cable and bracket holding the spare descended but the spare tire didn’t. ‘I’ll come back to it,’ I thought, ‘I’ll remove the lug nuts from the flat tire first.’ The first four came off as they should but the last one wouldn’t budge. Try as I might, I succeeded only in stripping the lug nut. Time for a call to AAA Roadside Assistance for help.

As I worked on the tire, Stephanie called her husband for help. Rockett arrived soon after with a four-way lug wrench that fit better than the multipurpose wrench/jack handle that came with the van. A few turns and the lug nut came off, so I canceled AAA.

Rockett and some of the crew pose in front of their Chevy van.

Rockett and some of the crew pose in front of their Chevy van.

Back to getting the spare to drop from the undercarriage. Despite multiple readings of the car’s manual, Rockett, his son Jeremiah and I still couldn’t get the tire to release. (This may be one reason GM no longer makes minivans.) I made a second call to AAA. Rockett grabbed the spare from his Mercury hoping it would fit the Chevy, but no such luck. As this man-against-machine battle played out, Stephanie left with the younger children and took the flat to a tire store in Rockett’s car to buy a replacement.

There we sat, waiting for AAA, when a gentleman stopped to help. Less than a minute after he crawled under the back of the van, the spare tire released. We all thanked the man and I made my fourth call to AAA, this time to cancel the service request. Rockett talked about the man and a couple of others who offered assistance. “I’ve been in this world a long time, 54 years, and I haven’t seen three people in one day stop to help me do nothin’ really. That just lets me know that I’m at the right place and I live in the right town.”

After two and a half hours and the van finally ready for the new tire, Rockett suggested I take off and thanked me for my help. There wasn’t time to get to the Holman Field area so I visited a few more West End roads, including Douglas Street.

Built in 1880, 118 Douglas Street is fronted by a well worn sandstone wall.

Built in 1880, 118 Douglas Street is fronted by a well-worn sandstone wall.

The address is faded but still legible more than 130 years after being built!

The address is faded but still legible more than 130 years after being built!

 

Giant butterflies rest on the front of 232 Goodrich Avenue.

Giant butterflies rest on the front of 232 Goodrich Avenue.

Some interesting notes from Don Empson’s “The Street Where You Live” on a couple of the West End streets I traveled.

  • Dousman Street was named for Hercules Dousman of Prairie du Chien, WI who is recognized as the first person to suggest the name ‘Minnesota’ for the territory.
  • Douglas Street, named in 1851 for U.S. senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, who ran unsuccessfully for president against Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

It felt great to be back on my bike. It was a nice first ride of 2014, even though it didn’t follow my plan. A March ride is a huge win, especially since the weather last year didn’t allow me to get out until May.

Click the link below to see the map of today’s ride.

http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/390052026