A home with a geodesic dome roof. Verdant summer plants, trees and landscaping surround the home.

The Unique Dome Home on Morton Street

July 15, 2023

Summit Hill, West Side

19.25 miles

This contraption is part of a scientific study of ash trees and how climate change and other factors affect urban nature.

Perched along the 800 block of St. Clair Avenue is a curious contraption. The device is both attached to and beside an ash tree. I learned through a bit of internet sleuthing that the apparatus is part of a study to investigate how “urban stressors affect the ecological structure and functioning of urban nature,” including pollinators, trees, watersheds, lakes and streams. 

The Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Area (MSP) Long Term Ecological Research Program, as it’s called, is a team of researchers from the University of Minnesota, University of St. Thomas, USDA Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, and Water Bar.

Across the River

The view from the High Bridge Overlook never disappoints, even on a smoky summer day.

The half-acre Alice Park, a short block off Cherokee Avenue and the bluff, is surrounded by Alice Street and the horseshoe-shaped Alice Court. Despite regular rides along Cherokee, George Street and other nearby thoroughfares, this was my first visit to any of “the Alices.”

While small, Alice Park is literally an island of green. Alice Street is in the foreground.
Only six homes have Alice Court addresses. The two oldest were built in 1879 and the newest went up in 1913.
Alice Street, looking southeast toward Ohio Street. Alice Court is to the far right.

Meanwhile, a couple of blocks east, a unicorn lounged in the yard at 248 Winifred Street.

Who says unicorns don’t exist? They do at 248 Winifred Street at Charlton Street.

Another two blocks east, I stumbled upon a property decorated, and I mean decorated, with metal wall art.

Metal wall art is mounted on the front and side of 173 Robie Street.
Metal wall art is more prevalent on the fence at 173 Robie.

The more I looked, the more metal art signs I saw. The amazing display at 173 Robie Street screamed “story” to me. I learned from two of the home’s occupants – the husband and son – that their wife/mother Cheryl, the architect of the extensive wall art, was working until late afternoon. Obviously I shall return!

Hills and More Hills

St. Paul has an abundance of hills. It’s not San Francisco or Denver hilly, with elevation changes of 2,500 feet and 2,900 feet respectively. The Capitol City’s 420-foot difference between high and low points seems small, but the undulation of St. Paul’s terrain nevertheless provides a distinctly different and challenging workout, at least for me.

The best-known route to the West Side is via Smith Avenue over the High Bridge. In fact, the elevation of nearly all of the West Side grows significantly as one moves south from the river bluff toward the St. Paul-West St. Paul border(see the topographic map above). Such is the case with the intersection of Page and Bellows Streets.

Going up! Page Street looking west from the intersection with Bellows Street.
Going down! Bellows Street at Page, looking north.
The St. Paul sign at the intersection of Sidney Street and Dodd Road. marks one of the borders with West St. Paul.
Bidwell Street ends at another section of the border of St. Paul and West St. Paul.
The lush thicket at 767 Winslow Avenue is a block east as the crow flies of where Bidwell Street ends.

The 40-Acre notch

If you’ve ever studied a map of the West Side, you’ve likely seen the odd notch in the St. Paul-West St. Paul border (below). It turns out this spot is more commonly called the “Forty Acres.”

The odd border came to be in 1874, when residents of the City of St. Paul and West St. Paul Township agreed to let St. Paul annex a sizable section of the township. The annexation created St. Paul’s West Side by shifting the St. Paul (and the Ramsey-Dakota County) border south from the Mississippi River to Annapolis Street.

The Mississippi River was the southern border of St. Paul until 1874 as this Rice & Bell’s Counting House Map from 1869 shows. The Barry Lawrence Ruderman Map Collection; Stanford University

A major dilemma, however, was the location of the home of the Dakota County superintendent of schools. Philip Crowley lived at 763 Dodd Road and under the annexation, Crowley’s home and property were no longer in Dakota County, a requirement of his job. The parties solved the problem by adjusting the border northward around Crowley’s 40-acre property, keeping it within Dakota County.

A chance meeting with the friendly neighborhood postal carrier is how I learned some valuable information about the 40 Acres, including the existence of a commemorative historical marker nearby in West St. Paul.

On the lower left is a marker commemorating the Forty Acres of West St. Paul. It was dedicated in the southern part of Kennedy Park in 1989. The street near the upper right corner is where the earlier photo of Bidwell Street in St. Paul was taken.
A close look at the Forty (or 40) Acre marker in Kennedy Park.

I next paused less than two blocks away, at the locale that caused the creation of the Forty Acres, the Philip Crowley House at 763 Dodd Road.

The Philip Crowley Home at 763 Dodd Road, West St. Paul.

Although unplanned, I spent about an hour exploring the 40 Acres, a.k.a. the notch, in the border and the surrounding area.

Return to St. Paul

I came to the unusual corner of Dodd Road, Winslow Street and Morton Avenue where several trees, a couple of bushes, a wood fence and two substantial rocks masked some kind of structure.

Two fences, one of foliage and another of wood, screen the property at 89 Morton Street.

Continuing east on Morton about 50 feet, the trees gave way and there appeared a most unusual house geodesic dome house!

The entrance to the geodesic dome house property at 89 Morton Street West.

No one was outside at 89 Morton and I got no response to my knock on the door so I resolved to stop by later on this tour.

From Morton Street, I took a closer look at the unconventional Dodd-Winslow-Morton intersection.

The unusual intersection of Dodd Road, Winslow Avenue and Morton Street. Google Maps

The strange alignment of the two streets that cross Dodd — Winslow and Morton — was undoubtedly intentional; to reduce collisions at what was, according to old maps, a six-way intersection.

Hall Avenue at Annapolis, the southern border of St. Paul.

