Pill Hill: Neighborhood tour to fund restorative justice programs

  • Article by: ERIN ADLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 6, 2013 - 2:00 PM

The South St. Paul tours will be led by homeowners and will include the interiors of some residences.

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St. Stefan’s Romanian Orthodox Church, a National Register site, will be open for tours as well.

Photo: Dakota County Historical Society,

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When Carol Mladek began having Restorative Justice Council meetings at her home in South St. Paul last January, other council members admired her neighborhood filled with Spanish-style homes, built in the 1930s and ’40s.

“The previous council chair … said, ‘These houses are so historic and beautiful. Wouldn’t it be great to have a tour of this area?’” said Mladek, chair of the South St. Paul Restorative Justice Council.

Thus the idea for the South St. Paul Pill Hill Neighborhood Tour was born as a way to both celebrate the area’s unique architecture and raise money for the local Restorative Justice Council.

The tour will be Sunday, July 21, from 1 to 3 p.m., with 30 to 40-minute guided tours by homeowners running every 10 or 15 minutes. About eight homes along two city blocks will be featured, with the chance to go inside three of them, Mladek said, including her own house.

Tours of St. Stefan’s Romanian Orthodox Church will be ongoing that day as well, with Romanian ethnic performers on hand.

Mladek, who has lived in her home for 25 years, knew only a little historical information about the neighborhood, which was named for the doctors, lawyers and executives from the meatpacking companies who built stately, midsize homes over several blocks throughout the 1930s and ’40s.

“[The neighborhood] was definitely, in its day, the Summit Hill of South St. Paul,” Mladek said.

After enlisting the help of a local historian, Lois Glewwe, who wrote a book on the history of South St. Paul in 1987, Mladek learned more. Just down the street is the Stassen home, once the state’s “governor’s mansion,” because it was the home of Harold Stassen, who became Minnesota’s governor in 1939.

“I’ve been really surprised. I never knew about the Stassen house and I’m also surprised about the ethnicity of South St. Paul,” Mladek said.

With Romanian, Croatian and Serbian immigrants moving to the area throughout the early 20th century to work at the town’s two meatpacking plants, the area still has an Eastern European flavor. Mladek noted that part of the mass at St. Stefan’s is still conducted in Romanian.

Glewwe, a historian who grew up in South St. Paul, researched and wrote up several pages of Pill Hill history to provide background to tour guides.

As families came to South St. Paul from cities like Philadelphia and Boston in the ’30s and ’40s, “they expected a community like where they’d come from,” she said.

So they started building houses. Today, they still look pretty similar to how they did then, with original woodwork and stonework, Glewwe said.

“There’s a sort of graciousness about them,” Glewwe said. Having been built by different builders, “Each one is unique. They’re all different.”

Many are built in a Spanish-style, with ironwork and tile roofs. Mladek’s house has a hexagon-shaped entry area, a built-in buffet and bookshelves, and handblown glass light fixtures. The interior woodwork is tiger-striped maple, she said.

Also included on the tour will be the homes’ gardens.

“The gardens are quite magnificent,” said Glewwe. “You wouldn’t know they were back there or that the yards backed up to a ravine.”

Mladek said she doesn’t know how many people to expect, since tickets will only be sold the day of the event, or how much money they’ll make. But the community’s response has been positive so far.

“It’s really interesting the kind of reach that it’s getting,” said Mladek. “There’s just a lot of nostalgia about that time.”

Proceeds from the event will go toward several Restorative Justice Council projects, such as funding two “peace guides” at Kaposia Education Center and Lincoln Center Elementary. Peace guides spend four hours a day at the schools, helping kids work toward peaceful solutions to problems.

“I think the great thing about the peace guides ... is they are on the playground,” said Mladek. “So they are able to help students with friendship issues, with respecting each other and to stop bullying, and to work on communication and listening.”

The council also helps fund “responsive classroom” training for teachers and other school programs, Mladek said. It has several more traditional fundraisers each year, but “this is the first time we’ve done anything different.”

For Glewwe, the tour is a way to explore what makes South St. Paul unique.

“South St. Paul is a very interesting suburb, very different from everyone around us,” she said. “What I wanted the Twin Cities to recognize is we were much more than a cow town.”

Erin Adler • 952-746-3283

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