The Remarkable Garden of Miss Iris

May 10, 2022
Lexington-Hamline, Hamline-Midway, Frogtown, North End
17 miles

Lexington-Hamline

The practical purpose of garages — storage — means they play a secondary role to the importance, look and care of the accompanying house. An exception of sorts is the one-time garage behind 1277 Dayton Avenue. What was most likely the original garage has been beautifully converted into what appears to be a hangout, guest area, auxiliary dwelling or office area. Elements like the hip roof and four-paneled wooden replacements for the main doors on the side maintain the original look, while the French doors facing the house tips passerby off to the new use.

1277 Dayton garage
What was a garage is now more living space at 1277 Dayton Avenue.
Jimmie Owens concessions stand
The Jimmie Owens Concessions Stand at Jim Kelly Baseball Field, part of the Dunning Field complex.

Wedged between Central High and Concordia University, Dunning Sports Complex has been a place for neighborhood kids to play ball since at least the 1930s. On previous rides I’ve checked out most of the facilities at Dunning, including Toni Stone Field with its interesting and important backstory. Until this ride, I’d not paused to really look at the small reddish building which abuts Jim Kelly Baseball Field.

Jimmie Owens plaque
The plaque honoring Jimmie Owens on the wall of the concession building at Jim Kelly Baseball Field.

The two plaques on either side of a boarded window were worth a closer look. The more interesting one pays homage to Jimmie Owens, a dedicated Midway Baseball volunteer.

Hamline-Midway

Eight chalkboards, framed like works of art, line the retaining wall in front of 1119 Edmund Avenue.

Roaming north about 10 blocks I turned onto Edmund Avenue and went east, where a story presented itself. Attached to the retaining wall along the sidewalk at 1119 Edmund Avenue were eight chalkboards of differing shapes and sizes, each surrounded by a gold or silver frame of varying sophistication. Colorful drawings, wordplay and surveys filled the chalkboards. I knocked on the door to get the story, which homeowner Cindy Jiban amicably provided.

The idea, said Cindy, came about five years ago. “It started as a need to cover holes in this ugly cinderblock wall.” Cindy saw a similar idea online and thought, “This can’t be that hard.” She got sheetrock, painted it black, and found frames at Goodwill. Then more painting. “Sprayed them all, put them together, and put them out with a bunch of chalk.”

Cindy Jiban 1119 Edmund
Cindy Jiban stands in front of the neighborhood canvas that is chalkboards affixed to her retaining wall at 1119 Edmund Avenue.

Cindy and her husband started by drawing on the chalkboards but wanted more interaction from passerby. They got it by posing questions like “What’s your favorite part of Thanksgiving meal?” on the chalkboards.

“Add a word” is another popular posting. That’s where Cindy or her husband jot part of a sentence on a chalkboard, leaving room for others to add words and change the meaning of the sentence.

Selfies or elfies?
“Elfies” easily out-polled sellfies on one of the chalkboards.

The Covid pandemic sparked a creative poll of sorts. “We had some humor in the beginning of pandemic about where are you going for spring break? Like the kitchen, the backyard, you know, that kind of thing.”

For Mother’s Day, Cindy and her husband dedicated one chalkboard to a vote about moms.

Other times, they’ll use the chalkboards to see how neighbors feel about a topic, which Cindy calls “taking a pulse of the neighborhood.”

“Here’s what we’re ‘something-ing’ right now. Like here’s what we’re using for a mask, and have people interact with ideas like that.”

Big events, said Cindy, have led to spontaneous comments on their chalkboards. “When the Philando Castile verdict came out we all kind of wondered how big that was going to explode. This was a little bit of an outlet. We don’t really lean into initiating political [comments], but some of that stuff kind of shows up.”

Chalkboards and house
The small wood house above the retaining wall holds the chalk and protects it from rain.

Even after about five years, the popularity of their chalkboards endures. Cindy told me her husband works from the house and he notices people stop to draw and write. “A lot of people pick up chalk and interact. Kids come by and just go crazy. As you can see, some of them go off the chalkboards and right onto this cement, which is great.”

