How do you create a brand-new neighborhood within an existing one whose homes date back to the 1890s? That was the challenge facing the developers of New Crocus Hill three years ago. The 700 block of Fairmount and Osceola avenues was an anomaly amidst the stately, turn-of-the-last-century homes of Crocus Hill. The site never had been residential, but it had been a Catholic convent and school in a previous life. Another school, this one for children with learning and emotional problems called Bush Memorial Children’s Center, replaced the convent in the 1960s. When its owner, the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, ran into financial troubles in 2008, it put the land and the school’s nondescript modern facility up for sale.
As developers eyed the choice urban site, the neighborhood galvanized. A pair of luxury condo projects derailed when their developers became frustrated by residents’ concerns about traffic, green space, and views. When the neighbors looked kindly on the third serious proposal brought before them, a plan to put houses on the site, the city agreed to restore single-family zoning (Wilder had been given a temporary exemption).
Coldwell Banker Burnet’s Jim Seabold and developer John Wall wanted to build New Crocus Hill: 16 homes on 150-by-50-foot city lots with an alley running down the middle. The neighbors were cautiously optimistic. This was progress.
They’d formed a committee by now, which met regularly to discuss the latest plans and let the developers know if they had questions. And they had many: What if someone wanted to build an ugly ’50s rambler—or one of those minimalist glass cubes? Would the new owners plant trees? If so, what kind? Wasn’t 16 houses too many? Could three lots be reserved for a small public park?
Charlie Simmons, principal of Charlie & Co. Design in Minneapolis, soon joined New Crocus Hill as a member of the architectural review board. A longtime St. Paul resident who’d grown up in the neighborhood, Simmons had helped pitch one of the failed condo proposals. He knew what sticklers the residents of this seemingly sleepy corner of the world had become.
The developers promised that New Crocus Hill would look like, well, old Crocus Hill. That ruled out anything ultra-modern. As to which revivalist period the designs should revive, Simmons pointed out that the housing stock in this part of St. Paul was already pretty diverse—he counted at least 13 different architectural styles, among them, English Tudor, Italianate, Federal, and Queen Anne.
For the sake of harmony, he suggested limiting the options to a rather loosely defined “historic style,” homes that would fit in with the fabric of the neighborhood. He also proposed that all the houses in New Crocus Hill have a front porch.
The neighbors warmed to the developers’ willingness to respond to their ideas and even to give them a veto in some cases. They applauded when the developers downsized their ambitions from 16 to 13 lots. The corner lots were slightly larger and priced accordingly. In return, the neighbors abandoned the idea that three lots be used as a park.
Concerns about architectural disharmony faded as building got underway. The sampler of styles includes Shingle Style, Victorian Farmhouse, American Foursquare, Georgian, Queen Anne, and several others. The quality of the designs attracted more highly respected names to the project, including the architecture firms Albertsson Hansen and TEA2, and builders like John Kraemer & Sons and Kroiss Development.
Left and below: Charming Shingle Style outside; bright modern furnishings by Lucy Interior Design inside. Photos by Susan Gilmore.
Some lots changed hands when early buyers, seeing that the development was a hit, chose to take their profits rather than put down roots. One couple dropped out upon learning that modernism had been outlawed; another couple was shocked to discover that it would cost twice as much to build a replica, albeit half the size, of the 1910 home they already owned four blocks away. (They undertook an extensive remodel instead.)
The neighbors watched, fascinated, as construction workers labored around the clock and all through the winter to frame up houses whose contours looked comfortingly familiar. Basic principles of scale and proportion had been strictly observed.
What they didn’t see, but might well have coveted if they had, were the homes’ interiors. Each house in New Crocus Hill has an open floor plan with views from one end to the other. Living and dining rooms flow into large kitchens equipped with top-of-the-line appliances. Master suites boast spacious closets and luxurious bathrooms with radiant floor heating. A few of the homes have finished third floors. Most have gas fireplaces. All have central air.