Continuing east and south for about nine blocks, I biked onto Hall Avenue, and a rare couple of blocks with no elevation change.

The 800 block of Hall Avenue was surprisingly lacking in hills.

The flat land didn’t last. Not two blocks away, on Wyoming Street West, the hills resumed.

The large home at 76 Wyoming Street dates back to 1885.

Continuing to flit about the West Side, I found myself at the intersection of Belvidere Street and Gorman Avenue. Gorman runs through parts of the West Side in fits and starts, and the short gravel segment just off Belvidere Street is the most pronounced example.

Just two homes are on the extremely abbreviated section of Gorman Avenue.
The driveway to the larger of the two homes, 773, is longer than the portion of Gorman Avenue on which it is located.

Moving east back to Hall Avenue, this time in the 700 block, I turned north, and a block later, east onto a private road mundanely dubbed City View Lane.

Ramsey County records indicate the City View addition was built in 2005.
Twelve single family townhomes line the south side of City View Lane.

The Geodesic Dome House

From City View Lane, a zig-zagging trajectory took me briefly onto Hall Avenue again, to Curtice Street next, then Stryker Avenue, to Sidney Street, to Winslow Avenue before finally reappearing at the geodesic dome house at 89 Morton. This time, the homeowner was outside tending to his flourishing gardens as Mexican music quietly glided from a speaker on the patio. Paul said he purchased the house in 2016. “I actually started doing some repairs on the house for my brother-in-law and then he talked me into buying it.”

Paul stands on the flower-laden deck of his home at 89 Morton Street.

Although relatively new to Morton Street, Paul is a lifetime West Sider. He grew up on the long-lost West Side Flats.

In this 1953 aerial photo of the West Side Flats, the mix of industrial buildings and homes is visible. The Wabasha Street Bridge is on the far left. American Hoist and Derrick had buildings on both sides of Wabasha along the river. Raspberry Island is in the lower center. Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) and MNopedia
When the Mississippi River flooded, water would inundate the Flats. While not an annual spring occurrence, it happened frequently enough for the city to finally condemn the West Side Flats. In this 1952 photo, water crept up to homes on Tennessee Street. MNHS and MNopedia

“The area where I was born, I think it was about half a block away from Lafayette Bridge. So, between Lafayette and Robert Street, that was the area where we grew up.” Paul and his family left the Flats around 1960 after the city condemned the area and began tearing down homes.

A more complete look at the dome home at 89 Morton St.

The architecture of Paul’s home makes it rare, obviously. but so does its size — about 680 square feet (nearly three times smaller than the average Minnesota home.) “There’s a loft to it, there’s a bathroom, living room and kitchen. So it’s a small space, but it’s all that I need,” Paul told me. “And the plan wasn’t for my mom to be here, but it ended up being that way, and it works for me. It works for my mom.”

The modest size of the house is advantageous during heating season, too. “We’re facing south so a lot of times we get enough sun here to heat the house. I can turn off the space heaters and stuff like that. I do run my air conditioner a lot during the summertime because it can get hotter inside than outside. Gotta keep it cool for mom. She’s 91 years old.”

With limited space in the house, no basement or garage, much of the exterior work Paul’s done is to boost storage. “I built that onto the carport,” he said, pointing at a cabinet. “There’s some storage there for hardware and stuff like that for building. I have another storage in the back that I built.”

The backyard storage shed Paul built.

Professionally, Paul is a landscaper and his talent is evident throughout his property. “I love gardening. I got that from my mom and dad.“

A few of the dozens of plants providing a kaleidoscope of hues and shapes on Paul’s deck and in his yard.

Paul continued, “My mom loves plants, so a lot of the stuff that I put is for her. Of course, all this here,” Paul said gesturing to the many flowers, “hummingbirds love that, so I put a bunch of petunias on there for them. I got that fountain running day and night. The birds love that.”

Paul’s fountain attracts myriad of birds to the yard.

Paul has many dozens of interesting perennial plants in pots that he shuttles in and out of his house as the seasons change. “That cactus, that goes in. That’s about 12 years old. That’s a pineapple. I got a aloe vera there. Those all go in the house. I got a camelina — that’s a plant from Mexico — up on top there with the red flowers. I got about 50 potted plants that I put in the house.”

Many of the perennials Paul has sit on the deck during the warm season.

Paul’s prowess with plants encompasses more than flowers. “I’ve got tomatoes in the front. I got tomatoes and peppers in the back. I got zucchini squash, cucumbers, onions, lettuce, carrots, tomatillos, raspberries, blueberries. I utilize the space.”

The backyard has a small patch of grass and is surrounded by more varieties of plants. Benches and chairs offer another place in which to sit.

Between the music (in Spanish) that played during my visit and plants that are native to Central America, I asked Paul about his connections to Mexico. He said his parents were both Mexican natives. After they retired, they moved from St. Paul to a farm in the Mexican state of Michoacán, about 230 miles west of Mexico City. “It was an avocado orchard; bananas, they had mangoes, they had coffee, they had everything you can think of. It was a hobby farm for my dad, He retired from here in 1978 and bought the farm in 1979.”

Paul also told me, “I think he worked harder down there than he did up here, but it was a project of love that was from the heart. That’s something that he always wanted since a kid, since he moved up here.”

His folks weren’t totally on their own at the farm, according to Paul. “I’d go down there every winter for maybe 15 or 20 years and work and help them out.”

Although the Michoacán farm has been sold and Paul and his mother no longer travel there, they enjoy pleasant recollections of those years thanks to the appearance and fragrances of the flowers and plants he grows.

Editor’s note: This article is reprinted from Wolfie Browender’s blog, Saint Paul by Bike: Every Block of Every StreetAll photos by the author unless otherwise 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.