The Diminutive and the Colossal

July 11, 2015      12.05 miles      Highland Park, Summit-University (Summit Hill)

The small house movement caught on in the late 1990s. It’s easy to understand, with the dramatic rise in housing prices. Even so, there’s been a steady surge in home size with the average U.S. home growing from 2,521 square feet in 2007 to about 2,600 in 2015. In reality, smaller, simpler homes have been built for many years. The house at 1243 Highland is a nice example. Built in 1911, this home has a mere 640 square foot of living space. As you can see, small doesn’t limit creativity.

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From the bush-covered front steps and mailbox…

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… to Dylan and the ‘Hippies’ and ‘For Sale’ signs, the small size has no relation to the objects of interest.

Summit Hill

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The house at 1130 St. Clair Avenue as seen from the bridge over Ayd Mill Road.

I’ve passed this unusual and tiny home at 1160 St. Clair dozens of times on my bike and in the car and have always wondered about it. The exterior has undergone major changes, most recently encased in corrugated metal.

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1160 St. Clair wore a white exterior with magenta trim that looked like gaudy nail polish prior to Todd Fink undertaking the total renovation of the house. I took this picture on a ride in May of 2012.

Over the years of biking I’d even stopped to knock on the door, hoping to talk to someone, but without success. As I rode by today, I noticed a pickup in the driveway and knew this was my opportunity to finally uncover the story of this small, unconventional structure.

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To say that 1160 St. Clair looks better clad in a new metal coat, new windows and landscaping vastly understates the improvement.

When I met Todd Fink It was obvious he was heavy into renovating the property. He was wearing a paint-stained t-shirt with the sleeves cut off and blue jean cutoffs smudged with dirt. Todd explained that he and his wife bought 1160 St. Clair out of foreclosure on January 2, 2015. “Since then,” Todd said, “we’ve put six months into cleaning up the inside and fixing it up and finally turning to the outside and starting some of the solar and re-siding and landscaping.”

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Todd, standing beside the front door, pauses from his work for a picture.

By trade, Todd is in the solar energy business. He owns 45 North Solar, a company that designs and installs solar electric and thermal systems. In renovating the house, Todd put those skills to work and honed his carpentry and landscaping know-how. I asked Todd about the condition of the house when he purchased it and without hesitation, he answered, “Unhealthy,” and laughed heartily.

“I want to be able to heat this thing with a cat.” Todd Fink on the energy efficiency of the house

Based upon the condition, Todd knew he’d need to gut the interior. “I was able to find a place with practically nothing to save and that enabled me to go pretty deep in my remodel. And that’s a really good reason to resolve the energy issues that exist in all these old houses. A lot of these houses that don’t get a remodel are going to be energy irrelevant.

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Peering at the kitchen and living room through the door separating the bedroom from the rest of the house.

“I want to be able to heat this thing with a cat. The solar air collection will help but we want to put in some hydronic heating in the floor to make the heating a little more mellow and comfortable.”

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The bathroom needs a tub and some finishing touches.

Winter is the off-season for the solar industry so Todd kept his employees busy working on the St. Clair residence. The Earth-friendly efforts extend outside the home, starting with the roof-mounted solar panels. “The PV (photovoltaic) system is anticipated to take care of the whole house load. At 540 square feet there are a limited number of places to use electricity.”

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Todd removed buckthorn but has more work to do to convert the backyard into gardens. Ayd Mill Road is in the background.

According to Todd, “We’re thinking of using the triangular lot as well as we can to permaculture. We’ve got great exposure on the southwest side, so building terraces and continuing some of the gardening we’ve started here is going to happening.” Todd continued, “It’s a 3000 square foot lot. It’s about as small as they get in the Twin Cities but it does have an amazing amount of space that can only be used to garden.” They’ll likely plant fruit trees or vegetable beds along the nine foot setback in front of the railroad tracks.

Todd’s research of 1160 St. Clair and uncovered some unexpected history. The structure was built in 1927 as a store at a cost of $700. “When it was a store front, as far as I can tell, it was divided into three 10 foot rooms on an 18 foot wide building. So there was a front area, there was a workshop and probably a storage room in back.”

He also learned the building had no plumbing until 1947, which is when Todd speculates it was converted to a residence.

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“The walls are basically where they were except for the closet, which is now the entryway to the bathroom and the laundry area.”

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Todd describes the light fixtures as ‘Steampunk.’ He used faucets and other left over plumbing remnants to create light fixtures.


This light has been fashioned from a faucet.


