Improving a Little Corner of the North End

Macalester-Groveland, Midway, Como, North End

July 25, 2022

20.7 miles

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.

Tractor tire sandboxes were the envy of many children, including me, in my youth. The folks at 1408 Taylor Avenue had a lovely matching pair in the front yard.

North End

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.

The vaguely triangular area created by Wheelock Parkway to the west and north, Matilda Street to the east, and Arlington Avenue on the south. Image: Google Maps

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.

Part of Matilda Street—from 1459 to 1469—features curbs, gutters and pavement. From there north, Matilda degrades to a curbless, gravel drive for the final three houses —1479, 1485 and 1489.
The gravel section of Matilda Street is more akin to a parking lot than a street.
There are no mailboxes in front of any of the homes on this block of Matilda Street, paved or unpaved.

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!

The fence is an unconventional place to mount mailboxes but it works for the folks at 1479 and 1485 Matilda Street. That this is the alley behind the homes adds to the unconventionality.
The mailbox for 1489 Matilda Street sits in the alley alongside the garage.
Oddly, only the Matilda Street side of the alley has mailboxes. The Farrington Street homes, left, have the usual setup of mailboxes on the front of the houses.

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.

This is 1496 Farrington in 2018, before Deborah and David began extensive exterior work. Courtesy Ramsey County

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.”

Deborah and David planted the bountiful foliage that lines the sidewalk and fills the front yard at 1496 Farrington.
Some of the plentiful flowerbeds in the front yard are nestled in raised beds.

The backyard vegetable gardens are more impressive considering the efforts David and Deborah took to protect the crops.

Eight-foot cyclone fences, raised beds and trellises protect the vegetable gardens.

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.”

Base map and parcel information: Ramsey County GIS
Deborah and David purchased some of the woods across the alley from their home.

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.”

This lot was used as a makeshift dump a couple of times since Deborah and David purchased it, prompting them to post the sign.

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.

Maryland Avenue

11 single-family homes constructed by Habitat for Humanity line the north side of Maryland Avenue West between 397 and 437, immediately east of Arundel Street.

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.

Some homeowners have charmingly landscaped their front yards.
Others have flower and food gardens.
All of the homes have attached garages, accessed via the shared back alley.

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.

The garage door of 379 Maryland Avenue West offers an otherworldly view.

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.

Looking north on Denslow Street. The building on the left runs the entire length Denslow but has a Dale Street address.
Only two structures – 924 (left) and 922 (right) – have Denslow Street addresses. Both were built in 1899, according to Ramsey County tax records.

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.  

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 SaintPaulByBike.com.