Younger artists frequently use both chalkboards and wall.

“The short kids, where this is a little bit at their height, they will do stuff that is just charming all the time,” added Cindy. “Sometimes people will just color in the whole thing and then someone will come along and use the negative space with their finger.”

A couple of media outlets have come upon the wall of chalkboards, bringing public attention to Cindy and her husband. “The AP came and took some pictures early on in the pandemic when we had some funny stuff about spring break. And then MPR’s webpage showed that. So we felt like we were momentarily famous.”

The impact the wall of chalkboards has had on the neighborhood became apparent when Cindy attended their precinct caucus. “Everybody’s introducing themselves and we say what block we’re on. And then we say, ‘We’re the chalkboard house.’ And people say, ‘You’re the chalkboard house!’ The people who are walking anywhere in this zone will have noticed and interacted, probably.”

Frogtown

The south entrance to Frogtown Park and Farm, off Milton Street, which displayed few signs of spring because of the cool weather.

I continued the ride east to Milton Street, where I turned north toward Frogtown Park and Farm. It was my first visit since before the 2015 opening of the former Wilder Foundation property. Back then, the hilltop was a mix of trees and a meadow, with a couple of Wilder Foundation buildings bordering a driveway and parking lot to the immediate south.

Before looking at the farm and park, here’s a glimpse at the layered history of this parcel of land.

For hundreds and likely thousands of years, Native peoples, including the Dakota, likely hunted, gathered and may have lived on the land now called Frogtown Park and Farm. The Mdewakanton band of Dakota village of Kaposia, below the bluffs of today’s Indian Mounds Park, was less than four miles from here.

The 1837 treaty between the U.S. and Dakota ceded land east of the Mississippi River, effectively ending Native control and use of this land. The first recorded ownership of the hill and surrounding land by a European-American came in early in 1851, according to a history of the farm and park by Bluestem Heritage Group.

House of Good Shepherd
Some 8,000 girls lived at the House of the Good Shepherd over the 80 or so years the building was open. Photo circa 1890. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

The Sisters of the Good Shepherd purchased the hilly rural property in 1882 and began construction of a building for girls and young women who were orphaned, homeless or “incorrigible.” That building, The House of the Good Shepherd, opened the next year. The building was expanded in 1887-88, and dormitories, a laundry, school and a couple of houses were built as more girls came to The House of the Good Shepherd in the 1890s and 1900s.

A synopsis of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd touches on the 80 year history of the house and the girls who lived there.

By the 1950s, the Sisters primarily served girls with emotional problems rather than sex workers. As with the rest of society in the late ‘60s, the Sisters relaxed the rules under which the girls lived, allowing off-campus field trips and attending prom. In 1967, after more than 80 years of living on the Frogtown hill, The Sisters of the Good Shepherd and about 80 teen-age girls moved to a new campus in North Oaks. The imposing Gothic structure was demolished and the 13-acre property sold to the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation. The foundation still owns a couple of buildings along Lafond Avenue but moved its headquarters to Lexington Avenue, just south of University, in 2007.

Mariposa at entrance
The greenest thing in the park, and probably along the entire ride, was the curvaceous sculpture Mariposa by Gita Ghee, which beckons visitors entering from the south. Mariposa is butterfly in Spanish.
Mariposa C U
A bit of the detail of Mariposa near the southern entrance of Frogtown Park and Farm.
A section of the gravel path that winds around the 13 acre park and farm.

The name makes it obvious: there’s a farm here. What isn’t as evident is the extent and variety of farming techniques demonstrated, and the mission of what is among the largest urban farms in the country.

Hoop house & raised beds
Basically a greenhouse, the hoop house extends the growing season. To the right, raised gardens sit, awaiting plants or seeds.
Unplanted Fields
Crops requiring a larger growing area are planted in one of several fields. I assume the plastic tarps in the field limit weed growth.
Demo kitchens
Staff, volunteers and visitors use the demonstration kitchens to prepare dishes from crops grown on-site.
Some of the picnic tables at Frogtown Park and Farm. These tables overlook Minnehaha Avenue.

