Macalester-Groveland, Midway, Como, North End
July 25, 2022
Living in the southwest part of the city dictates that I pedal north or east on most of these rides. And so it was that I took off toward the Midway and the first stop of this trip.
From Taylor Avenue, I took a winding path to the North End, letting impulse direct where to go. Although not a regular visitor here, I know from previous trips that the North End is bursting with history and unique sights.
I ended up in an unusual, roughly triangular part of the north end of the North End. Matilda and Farrington streets and the alley between are hemmed in on the east by Hoyt Avenue and the sprawling Washington Technology Magnet School. The angled northeast-southwest border is a forested hill that climbs up to the serpentine Wheelock Parkway.
Natural landforms, like the Wheelock Parkway hill, create some interesting parcels. Couple that with a human-made obstacle, the Washington Tech building in this case, and it forged a wonderfully quirky layout of the type that makes the city more interesting.
Exhibit one: Matilda Street is paved from Arlington Avenue north for about half a block before suddenly becoming gravel. The gravel portion of Matilda continues north past three houses and then simply ends.
Next, for some reason, none of the homes along this block of Matilda have mailboxes in front. Instead, they’re in back, in the alley shared by the homes on Matilda and Farrington streets. While rare in Saint Paul, I’ve seen alley mailboxes before. What I’ve never seen are mailboxes partially protruding through the fence!
After investigating the alley, I rode north on the long block of Farrington Street from Arlington Avenue. At the northernmost home, 1496 Farrington, a woman worked elbows deep painting boards. Rather than cars, unpainted siding and piles of other construction materials occupied the driveway. Clearly the homeowners were in the midst of a mammoth renovation project.
I interrupted Deborah’s painting by asking her about her endeavor, which resulted in an engrossing explanation. It started when Deborah and husband David made a purchase offer for the house over Memorial Day weekend in 2017. She explained, “Before we had even walked through it or seen it, we put an offer in on it. My husband and I looked at it for five minutes on the computer and thought, ‘Yep, that’s the one we wanna try to get.’” They learned later the same day that the seller accepted their bid.
At the time they lived in Balsam Lake, WI but wanted to move to the Twin Cities to be closer to David’s job.
Deborah told me she and David were confident their bid would land the Farrington Street house. “Sometimes you just know that is it, and finally it’s gonna come together. So we were excited. But strangely, we knew that finally it was gonna be the one that was gonna be ours.”
Deborah and David moved in six weeks later and immediately realized the house wasn’t in “move-in” condition. “It had been a neglected rental property for quite some time, so it’s been a five years of project so far.” That’s ironic because Deborah never planned to renovate a home. “I told my husband when we first got married, that one of the things I don’t ever wanna do is renovate a house, but here we are.”
The first repair project for David and Deborah unexpectedly became a complete replacement of the plumbing—every pipe and every fixture. “Our first weekend into this house, my husband said to me, ‘Don’t go in the bathroom. The bathtub’s falling through the floor.’”
“We took showers in the basement in a bucket and had a port-a-potty, and we really did all the plumbing; all of it.”
Deborah told the story with such calm that I asked if it is her typical demeanor? “Not that day it wasn’t,” she admitted. “You know, it’s funny in retrospect. It’s hilarious. It’s a great story in retrospect. Our first weekend here I sat and cried ‘cause I was like, ‘What have I done?’”
Deborah said the house renovation is but one of many challenges she’s faced, so she’s learned to live with a positive attitude. “I’ve learned you can breathe and move forward and take a new step with each day. You can choose to be happy.” Her upbeat, inspirational attitude came through various times during our conversation.
With the shock of having to replumb the house long behind her, Deborah’s come around to the house renovation. “It’s a labor of love and by the time it’s done, it’s gonna be very unique and different and quirky and artistic.”
In fact, she told me, it could lead to a book. “I have some before pictures. Some way before pictures. I’ve told my husband that I want to do a coffee table book out of this, because this was such an adventure that this deserves a coffee table book.” (Unfortunately I was unable to get photographs of how the house and property looked before Deborah and David began renovations.)
As you’d expect, it’s not just the house that required attention. “When we got here, the yard was all overgrown with, with some dead pine trees and dead cedar trees. And, and so we took all that out and, and have tried to fill the front yard with flowers that make pollinators happy and the backyard with vegetables.”
The backyard vegetable gardens are more impressive considering the efforts David and Deborah took to protect the crops.
The heavily wooded area across the street to the north of their home is what really attracted Deborah to the Farrington Street house, she said. A few years after moving in, she and David began purchasing those lots. “I got it in sections ‘cause it was owned by half a dozen different people. I have a realtor who just approached people and none of them were people who really cared about it, wanted it, needed it, were gonna use it. In one situation, I was doing somebody a favor taking it off their back.”
Deborah purchased the first lot about two years after moving in and the most recent property in 2022 and there’s one more lot she’d like to buy. As for what her plans are for the area, Deborah told me, “There’s a million options, but at least I know that it’ll be green and not some big apartment building.”
We wrapped up our conversation with another thought from Deborah. “There’s a million people all around us that need somebody else to be the hand that pulls them back up. I’ve had enough tough things in life that I have gotten strong enough that I choose to be the person that tries to pull somebody else up.”
Deborah requested I not take pictures of her or the driveway where the construction materials were staged.
11 homes stand on the block of Maryland Avenue just east of Arundel Street. This land served primarily agricultural purposes for most of the second half of the 20th century, as aerial images clearly show.
The last of the agriculturally-related businesses on the land was Larson’s Garden Center at 405 Maryland Avenue West. Larson’s and a single-family home stood until 2008, when they were demolished. Plans to build residential housing here surfaced as early as 2006 but the Great Recession and then unexpected pollution on the site delayed construction.
These 11 homes from 397 to 437 Maryland Avenue West are the result of perseverance. The well-designed, colorful Habitat for Humanity development sprouted up on Maryland Avenue in 2018 and 2019. However, a variety of plans for affordable housing came and went for more than 10 years before the construction of the Habitat homes finally started.
Meanwhile, 379 Maryland (built in 1928) is the only building on the block that stood in the 1940 aerial photo and remains. Its garage door drew my interest.
A Block-Long Street
Back on the southwest edge of the North End sits the unremarkable Denslow Street. One block east of Dale Street, it’s a bit of an anomaly, even for Saint Paul. This north-south street is merely a block long. The south end of Denslow intersects with Burgess Street. Less than a block to the north it turns west at almost a right angle and nearly immediately runs into Dale Street.
A convoluted but interesting note about Denslow Street: According to Don Empson, author of The Street Where You Live, Denslow was likely named for LeGrand Denslow, a professor at the St. Paul Medical College and developer of the subdivision. LeGrand’s brother, William W., illustrated the 1900 first edition of the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Despite the Wizard of Oz connection, I pedaled my bike home from Denslow Street. I didn’t attempt to kick my heels three times and say, “There’s no place like home.”
This article first appeared in Wolfie Browender’s blog, Saint Paul By Bike — Every Block of Every Street. All images are by the author, except where noted.