St. Paul is an area I’ve always wanted to spend more time in. Living in the west metro of Minneapolis, I had all the excuses in the world not to make it over to St. Paul more. As a surprise last year, my husband took me on a Summit Avenue walking tour, the street in St. Paul home to the longest-stretch of Victorian-era homes in the U.S. – over 373 of them. This 4.5 mile famous stretch is home to houses like the James J. Hill House, the F. Scott Fitzgerald House and more.
If you’re looking for something fun to do in St. Paul that doesn’t involve spending money, and especially if you like history, this is for you. We have to give all the credit to Big Boy Travel’s Summit Avenue Walking Tour Guide, who designed this absolutely amazing guide. You can do this walking tour quickly or at your own pace all afternoon like we did. Their map was helpful in guiding us along.
I hope you enjoy some of our photos and favorite mansions along the way. Check out Big Boy Travel’s site for the full guide!
A Few of My Favorites:
Cathedral Of Saint Paul: With a commanding hilltop view, the giant Cathedral of Saint Paul towers over the city below. Construction on the massive church started in 1907 with the laying of the cornerstone which was attended by over 60,000 people. The Cathedral of Saint Paul’s 1st service was on Palm Sunday in 1915 even though the inside wasn’t all the way done yet, but it was still attended by 7,500. After visiting this impressive church you understand why the Vatican declared the Cathedral the National Shrine of the Apostle Paul. Entering the main sanctuary through any of the church’s 12 wooden doors you are instantly struck by the 186 feet tall and 76 feet wide dome which covers seating for 4,000 people. The massive dome is not only amazingly beautiful but was designed with the function to give everyone an unobstructed view of the pulpit. We especially love the 24 large stained glass windows sitting on each side of the Cathedral letting in the colorful light as electric lights weren’t added until 1940. Source: Big Boy Travel
James J Hill Carriage House (260 Maiden Lane): One of my absolute favorite streets and stops! Down this alley is a home covered in vines, straight from the 1800s. Shortly after building his mansion in 1891, Hill realized the slope by his house was too steep and needed a new carriage house. In an effort to recycle, Hill used bricks from one of his prior mansions to build the huge carriage house you see before you. Expect the beautiful carriage house to be engulfed by vines. Source: Big Boy Travel
Mrs. J. W. Bass House (365 Summit Ave): The house at 365 Summit Avenue was built in 1892 for Martha Bass. Martha was the widow of Jacob W. Bass, an early pioneer in Saint Paul. She married Jacob in Iowa when she was about 16, and the couple came to Saint Paul in 1847. After Jacob died in 1889, she decided to invest in a house on Summit Avenue. Designed by James Knox Taylor, the home was originally Queen Anne in style, but with the addition of the Ionic portico in the early part of the 20th century, it now resembles more of a Neo Classic design. Martha lived in the house with her son Frank, his wife Lydia, and their children. They stayed in the house until 1903, when they exchanged houses with Chauncey and Mary Griggs, at 422 Laurel Avenue. Martha lived with her son’s family until her death on August 3rd, 1913. Built in 1891 for Mrs. J.W. Bass, this massive Cass Gilbert designed home was originally built as a Queen Anne Victorian style home. By 1903 the family got sick of the house and swapped homes with wealthy wholesale grocer Chauncey Milton Griggs. Griggs quickly remodeled the home into a Colonial Revival style removing the corner tower, wrap-around porch, and adding the powerful Roman column outcrop with 3 roof line windows. You can still see signs of the original design not only from 1891 on the 3rd-floor gable, but also from the bay windows that travel the height of the home’s right side which used to form the corner tower. Source: Big Boy Travel
Madame Nina Clifford (435 Summit Ave): The main attraction isn’t the tiny home but instead the chainsawed burr oak statue out front. The wooden lady holding a parasol portrays Madame Nina Clifford, the owner of one of St. Paul’s early brothels located in a nearby neighborhood. The rambler home itself was built in 1954 as the 3rd house on the property. The 1st house was built in the 1870s and was replaced but a Gothic and Queen Anne mix in 1890 by owner George T. Slade. After Slade’s death, the house sat vacant and was tore down in the 1930s by Olson Wrecking. While we aren’t a fan of the 1950s rambler it is important to remember that it was built in the style popular in its day just like the homes before it were built in the styles popular in their day. Nina Clifford served the wealthiest and most powerful men of St Paul from 1889 until her death in 1929. A forty year run of champagne, larger chandeliers, and, of course, prostitution. The story if Nina is shrouded in mystery due to all records of her having been stolen from the Minnesota Historical society for unknown reasons. Read more about her here. Source: Big Boy Travel
Mrs. Porterfield’s Boarding House (513 Summit Ave): This weeks showcase home is 513 Summit Avenue. This gem of a Queen Anne Victorian was built in 1887 for W.W. Bishop, a local real estate agent. At a cost of $10,000, it was constructed by Wirth and Haas. It is one of the only wood-frame houses standing on Summit and has a well preserved polygonal tower. The full facade porch has thankfully not been closed in. The current owners have painted the home in well matched colors, bringing out the architectural details in the woodwork. A photo of the home in 1973 shows the home without the details highlighted. Around 1920 is was occupied as Mrs. Charles Porterfield’s Boarding House and frequented by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Today it is once again a single family residence, with the last recorded sale in 1994 for $626,000. It has approximately 8300 square feet and 4-5 bedrooms. Source: Big Boy Travel