Other than some benches and picnic tables, the acreage atop the hill is primarily farm-related. The east end of Frogtown Park and Farm is where you’ll find most of the traditional park amenities — the playground, open space and a winter sledding hill.

East view
Looking east from the top of Frogtown Park and Farm. Victoria Street and Blair Avenue are in the background.
Frogtown Park Playground
A portion of the playground on the east side of the farm and park.
The Frogtown Park and Farm as seen from the east at Victoria and Blair. In the winter, neighborhood children sled down this hill.

I glanced back up the hill for another look at Frogtown Park and Farm from Victoria Street and Blair Avenue before riding east along Blair.

485, 493 and 497 Blair
On the north side of Blair, 485, 493 and 497, right to left, were built in 1973 or ’74.

The arrangement of some houses in the 400 block of Blair is unusual, possibly the result of demolitions in the 1970s. On the north side, all but two of the homes date to the early to mid-1970s, while across the street, nine of 12 are from that time span. The other three were built between 1887 and 1900, according to Ramsey County records.

On the south side of Blair, 474 was built in 1900, while 478 has stood since 1887.
On the south side of Blair, 474 (left) was built in 1900, while 478 (right) has stood since 1887.

Blair Avenue dead-ends five blocks east, where it meets Galtier Street and the diagonal Como Avenue. The 653 Artist Lofts, named for its address, 653 Galtier, is a building that has served several purposes since its 1910 construction.

The main entrance to 653 Artist Lofts on Galtier Street.
The main entrance to 653 Artist Lofts on Galtier Street.

Constructed for the Guiterman Brothers men’s apparel company and expanded in 1917, the crash of the stock market forced a retrenchment.

In 1929, apparel manufacturing was replaced by printing press fabrication. Brandtjen & Kluge built presses and printing press accessories here for 50 years. 653 Galtier was used for storage for several years after Brandtjen & Kluge moved out. A group of nonprofits led by Artspace converted the decaying former factory into Frogtown Family Lofts, 36 ‘affordable’ two- and three-bedroom apartments, in 1992. Residents of what is now named the 653 Artist Lofts have an art gallery, community gardens and a children’s play area.

653 Artists Lofts
The gardens, playground and parking lot behind the 653 Artist Lofts.
The Atrium art gallery.
The Atrium art gallery.
The Blair Avenue side of the 653 Artist Lofts.
The Blair Avenue side of the 653 Artist Lofts.

Just down the block, the 1886 Victorian beauty at 285 Lafond Avenue (below) jumped out at me. I can imagine the hours of fun playing hide-and-seek with all the great hiding spots, particularly on the third floor.

285 Lafond
This Victorian lady from 1886 strikes a dignified note on the corner of Lafond Avenue and Elfelt Street.
583 & 587 Elfelt
583 Elfelt, left, and 587 Elfelt, right, look like mirror images of each other, and perhaps they are, but they were built 32 years apart; 587 in 1888 and 583 in 1920.

Elfelt Street is named after brothers Abram and Charles Elfelt, who in 1849 opened St. Paul’s first dry goods store, according to The Street Where You Live by Don Empson.

603 Galtier Avenue
The is no missing the bold aqua color of 603 Galtier Avenue!

North End

110 and 112 Atwater Street
110 and 112 Atwater Street are examples of the small homes built in the 1880s for working-class families.

The section of the North End I rode includes some of the city’s oldest working-class homes. Many were built in the 1870s and ‘80s and housed German, Austrian, Swedish, and later, Eastern European immigrants working for nearby railroads and supporting businesses. Two examples are the significantly changed 110 and 112 Atwater Street, constructed in 1889.

Hardenburgh & Atwater
Hardenburgh Place is a mere one block long.

Hardenburgh Place is a one-block long street between Atwater on the north and Lyton Place on the south. Before this ride, not only had I never set foot (or bike) on it, I’d never heard of it. The Street Where You Live says it is likely named after Peter R. Hardenburgh, an early developer in St. Paul.

