Back in 1851, when Minnesota was still a territory, a carpenter named Isaac Wright built himself a house in St. Paul's "Upper Town." It was a simple house, but nice for its time, when many Minnesotans lived in humble log buildings with dirt floors, said Jim Sazevich, a St. Paul research historian.
Today, it's just a few blocks from downtown, but back when Wright built there, it was considered an outpost, with a public square for grazing animals. There weren't many human residents at that point, but Wright did share the street with territorial governor Alexander Ramsey, who went on to become the state's second governor.
By the 1870s, several other large houses had been built around the square.
"People were asking, 'Why is this a pasture? It should be a park,' " Sazevich said. So the city graded the road, added lights and fences to keep the animals out, and later added a fountain. The park was christened Irvine Park, after settler John Irvine who had originally donated the land.
Isaac Wright lived in his house until his death in 1903. His widow operated it as a boardinghouse, then sold it to James Prendergast in 1905. Prendergast, who was in the plumbing business, extensively remodeled the home.
At the time of the remodeling, the Kittson Mansion, the most expensive house ever built in St. Paul prior to the James J. Hill House, was torn down to make room for the St. Paul Cathedral. Some of the mansion's architectural features were saved and incorporated into the Prendergast house, including marble fireplaces, stained-glass windows and Waterford crystal chandeliers, which remain in the house.
Outside, the house also got a facelift, with the addition of fluted columns and a portico to give it a grandeur worthy of its new interior features. Prendergast died just a few years after moving into his remodeled house, but it remained in his family for more than a century. His daughter, Catherine, lived in her childhood home until her death in 2006. Her son, Richard Daly, sold it to the current owners last year.
Irvine Park changed dramatically during Catherine's lifetime, according to Sazevich.
"She played in the original fountain, and watched her million-dollar view of the river get cut off by the grain elevators," he said. "She lived long enough to see the neighborhood decline to the point of being seedy and a bit dangerous."
Because the big old houses in the neighborhood were expensive to maintain, many were divided into apartments or roominghouses. Some were torn down; arsonists torched others. By the early 1970s, Irvine Park had deteriorated to the point that the city planned to raze the remaining houses and replace them with high-rise public housing. "It would have been the Cabrini Green" of St. Paul, Sazevich said, referring to a notorious Chicago housing project.
But neighbors mobilized, fought off the plan and secured National Historic Register District status for Irvine Park in 1974. New families moved in, buying the rundown houses at rock-bottom prices and restoring them. The neighborhood stabilized and eventually gentrified. "Many of the original 1970s families are still in place," Sazevich said. "Very few have turned over." And Irvine Park is now a coveted location; one house currently on the market is listed at $2.225 million.
The Wright-Prendergast House is the second-oldest house in the city still on its original lot, a distinction it shares with another nearby house in Irvine Park, according to Sazevich. "That anything is still standing [in Irvine Park] is a miracle."