Secret Garden (525 Summit Ave): Now a beautiful garden, the lot once held a home built for Bainbridge H. Evans in 1902 which was torn down in 1970. With the house gone the neighbors behind the parcel at 526 Portland bought the empty lot. They wanted to build a huge private pool but it didn’t fit the historical building code so they built the garden instead. The Secret Garden is private, but you can see well into its beautiful depths. The iron cast lion headgate and standing lion statues help add a flair of stateliness to the mysterious garden. Source: Big Boy Travel
The “F. Scott Fitzgerald House” at Summit Terrace (587-601 Summit Ave): Built as an early form of townhomes in 1889, these row houses were once home to famed author F Scott Fitzgerald. While the family moved around a lot and there is no official F.Scott Fitzgerald house, 599 Summit is one of only two houses with a plaque commemorating Fitzgerald. Here are some examples of F.Scott Fitzgerald moving around over the years. The Fitzgerald family moved from Saint Paul to Buffalo NY for a while but returned in 1908 when F.Scott Fitzgerald was 12 years old. In 1918 F.Scott Fitzgerald was living in NYC trying to make it as a writer, but struggled causing his fiancee Zelda to call off the engagement for a while. Due to his struggles F.Scott Fitzgerald’s parents let him move in with them to this row house at 599 Summit in 1919. The following spring Fitzgerald married Zelda and his first novel “This Side of Paradise” got accepted for publication giving him instant fame. Source: Big Boy Travel
William Butler “Lemon Meringue” House (516 Summit Ave): This 1914 mansion is nicknamed the Lemon Meringue House for its yellow brick and white fluffy looking quioned corners (pronounced coined). It’s a mix of Italianate and Mission Revival styles with a low pitched roof, fancy brackets on the eves, and quioned corners. Author Sinclair Lewis lived here from 1917-1918 and was rumored to be writing a book on James J Hill. Sinclair, like F Scott Fitzgerald, was born in MN and considered one of the top 5 American Writers off all time. In 1930 he was the 1st writer from the United States to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. His biggest successes were Main Street, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry and many of his books were transformed into award-winning movies. Source: Big Boy Travel
The Old Smith “Vine” Mansion (312 Summit Ave): This amazing vine-covered mansion was built back in 1858 for David and Mary Stuart making it the oldest house on still standing on Summit Ave. David died the year the home was finished and it ended up slipping into a sheriffs auction in 1860. Because of the turmoil of the Civil War hit the next two owners were foreclosed on from financial hardship. The next owner was General Haupt who was the general manager of the Northern Pacific Railroad when architect Cass Gilbert worked there from 1878 to 1883. Source: Big Boy Travel
Burbank-Livingston Griggs “Cupola” House (432 Summit Ave): The Burbank–Livingston–Griggs House is the second-oldest house on Summit Avenue in Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States. It was designed in Italianate style by architect Otis L. Wheelock of Chicago and built from 1862 to 1863. The work was commissioned by James C. Burbank, a wealthy owner of the Minnesota Stage Company. Later, four significant local architects left their mark on the landmark structure. The building was one of the first Minnesota properties nominated to the National Register of Historic Places, in 1970. It was listed for its state-level significance in the theme of architecture. It was nominated for being one of Minnesota’s most elaborate examples of mid-19th-century Italianate architecture. In 1976 it was also included as a contributing property to the Historic Hill District. Summit Avenue was still only an oxcart trail when Wheelock arrived to build this Civil War-era mansion at the top of a steep hill. The picturesque country estate high on the Mississippi River bluff was constructed of massive blocks of limestone quarried across the river in Mendota, Minnesota. Source: Big Boy Travel
James J Hill House (240 Summit Ave): Overlooking the Mississippi River from a 3 acre lot, the James J Hill house is the jewel of Summit Avenue and the largest home in Minnesota. This massive 36,500 square feet stone mansion was built in 1891 for railroad tycoon James J Hill. The 5 story Richardsonian Romanesque-style mansion cost over $930,000 ($19 Million today) and spared no expense. Elaborate mahogany woodwork fills the mansion complete with 13 bathrooms, 22 gas-lit fireplaces, 16 custom chandeliers, an 88-foot reception hall, and a 3 story pipe organ with 1,006 pipes. Rare for its day the 42 room James J Hill House had central heating, central ventilation, full electricity with gas backups for the lights, full plumping for hot and cold running water, and even had a greenhouse on its upper level. The floor of the greenhouse was later opened up to the study below and is now used an art gallery flooded with light. We love the elegant stairway with a large dance hall at its base and a huge stained glass wall at its back. The James J Hill House is impressive now, but in its heyday, it was so grand that representatives of the Vatican and even President McKinley visited it. To truly understand this powerful home you must know a little about its owner James J Hill. Known as the Empire Builder, Hill was a true rags to riches story born in Canada to immigrant farmers. He was self-educated after the 8th grade and moved to St Paul to seek his fortune in 1956 at just the age of 17. The frontier of St Paul was as far up the Mississippi River as boats could travel at the time and James J Hill saw a huge opportunity with railways. As a full-blown workaholic, Hill worked his into ownership of the Great Northern Railway. The rail lines were quickly expanded North up the Red River Valley to access grain and lumber to ship back to the water-powered mills in St Paul. Source: Big Boy Travel