812 Hardenburgh
The electric yellow shutters and door on the two-and-a-half story Victorian grabbed my attention and wouldn’t let go. 812 Hardenburgh is from 1879.
Across Hardenburgh
I initially thought the structure across Hardenburgh was a house.
119 Lyton
When I came to the front on Lyton Place I discovered it was most recently a church. It appears to have closed, based upon an internet search and Ramsey County tax information.
Grace Baptist Church 1954
Apparently, 119 Lyton Place had been a church for many years. In 1954 the Grace Baptist Church congregation had the building. A painting crew is about to freshen up the exterior. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

Subsequently, the ride continued on Sycamore, immediately west of Rice Street. This long block — the equivalent of four average blocks — is a bit weary, underused and ready for redevelopment. The semi-industrial space featuring warehouses is surrounded by large asphalt lots. Most notable are two separate lots dotted with school buses.

Hmong American Partnership owns and, I assume, operates the buses parked at 150 Sycamore.
Meanwhile, at the end of the section of Sycamore, a smattering of First Student buses.

Frogtown

Back in Frogtown, I made a second, much quicker stop at the Frogtown Park and Farm. This was really a pause, primarily to take a shot from the northern entrance along Minnehaha Avenue.

Frogtown Park Minnehaha entrance
From Minnehaha avenue, the Frogtown Park and Farm hoop house is in the background on the right and the demonstration kitchens are just right of the sign.

My last stop of the ride proved the most delightful of the day, even one of the best ever. The astonishing gardens of 1322 Sherburne Avenue and the incredible woman behind them are nearly beyond words.

Miss Iris Logan’s front yard gardens offer an abundance of delightful artwork.

Dynamic, bubbly, spirited, enthusiastic, fascinating, kind, gregarious, artistic, creative. Pick your favorites and they describe Iris Logan, who is fondly known around her neighborhood as “Miss Iris.” I quickly learned that Miss Iris is an engaging storyteller who punctuates her compelling stories with genuine laughter.

Miss Iris Logan
Miss Iris Logan stands on her sidewalk surrounded by plants, sculptures, mosaics and figurines of her garden.

Miss Iris came to the Twin Cities from little Coffeeville, MS (about 90 miles south of Memphis, TN) in 1971, following her uncles and many of her siblings, who all followed her grandmother. “So when each one of us kids graduated from high school, we came up here because down there in our small hometown, there was no jobs.”

The 10th of 16 children, Miss Iris facetiously described her place among her siblings. “I’m 10. I’m not the Bo Derek 10, but I’m 10.”

Boulevard garden
Miss Iris cultivated the boulevard gardens in front of her home in the 1970s.

Miss Iris started her stylish garden and sculpture gallery in 1974, about a year after moving into her Frogtown home. “I started small and then my daughters wasn’t into mowing and I couldn’t do it all because I worked full-time and part-time. So then my gardens got bigger and then I did my boulevard.” Years later, at the request of a couple of neighbors, she expanded the garden into their yards.

“I don’t have no rhyme or reason. You know, some people have cottage gardens and some people have different garden things . I just throw it all together.”

Miss Iris Logan describing her garden

She has dozens of plants, including daylilies, tulips, peonies, daffodils, Solomon’s Seal, and several hosta varieties in her yard. But to my eyes, all were eclipsed by the vibrant tile mosaics and other works of art.

Miss Iris got very animated when we talked about the abundance of rocks in her garden. “I hand-hauled each one of my rocks in here! All these rocks — except that big boulder there,” she said, pointing to her right. “When they was building that apartment building, that actually came out of the sand.”

Rocks, plants, sculptures, tile mosaics and figurines are all at home in Miss Iris’s garden.

Miss Iris has collected hundreds of sizable, weighty rocks as she’s grown her garden. These rocks decorate the garden borders, surround her sculptures and other art, and a few of the larger ones became canvases for her intricate tile creations.

Two of the larger boulders, far left and center, Miss Iris used as canvases for tile mosaics. She hand-made every mosaic in her incredible garden.

I asked Miss Iris to explain how in the heck she managed to gather so many cumbersome boulders. “If you’re driving and you’re a rock person, always have you a pair of gloves and a two-by-four,” she said. “‘Cause you’d just be amazed at how you can roll it up on that two-by-four.”

