Ever Wanted to Look Inside a Summit Avenue Mansion? Here’s Your Chance

Introduction by Garrison Keillor:

The folks who built the big houses on Summit Avenue from Civil War days onward were keen to get up away from downtown St. Paul, whose clamor and stink was a byproduct of the prosperity that allowed them to move up and away from it into great stone and brick mansions overlooking a steep slope to the simple frame houses of their workers. They were railroad men, lumbermen, manufacturers, wholesalers, and on Summit Avenue they could get far away from the rails, the sawmills, the factories, and live in the elegance, even opulence, to which they felt richly entitled. The mansions of Summit were intended to declare the owners’ status in St. Paul society—you could drive by and see the porte-cochère, the colonnade, the turret, and you knew that the owner had not just fallen off the turnip wagon. Eventually the owners faded and died—so many of them were not a long-lived lot—and their fortunes were divvied up. Their heirs hoofed it out of town, and the old mansions—chopped into rooming houses or abandoned and gently decaying—sat until the great wheel of fashion turned in the 1970s and ’80s when renovating historic homes became a cool thing to do. Scores of young couples set out to do that and so saved the avenue. Otherwise it might have become a boulevard of hair salons, wine bars, and knickknack shops, and the city would have lost something rather elegant. What remains on Summit today has almost nothing to do with Hills, Weyerhaeusers, Ordways, or Schunemans, or with anyone’s social status, real or imagined. What remains and is so clear in Karen Melvin’s lovely pictures is the fine workmanship of the buildings, the stonework and brickwork and woodcarving and cabinetry and carpentry of thousands of anonymous men, many of them immigrants, who rode the streetcars or climbed up the hill from the flats, carrying their lunch buckets, to work on the construction crews six days a week, 10 hours a day.

Summit Avenue Mansion Clarence Johnston William Willcox Exterior
This is the famous brownstone, where in 1919 F. Scott Fitzgerald rewrote the manuscript that became his first bestseller, This Side of Paradise. The Romanesque Revival row house, designed by architects Clarence Johnston and William Willcox in 1889, is a National Historic Landmark.

The house, built of locally quarried limestone, was ventilated by an ornamental belvedere on the roof.

The ivy-covered stucco Italian villa maintains a gracious presence on the avenue.

The magnificent grand staircase, reworked and likely moved during an 1880s remodel, opens to the main hallway and foyer.

Edwin Lundie placed 18th century French and Italian interiors into the dining room, carefully fitting the casework around Flemish murals.

One-time St. Paul mayor Robert A. Smith, who commissioned the remodel, hosted a lunch in the wood-paneled dining room for President Grover Cleveland in 1887.

The twin houses are connected via a passageway visible on the right. The current owners restored the terraced gardens and added a swimming pool.

Interior designer John Lassila helped them furnish the 10,000-square-foot house.

Period-appropriate wall covering, furnishings, and coffered ceiling frame a series of French doors in the front room that leads out to the terrace.

A bay that accommodates a piano and musical motifs over the fireplace suggest this space was originally designed as a music room.

The dining room features the original parge-work ceiling and a hand-painted frieze.

In the 20th century, Allen H. Stem transformed an open porch into an elegant living room lined with Winona domolite polished to look like Italian marble.

Architect Clarence Johnston replaced the interiors at the front of the house in 1883, creating the exquisitely sculpted grand staircase and upstairs gallery.

James J. Hill, of 240 Summit, was the most famous resident; after him was Sinclair Lewis, a radical among the tycoons, who lived in 516 for a year. Then came the 24-year-old writer who hit it big with his first novel—completed in the attic of 599 Summit—who left town in 1922 and never returned. Never, so far as we know, had he any urge to return. Nonetheless, his readers still hike up and down Summit looking for signs of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the perpetual youth and outsider, gazing at the lighted windows of great houses and daydreaming about the grand lives lived there. What the residents of Summit see now as they look out their windows is the leafy boulevard of a bygone time, where you could shoot scenes of a movie about jowly tycoons in linen suits and their rambunctious offspring, with a dotty uncle, a rakish suitor, and a bevy of Irish housemaids tossed in. A grand old Victorian street, drowsy on a summer afternoon. Then four young women in short shorts come jogging by, their ponytails bouncing, and then a tour group led by a lady with a clipboard, who stops them for a brief talk about the characteristics of Gothic Revival.  The phone rings and you are back in the present and it is the plumber who says he is on his way. No matter how grand the exterior of the house, we all have to deal with the basics of life. In other words, plumbing. Excerpted from Great Houses of Summit Avenue and the Hill District, photographed by Karen Melvin and written by several contributors, and published in October by Big Picture Press.

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