May 18, 2014
Lexington-Hamline, Summit-University (Ramsey Hill)
People were outside wherever I rode today. It mattered not what block of what neighborhood, young and old enjoyed the sunny, warm Sunday.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.’”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
The route of today’s ride can be found by clicking on the link below.
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