Cost is one reason Miss Iris started gathering rocks. “That’s ‘cause I couldn’t afford to have those fancy retaining walls and stuff. So I used the natural rocks from the earth.”

“I looked back and honest to God, I don’t know how I rolled all of these rocks.”

Miss Iris Logan on the hundreds of rocks decorating her garden

Along the Mississippi River, Miss Iris told me, is her absolute favorite place to collect rocks, but not the only spot. “If they was digging up a highway, I’d always ask the guys if I could get the rocks and they said, ‘Sure!’ And if they was doing any street diggin’. I like to go into the different composts [sites] and walk in the woods and I find a rock. I just have to have the rocks!” She laughed about her intense commitment to rock collecting.

Side garden
The garden along the east side of Miss Iris’s house is also decorated to the nines.
Cement post
Miss Iris calls this cement pillar her “most challenging piece” because of its size and weight and the effort she and others expended to get it home.

The most challenging item she procured was a massive concrete parking lot bollard. It took one friend, one stranger and one neighbor to help her get the unwieldy pillar from an empty lot into her car and onto the boulevard in front of her house. Where it landed that day many years ago is where it sits today.

While not as prolific a rock gatherer as she was, Miss Iris still collects. “Sometimes I do, but my body makes me pay for it. I see one, I go grab my neighbor.”

She described the interaction:

“‘Want to go for a ride today?’

‘Oh Iris, what are we haulin’ today?’
‘Shut up, come on!’

That’s what I do,” she explained, laughing enthusiastically.

Driftwood
Some of the driftwood Miss Iris amassed along the Mississippi River.

Miss Iris also has a nice display of driftwood she picked up along the Mississippi. Getting the large pieces home took some planning, she said. “Got to figure out the back roads. Cause half of it sticks out of my truck. I don’t want the police to stop. So I try to keep some red in the car to tie it on the end.”

Mushroom mosaic
The mushroom is the first mosaic Miss Iris made for her garden and she retains a special fondness for it.

When the weather is warm, chances are good you’ll see Miss Iris working on her gardens. “In the summertime, I get up usually like 5:30. I’m out at the crack of dawn. My dad got up early too, and I never got away from it,” she said. “I can be out here all day and not realize what time it is.”

“I’m only in the house in the evening when the sun go down. I’m in and I work on my mosaic as I’m watching TV.”

A close up of one mosaic shows the intricacy of the work Miss Iris does.

Art, according to Miss Iris, came naturally to her. “I’ve always been crafty with my hands so I learned how to do mosaics by the books and self-taught, and I created all my mosaic objects in my garden.” She hand-cuts each tile for the mosaics.

Over the hour or so we talked, the conversation strayed from gardening and art to our formative years. I learned that Miss Iris is the daughter of Mississippi sharecroppers, that as a young girl, she picked cotton, and she clearly recalls racially segregated drinking fountains and laundromats. Miss Iris expressed great dismay over me not knowing how a branch of my family got to Milwaukee.

Returning to the gardens, Miss Iris mentioned they draw many visitors who often take photos. Children like to look around for turtles, birds and other animal decorations in the garden.

“One couple told me this is better than going to Como Park. I said, ‘Get out of Dodge! Get out of here!’ She says, ‘Everything is so beautiful!'”

If you visit just one, make it 1322 Sherburne Avenue to gaze at Miss Iris’s superb garden and maybe you’ll have the good fortune to meet Miss Iris too.

1322 Sherburne Address sign
Even the address at Miss Iris’s is a self-made tile mosaic.
Wolfie Browender

About Wolfie Browender

Wolfie Browender has lived in Saint Paul with his wife, Sue, since 1986. He is proud to live in Minnesota's Capitol City. Wolfie is a native of the Milwaukee, WI area. The father of two adult daughters, Wolfie bikes for fun and exercise. You can follow his travels throughout Saint Paul on his blog Saint Paul By Bike-Every Block of Every Street at http://saintpaulbybike.com.