Lexington-Hamline, Cathedral Hill, Downtown, Lowertown, Dayton’s Bluff
A gorgeous 1940 Plymouth Coupe in the 1100 block of Portland Avenue was absolutely worth the first stop on this ride.
Farther east on Portland, in the 900 block to be exact, two lovely older homes. First, the unusual manse at 977 Portland with its many coves, crannies and porches.
It turns out this was Archbishop John Ireland’s home starting in about 1890. He died at 226 Summit, where he had moved in July 1918, at 80 years old. The Queen Anne style mansion, built in 1871, has since been broken into six condos.
Just to the east, 961 Portland also stands out with its Victorian design, including the eye-catching three-story tower.
Several blocks farther east at 501 Portland, the unconventional fence rather than the house charmed me.
A Quick Pass Through Downtown
I cruised through Downtown, partially on the Jackson Street segment of the Capital City Bikeway. The only other people on the path during my short time there were a couple of walkers.
Construction on Dayton’s Bluff
Dayton’s Bluff along I-94 is awash in road construction, making it a challenge to traverse parts of the neighborhood. Dedicated bus lanes for the Gold Line bus rapid Transit route are being shoehorned between I- 94 and Hudson Road and between Mounds Boulevard and homes just to the east.
Nearby, one of Saint Paul’s most noticeable homes is being renovated—hopefully. You can’t help but see the Gustav Muench House as you climb the hill on eastbound I-94 just east of Lowertown.
Now denuded of its long-time white exterior siding, the home still commands respect atop the bluff just above Mounds Boulevard, between 4th and 5th Streets East.
Moving east, several blocks of Hudson Road were nearly unrecognizable with much of the 20-foot-high sound barrier wall removed for Gold Line construction. As strange as the look was for the occasional visitor like me, residents likely shake their heads in disbelief whenever they look to the south and the now conspicuous I-94. Of course, it’s not just the view, but the disruption and dust and dirt. There’s also the sounds from the interstate, which have been magnified by the temporary extraction of the sound barrier wall. I’d like to know what locals thought of this dramatic, albeit temporary change.
Meanwhile, the topography changes just west of the Earl Street overpass, and the freeway drops to below grade level.
The delightful building at 1075 Hudson is an outlier for a couple of reasons. First, built in 1942, according to Ramsey County tax records, it’s considerably newer than most of the other homes and businesses in the area. Also, its brick and glass block Moderne design looks unlike anything else in the area.
This Old House
Wakefield Avenue is a mere one block north of Hudson Road, yet lacked much of the din, dust and disruption of Gold Line construction. Wakefield appeared to be like countless other Saint Paul streets — well-cared-for homes of stucco or narrow clapboard siding, primarily built in the 1910s, with mature trees lining the boulevards on both sides.
Little did I know that one of the city’s oldest homes—and one with an interesting history—sits in the middle of the block. The truth is, I almost missed 963 Wakefield entirely!
Not until I started post-ride research did I uncover the story of 963 Wakefield Avenue. The William and Harriet B. Wakefield House was built in 1859, just a year after Minnesota was granted statehood, on Birch Street. (Birch Street was renamed Wakefield Avenue in 1892 to honor the Wakefields.)
The Wakefields built the home on a one square block lot they purchased from Lyman Dayton, a real estate speculator and president of the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad. (Dayton was also the namesake of Dayton’s Bluff.)
A typewritten document from 1955 attached to a photo of the Wakefield House mentions “a high white picket fence surrounding the entire estate.” The house, according to the document, originally had 13 rooms, each with a stove.
The document in the Ramsey County Historical Society archives characterizes the Wakefields as “aristocratic people, [who] owned many fine horses and carriages.” Fruit trees, lovely gardens, lilac bushes and red cedar trees bedecked the property.
Oddly, the house was built on an angle, rather than parallel to Birch Avenue (later Wakefield Street.) One explanation is that either William Wakefield or the contractors incorrectly placed the stakes for the house.
Dayton’s Bluff South of I-94
Moving south I crossed over I-94’s 10 lanes, four shoulders and two partially constructed bus lanes via the pedestrian/bike bridge. This reminded me how highway design, aesthetics, routing and expansion continues to constrict and isolate neighborhoods. Much like Rondo and the Midway, Dayton’s Bluff has been a neighborhood divided since the freeway was routed through.
I glided off the bridge and back onto the city streets on Pacific Street. There I made my way east to an old building I’ve admired from afar for decades: the former Mound Park School. (Yes, it is Mound, not Mounds.)
