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.
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.