A new book recounts the storied history of the Twin Cities’ most iconic street – Summit Avenue – and offers a peek inside its stately homes.
At dusk, Steve Balej often opens the front door of his pre-Civil War home so that people walking by can enjoy a glimpse into the hallway, lit by a progression of elegant French chandeliers.
Balej lives on St. Paul’s storied Summit Avenue, an enclave of historic mansions that has been declared the country’s best-preserved boulevard from the Victorian era.
But you don’t have to live in the neighborhood to sneak a peek into its gracious homes. A new coffee-table book by architectural photographer Karen Melvin takes you deep inside two dozen of the stately mansions, while also exploring Summit’s history and lore.
Many well-known Minnesotans have made their home on Summit Avenue, including author and radio personality Garrison Keillor, who wrote the foreword to the book and whose early 1900s Colonial Revival is showcased in a 10-page spread inside.
“Summit is a grand old street of romantic, high-maintenance homes, and when you walk down it, you feel you’re in an another era, back before World War I,” Keillor said, summing up the street’s appeal.
In “Great Houses of Summit Avenue and the Hill District” (Big Picture Press, $54.95), Melvin captures the grandeur of ornate staircases adorned with pineapple finials, sparkling stained-glass windows and charming cherub friezes. Many of the residences have been meticulously restored and preserved by the current owners, who share their stories in the book.
We talked to Melvin and contributing writer Melinda Nelson about Summit’s enduring mystique, how they got inside its grandest homes — and the house that got away.
KM: I had Summit in the back of my mind ever since the Lake Minnetonka book came out. We can’t help but be impressed by the grandeur of these homes — which are truly mansions. When I walked down Summit, I was just blown away by classical details on the facades of the homes — some built during the Civil War. Many of the architects went to France and Italy and brought back those styles and created them for the wealthy elite. I wanted to give people a look inside.
Q: Why is there such a mystique about the homes on Summit?
KM: The sheer volume of the big houses that are still there. It’s really a testament to the people of St. Paul and how important preservation is to them. It’s been that way since an ordinance was passed in 1915 to prohibit any businesses along Summit. In 1976, St. Paul’s Historic Hill District was placed on the National Register. None of the homes can be torn down — they have to be renovated.
Q: Summit is 4 miles long. How did you decide which homes were “great”?
KM: I like to show a range of style, age and architects. Summit depicts many architectural styles — Queen Anne, Beaux Arts, Colonial Revival, Italian Renaissance — and really shows the evolution of Victorian architecture. Ernest Sandeen’s “St. Paul’s Historic Summit Avenue,” Larry Millett’s guidebook and Paul Clifford Larson’s books served as my road map. I narrowed them down on the strength of the interiors and a good back story.
Q: You scored quite a coup — getting into the home of Garrison Keillor, one of St. Paul’s biggest celebrities, and getting him to write the foreword. How did this happen?