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The part of the bedroom with the Murphy bed in its closed position. Todd told me, “The bedroom needs to function as a corridor to the back porch and having a bed in the way would not make it very good for entertaining so I used an old futon frame to make a Murphy bed.”

Todd’s biggest concern was over the smallest room. “We’re just trying to fit a kitchen in as small an area as possible and when it all fleshes out with furniture we’ll see if it’s enough room.”


The fruit crates above and below the vent hood are for storage. “We took the laundry sink out of the basement. It weighed about 500 pounds. So that took a couple of really strong guys and four Aleve.” The doorway leads to the bedroom and then to the back exit.

Todd noted that I was one of many visitors, “On St. Clair we get a lot of walkers. I wish I had a nickel for every time somebody said, ‘I’ve always been fascinated by this place.’ That one sentence has come out close to a dozen times now.”

From small on St. Clair to stately on Summit — 1006 Summit — the Governor’s Mansion. The house, 20 rooms and 14,700 square feet, was built for lawyer and lumber executive Horace Hills Irvine and his wife Clotilde. The brick and stone home was completed in 1912 for about $50,000. The Irvines spent another $7,000 acquiring the one and a-half acre property on which their mansion was built.

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The Governor’s Mansion at 1006 Summit Avenue. Little has changed in the front since it was built for Horace and Clotilde Irvine more than 100 years ago.

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Though difficult to see, Clotilde Emily Irvine, Elizabeth Hills Irvine and Thomas Edward Irvine stood in the yard for this picture circa 1915. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

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The marker on the right stone support of the entrance gate commemorates the gift of the house to the State of Minnesota. A similar marker on the left entrance gate support notes that this property is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Tudor-related design uses very little wood on the exterior, which is ironic in that Horace Irvine’s primary business was lumber.

The Irvine House stayed in the family until August 1965, when Clotilde and Horace’s two youngest daughters, Clotilde Irvine Moles and Olivia Irvine Dodge, donated it to the State of Minnesota in honor of their parents. Later that year the legislature authorized using the home as the governor’s residence.

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The front entrance of the governor’s mansion. Wrought iron adds a decorative touch to the windows.

One consequential update to the home is security enhancements.

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Two of the plethora of security cameras which seem to keep watch over every inch of the home and grounds.

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I’m guessing this sign is a delicate way of saying you’ll have company should you get into the yard.

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Although not new, the wrought iron fence remains a deterrent to the uninvited.

I spent a solid 20 minutes walking back and forth past the mansion, taking pictures, and peering through the wrought iron fence. I am sure the security detail was following my wanderings and I’m a bit surprised nobody questioned me.

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The Ford Crown Victoria framed in the mansion’s porte cochere most likely belongs to the Governor’s security detail.

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This shot of the driveway from more than 100 years ago shows, that aside from the car, this part of the property has changed little. In fact, the front yard and the Summit Avenue side of the house are nearly the same as in 1912.

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This sculpture, titled “Man-Nam”, inhabits a prominent spot on the western side of the yard. Sculptor Paul T. Granlund created “Man-Nam” to honor sacrifices made by Minnesotans who served in Vietnam.

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The backyard had more open space in 1912, with flowers and shrubs planted primarily around the perimeter. Since the building became the Governor’s Mansion, the yard has had occasional redesigns to meet the needs of the governor and his family. Today, unfortunately, passers-by cannot see the stunning gardens and brick walkways and other features of the backyard. One can only glimpse the side yard and porch. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

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The Groves historic landscape report – Another update of the grounds is in progress, based upon this 2013 landscape plan.

There is much more to learn the colorful history and preservation of the Governor’s Mansion. Two of the best sites are the official Governor’s Mansion website at and The 1006 Summit Avenue Society, the non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the Minnesota Governor’s Residence at

If you want to do more than read about the mansion, it opens occasionally for public tours. Contact for information.

A couple of blocks east of the Governor’s Mansion is a disjointed series of interconnected buildings that make up Mitchell Hamline School of Law. (The law school was called William Mitchell School of Law from 1956 until the end of 2015, when a merger with Hamline University’s law school was approved.)

The buildings that make up the law school were built over 60-some years for distinct and disparate functions.

The Mitchell Hamline campus sits upon about four square blocks bounded by Summit Avenue, Portland Avenue and Milton and Victoria Streets.

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Now known as the LEC Building, offices and a few classrooms are the bulk of what’s inside.

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The three story building at 40 West Milton was built as the Our Lady of Peace Convent.

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This building is the first of two on Portland Avenue. It is known as the 1953 Building although it looks much newer. Perhaps this section was added later.