The houses cost upward of $1.7 million. That includes $300,000 for the lot. Ask New Crocus Hill residents if it rankles when they see someone pay half that for “the real thing” across the street, and they just laugh. Their own homes are well-insulated and have efficient furnaces. Radiators don’t clank, floors don’t sag, and stairs don’t squeak. The windows actually open and close.
These are wonderful amenities buyers of new homes expect, but those hard-bargaining neighbors got the best end of the deal. They got newcomers to the neighborhood who will keep Crocus Hill a vibrant community. In New Crocus Hill, children play where nuns used to pray. Trikes and scooters zoom up and down the alley under the watchful eye of Dad mowing the lawn or Mom hanging the laundry on some eco-friendly upgrade of the old-fashioned clothesline.
The block even has grandparents. Retired Regions Hospital CEO Brock Nelson and his wife, Martha, have grown children who live across the globe. The couple wanted a house in the area that would be big enough to handle frequent overnight guests. They also wanted to live in a close-knit community.
Entirely by coincidence, a pair of physicians bought the house next door, a Simmons-designed American Foursquare, now painted white. In February 2015, another double-doc family moved in three doors down. Albertsson Hansen Architecture designed their home with a similarly compact footprint. It’s also painted white.
The Nelsons’ home is as tall as their neighbors’ is broad, but they look just as comfortable together as they do with the houses built in the heyday of the horse and buggy.
As Simmons puts it: “Once the neighbors saw front porches and classic gabled dormers, they stopped worrying that we’d put up a geodesic dome or something. New Crocus Hill wasn’t the boogeyman anymore.”
Above: In the new homes, the open kitchen and great room contain 21st-century amenities.
Decades in the Making
The long and occasionally heated conversation between developers, city planners, and nearby residents over the fate of the 700 block of Crocus Hill’s Fairmount and Osceola avenues began in the 1960s, when the property’s longtime owner decided to sell.
This wasn’t just any longtime owner. The cloistered nuns who ran the Convent of the Visitation School had been in residence for more than half a century.
News of the convent’s pending demolition rocked the neighborhood. The nuns had educated thousands of Crocus Hill daughters. Their magnificent home was said to be the spitting image of a Viennese art school attended by former convent student Clara Hill, daughter of famed railroad tycoon James J. Hill.
The brick building and its beautifully landscaped grounds sprawled over the equivalent of 16 city lots. Wooded trails wove through hidden grottoes. There were tennis courts and playing fields. A massive wall protected the nuns from criminal intruders and the students from uninvited male guests, including my husband, who grew up just a few blocks away and remembers vividly the thrill of sneaking into what seemed like a fairy-tale world.
The convent’s interior was magical, too, with its ornate woodwork, wrought-iron balconies, red velvet curtains, and immense, sun-drenched atelier. Alas, that building didn’t survive after the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation bought the site.
Over the next several decades, the foundation operated the Bush Children’s Memorial Center in a nondescript facility of modern design. When Wilder put the parcel up for sale in 2008, its value was difficult to assess. The rest of the neighborhood always had been zoned single-family. Most Crocus Hill homes were 100-plus years old. How much of their value was location and how much was house?
Jim Seabold of Coldwell Banker Burnett says that Wilder finally agreed to sell for $1.5 million in 2012. By this time, three coal-ash pits had been discovered on the site, and, because Wilder had razed the convent from the ground up, a massive subbasement also would have to be removed. Cleanup would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
This sobering reality, plus the recession (which erased much of Wilder’s endowment), plus the fact that two previous deals had fallen through—one for condos proposed by developer Richard Zehring and the other a mixed-use concept proposed by developer Steve Wellington—set the bar pretty low.
That was then. Seabold and developer John Wall sold the 13 lots for $275,000 to $375,000 apiece, for a total of approximately $4.5 million.
Were the lots overpriced? Apparently not. “We had to turn people away,” Seabold says. “If I had another block just like this one, I’d ask $400,000.”
Designer: Charlie & Co.
Builder: John Kramer & Sons, Kroiss Development
Architects: TEA2, Albertsson Hansen
Interior Design: Lucy Interior Design