Sunday, April 17, 2016

Book Review: St. Paul's Historic Summit Avenue, by Ernest R. Sandeen (1978)

Cover of the 2004 reissue of St. Paul's Historic Summit Avenue, by Ernest R. Sandeen, originally published in 1978. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)

The James J. Hill House, completed in 1891, is one of the landmarks of Summit Avenue.
An essential book for anyone who is interested in one of the great residential avenues in the Twin Cities is Ernest R. Sandeen’s 1978 book, St. Paul’s Historic Summit Avenue. Summit Avenue runs for four and a half miles, from the Cathedral of Saint Paul to the Mississippi River. It was the site of many of the most impressive houses in the Twin Cities, and it’s still one of the premier addresses in town. In his book, Sandeen brings to life the history of Summit Avenue, and describes the architecture and history behind some of its most notable houses.

Most of the great mansions that are still standing on Summit Avenue were built between 1880 and 1920. Summit Avenue features an eclectic mix of architectural styles, from Italian Villa to Queen Anne and Georgian Revival. At the time Sandeen published his book in 1978, Summit Avenue was just starting a rebirth after a nearly 50-year down cycle. The Great Depression, combined with the migration of residents from Saint Paul to nearby suburbs, meant that these beautiful houses were for the most part neglected, and the neighborhood was on the decline from the 1930’s to the 1970’s. Finally, during the 1970’s and 1980’s, more preservation-minded people starting buying homes on Summit, and many of the houses have been restored to their full luster. 

The largest house on Summit Avenue, and the largest house in Minnesota when it was built, is the massive James J. Hill House. (Full disclosure: I’m a tour guide at the Hill House and I also give walking tours of Summit Avenue, so Sandeen’s book is sort of like a Bible for us tour guides.) Hill was a railroad tycoon who built the Great Northern Railway. Hill’s massive Richardsonian Romanesque mansion is an imposing presence on Summit Avenue, and, depending on which direction you’re going, either begins or ends Summit Avenue with an emphatic exclamation mark. 

Sandeen’s book is an important treasure trove of Saint Paul information, and while it’s great that it was reprinted in 2004 by the University of Minnesota press, it’s also too bad that it wasn’t updated with a history of what’s happened to Summit Avenue since 1978. But those are small quibbles for an excellent book about the history of a neighborhood.

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