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Continuing east on Portland is the Our Lady of Peace Auditorium, a part of the 1931 Building.

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The Summit Avenue side of the 1931 Building carries reminders of the long gone Our Lady of Peace High School.

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Looking at Mitchell Hamline from near the corner of Summit and Victoria, the vastly different architecture makes it apparent that the buildings are of distinctly different eras. The 1931 Building is on the right and the 1953 Building is on the left.

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The clay roof tiles of the 1931 building form geometric designs from multiple perspectives.

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From Summit Avenue, the Burger Library, center; the 1953 Building just to the right; and the tower at the far right is the 1931 Building.

The Steppingstone Theatre, perched above Victoria Street North, and Holly Avenue, lords over the neighborhood like the mythical temple on Mount Olympus. Steppingstone offers programs for children through plays, camps and an artist in residence program. Prior to the Steppingstone Theatre moving into this building in 2007, three different churches used the building at 55 Victoria Avenue North.

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The Steppingstone Theatre building is dramatic from across Victoria Street.

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Stained glass windows on the Portland Avenue side of the building.

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The Ionic pillars and what was the front entrance to the church.

The original occupant was the First Methodist Episcopal Church. The cornerstone of the building was laid in October 1907 and the Church moved in the next year. A highlight of the First M.E. Church‘s 850 seat auditorium was the organ built for $7,600 by the Austin Organ Company of Connecticut, according to information from the Minnesota Annual Conference United Methodist Church.

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This postcard of the First M.E. Church dates back to about 1910. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

The First M.E. Church moved out in 1959 and sometime around 1964 Saints Volodymer and Olga Ukranian Orthodox Church moved in. Grace Community Church was the last religious congregation to own the building. In 2007, 100 years after the construction began, Steppingstone Theatre moved in.

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In 1964, Saints Volodymer and Olga Ukranian Orthodox Church was the occupant. The photo was shot from Holly Avenue. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

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The mosaic sculpture of Princess Amariadevi brightens the day of all who pass the Steppingstone on Victoria.


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Built in 1903 as the all-boys St. Paul Academy, it has been renovated and converted to an office building called The Academy.

The Academy, as it’s known today, is a meticulously restored building at 25 North Dale Street which now holds offices. The former St. Paul Academy School for boys is the site of a first for one of Saint Paul’s most famous natives. According to the book “Critical Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Literary Reference to His Life And Work” by Mary Jo Tate, in 1909 a 13 year old F. Scott Fitzgerald got his first byline with the short story “The Mystery of the Raymond Mortgage,” which he wrote for the school newspaper, “St. Paul Academy Now and Then.”

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Scott himself; well, a bronze sculpture of Scott, sits with books in hand on the wall next to the entrance to The Academy. Artist Aaron Dysart created the Scott sculpture in 2006.

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This marker recognizes the statue of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his attendance at St. Paul Academy.

Apparently, Scotty was not a favorite of at least one fellow student. “Critical Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald” by Mary Jo Tate says the school newspaper published a note penned by student Sam Kennedy that said, “If anybody can poison Scotty or stop his mouth in some way, the school at large and myself will be obliged.” One hundred years ago this was likely considered humorous or at least sarcastic. But if written today, no doubt Sam Kennedy would get at least a suspension and possibly, have criminal charges filed against him.

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A look inside The Academy through a window in the front door.

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In need of more space, Saint Paul Academy left 25 North Dale for a larger, modern building at 1712 Randolph Avenue in 1931.


Sometime later the Amherst H. Wilder Nursery moved into 25 Dale. Aside from the lighter colored doorway and dormer, the building looks almost identical today. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

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The corner of Lawton and Summit Lane, not to be confused by the much better known Summit Avenue or the nearby Summit Court. These are the first street signs I’ve noticed that do not include address numbers on them.

On Summit Hill near The University Club is narrow street which resembles an alley. Summit Lane, for all practical purposes, is an alley – garages, driveways and backyards line the street and there is not a front door to be seen along its four block run. One block of Summit Lane retains what is probably its original brick pavement.

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Don’t be fooled by the look of Summit Lane — it’s a street, not an alley, at least in the eyes of the City of Saint Paul.

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The end of Lawton Street, looking north. The rock and concrete gully was built to channel runoff and reduce flooding from rain and snow melt.

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Turning 180 degrees to face south and there are the Lawton Steps. While I didn’t count them, Don Empson says in “The Street Where You Live” that there are 77 steps from here, the top, to Grand Avenue at the bottom.