This red brick beauty has occupied the parcel at 998 Pacific Street East since 1901, although the address is now 995 McLean Avenue. The original building had a “seating capacity” of 450 students, as reported in the April 20, 1902 Saint Paul Globe newspaper.
Mound Park School was expanded in 1910 and again in 1937. The 1937 construction likely is at least partially due to a fire that did extensive damage to the building, particularly the roof, dormers and bell tower. Note the lack of the bell tower and dormers as well as the flat roof on the building today.
The building’s tenure as a school ended in the mid-1970s when it was replaced by the new Dayton’s Bluff Elementary school about a half-mile northwest.
The Mound Park building underwent renovations and conversion to apartments in 1987. Today, it’s officially called The Terraces but frequently is referred to as either the Mound Park or Mounds Park apartments. I stopped to take pictures of the former schoolhouse as several neighbors chatted along the sidewalk out front.
Among them were the extremely personable Myra Smith and her husband, Sid, who both warmly greeted me. Sid was leaving for work but Myra and I talked about living in The Terraces. Myra described the building as “nice and quiet,” with, “a lot of people that have been here 15, 20 years.” Myra and Sid are relative newcomers, having moved there in 2014.
While the exterior looks much like it did when it was a school, the conversion to residences required big modifications inside. The former foyer, for example, bears no resemblance to the original configuration. Twenty-four apartments — eight on each of the three floors — fill the building.
One spot that remains recognizable is what was the office of the principal, as Myra explained enthusiastically. “It looks like a principal’s office! Still!” And, she added, “the property manager uses that room sometimes. She’s not planted here but that’s her office up there.”
Myra spoke fondly of the maintenance people who’ve worked at The Terraces since she and Sid moved in. First she talked about Don, who retired several years ago and died recently. “He lived right down the street, and he knew this building front and back, in and out, because he used to be the maintenance man for the building when it was a school.”
Myra noted that Don’s knowledge of the building went back even further because he attended Mound Park School as a student. The many years Don spent in the building gave him a unique familiarity with it. “He let us know how they used the old gym floors. Some of us have hardwood floors and they are actually the original gym floors from the school.”
Residents, said Myra, dubbed the next maintenance man ‘Son of Anarchy,’ “because he had this nice beard and at the time the series Sons of Anarchy was on and he rode this nice motorcycle and he was quiet. So he just reminded us of those characters. So he was really good. He was really efficient on making sure things were done.” Eventually, Myra said he got promoted and moved to another building.
Throughout our discussion Myra (and Sid before he left for work) greeted close to a dozen people as they strolled past us. When I asked her about that, she simply said, “Yeah, why not? What’s it gonna hurt you?” And she stated emphatically, “People need to be nice to other folks. Just be nice!”
Myra is an artist who works with several types of media. “I do customized abstract artwork for the clients. Say this is your favorite color. This will be the basis of your artwork. Something that you know, ‘Hey, I can appreciate this and hang it up.’”
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic Myra showed her art in various galleries and shows around the Twin Cities.
Besides painting with acrylics, Myra enjoys creating three dimensional objects out of resins.“I like glossy things so I use resin. I like things that look like glass. I do resin molds, coasters, I make dominoes, customized dominoes. I make customized chess pieces and chess boards. I make customized clocks outta resin.”
However, Myra stated that she’s put her painting and resin art on hold after getting two citations from the building inspector in 2022. “I wasn’t selling from my apartment, but I did my artwork in my apartment and he said it was a hazard, so I had to remove 80% of my art supplies and box ’em up and put ’em in the garage. This is not an artist building. I get it. I didn’t appreciate it. But I get it. So I’m not able to do the majority of my artwork.”
As a result, Myra’s stretched her artistic skills by taking up drawing. “You tell me I can’t paint in here ’cause I use acrylic paints. I can’t do my resin, I can’t use my tools, I can’t sand, I can’t do any of those things. So what it did was make my wheels turn. There are other creative things I can do. You can’t stop me from drawing.”
Myra’s also tackled the administrative parts of being an artist. “I had to get all my taxes stuff done, so I laid the foundation. I’m looking for different grants and stuff and rewrite my business plan.”
The inability to create most of her art has led Myra to consider leaving The Terraces. “I want a house where I can work and can’t nobody tell me I can’t work in my house.” Getting back to creating art, she said, would allow her to reactivate her YouTube channel, Instagram and other social media she uses to teach and sell her art.
As I researched and wrote this post, I realized that history is infused within everything, though we may not be conscious of it. Digging up that history often requires time and effort. Discoveries can be enlightening, entertaining, provocative, even uncomfortable. But whatever the emotions, looking at history from a personal perspective will always be educational.