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This house at 70 Lawton Street is built into the hillside, giving residents a spectacular panorama of the Mississippi River valley. The bridge in the background is the High Bridge.

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The walkway from the Lawton Steps to 70 Lawton. What makes this home unique is the only access is by foot.

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Standing on the sidewalk on Grand Avenue, this is the way the Lawton Steps looking heading up the hill.

Back up the 77 steps to the top of the Lawton Steps and I doubled back on Lawton Street for a block to Summit Court. After about a block, seemingly in the middle of the street, sat a large brick and stone building.

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The four story brick and stone building directly to the north turned out to be an apartment building.


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The summit of Summit and Summit. The Summit Court condo building is just out of frame to the right.

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Turns out the brick and stone building is called Summit Court Condominiums. Notice the mailboxes to the extreme right. It is worth noting that Summit Court Condos has two addresses. This entrance is 11 Summit Court.

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The meticulous detailing on each level and the rounded ‘corner’ are striking.

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The front entrance of the Summit Court Condominiums is at 442 Summit Avenue.


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There is so much to love about the Burbank-Livingston-Griggs House at 432 Summit Avenue. For years I’ve wanted to explore the inside.

The Burbank-Livingston-Griggs House has such a extensive and extraordinary history it is worthy of an entire book. The mansion was designed and built for wealthy stagecoach owner James C. Burbank. Burbank’s other ventures included partnering with notable early Saint Paulites J.L. Merriam and Amherst H. Wilder in a wholesale grocery business and working as a forwarding agent (logistics in today’s jargon) for the Hudson Bay Company, according to “St. Paul’s Historic Summit Avenue” by Ernest R. Sandeen.

Construction on the 8,000 square foot home began in 1862 and took three years to complete. The mansion is universally considered by historians and architects to be among the preeminent early Saint Paul homes.

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This drawing was made about 1867 when the house was still owned and occupied by Joseph C. Burbank and family. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

Modern amenities built into the home included steam heating, hot and cold running water and gas lighting, all rarities in the early 1860s. The exterior is grey Mendota limestone, with an interior lining of brick and an air chamber between, ostensibly to make the home rat and frost-proof.

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An 1874 drawing of the Burbank House included the tree-covered property and a glimpse of Victorian Summit Avenue. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

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One of the sitting rooms in the mansion in 1884, shortly after the George Finch family it. In true Victorian splendor, there is hardly space anywhere in the room to add another decoration. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

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Another room in the mansion in 1884. This room has a more masculine decorating theme with tiger skin rug in the center of the picture. It appears as though a couple of other animal skins sit along the edges of the photo.

The Burbank-Livingston-Griggs House changed hands several times over the years. In the late 1880s, Crawford Livingston purchased 432 Summit Avenue. Livingston and wife Mary had a daughter, also named Mary, who in 1915, married Theodore Wright Griggs, ultimately providing the other two names attached to the mansion.

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The front doors and a bit of the porch of the Burbank-Livingston-Griggs House.

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The cupola (with windows on all four sides) and finial atop the house are the most captivating exterior features.

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The backyard has a greenhouse for people for those days when you want to sit outside even if it’s too cool or wet to sit outside.

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The beauty and detail of the limestone exterior and the skill of the stone cutters becomes apparent when you move close to the house.

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Dentils and the elaborately detailed brackets under the cornice decorate the entire roof line. (One bracket does need some repair.)


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The leaded and arched windows are set into the granite. The Burbank-Livingston-Griggs House is on the National Historic Register.

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The front porch as seen from the east side of the house.

The Burbank-Livingston-Griggs house is now three meticulously renovated apartments of varying sizes. At the time of this writing, it appears that all three are available to rent. See recent photos of the elegant interior of the Burbank-Livingston-Griggs house here:

The creativity, function and design are intertwined, no matter what the size of the house. Today’s encounters with houses of vastly different size and purpose made me realize that. The creativity Todd Fink put into making his small house not just functional, but comfortable, is as great an accomplishment as that of the architect and builders of the Burbank-Livingston-Griggs House and Saint Paul’s other great mansions.

Click here to review the map of this ride.


Wolfie Browender

About Wolfie Browender

Pronouns: He/Him/His

Wolfie Browender has lived in Saint Paul with his wife, Sue, since 1986. His two adult daughters also live in the Capital City, one Downtown and the other on the East Side. Wolfie bikes for fun and exercise. Follow his travels along the more than 800 miles of streets in his quest to ride every block of every street in Saint Paul on his blog Saint Paul By Bike at