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.
Q: Your last two books were on the legendary homes of Lake Minnetonka and Minneapolis Lakes. Why did you decide to do the third book on Summit Avenue?
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?
KM: I first approached him about including his home because it was important historically — the Weyerhaeusers lived there. Garrison and his wife, Jenny Nilsson, had seen my other books and knew it would be a quality product. Then I asked him if he would write the foreword, and he said yes.
Q: How did you get invited into the houses?
KM: Most people I called were very welcoming. Many of the homeowners told me that they feel fortunate and regard themselves as caretakers of these monuments of history. It wasn’t too hard of a sell — not like the first Lake Minnetonka book.
Q: Were there any homes you wanted to include, but couldn’t?
KM: The Shipman-Greve Queen Anne from the 1880s designed by LeRoy Buffington. It’s just beautiful. Paul Larson and other architectural historians are quite impressed with that house. The owners decided the book wasn’t for them.
Q: Which one took your breath away?
KM: The Burbank-Livingston-Griggs House. It’s been through many major renovations — by Clarence Johnston and also Edwin Lundie, one of my favorite Minnesota architects. Nothing rivals the woodwork and staircase — the detailing is truly amazing. In Lundie’s 1925 renovation, he retrofitted 18th-century French and Italian interiors in many of the rooms. This house is a good example of why preservation is important — we can’t reproduce this today.
MN: For me, it was the Lindeke House. When you look at it from the outside, it seems dark. But inside, it’s filled with magnificent light. Architect Clarence Johnston perfectly positioned this house, and without today’s technology.
Q: What was the biggest challenge in doing the book?
KM: To accomplish all the shots in one day for each house. I had three or four interns working for me from local visual arts schools. Shari Wilsey, who owns one of the Summit homes, was the stylist. Some needed a little more finessing — but others were beautiful.
Q: Which house was the most fun to shoot?
KM: The William White House. The homeowners, Becky and Paul Diekmann, are collectors and had all these vignettes beautifully arranged everywhere I looked — and to think they have six children. That house made my heart sing.
MN: These interiors have a sense of humor — St. Nicholas is holding a parasol. People really live in all of these homes and use every inch. And they’re all friends with each other.
Q: Which one is a stellar example of restoring the original grandeur?
KM: A lot of the mansions fell into disrepair until someone came along and revived them — like Dick and Nancy Nicholson. They did a complete top-to-bottom restoration of the Louis Hill House, a Georgian Revival. Every surface and every room was touched, and it’s beautifully done. They use the restored ballroom to hold fundraisers for nonprofit organizations.
Q: Why did you add a glossary of architectural terms, from “Aaron’s Rod” to “Zoophoric”?
KM: I was seeing all these details, and I didn’t know the names. The definitions give us context for understanding what these architects created and all the European influences.
Q: What was the best part of doing research?
MN: Reading letters and poring through artifacts stored in boxes from the Minnesota Historical Society. For the Lindeke House, I looked at old yearbooks from Yale and found out that A.W. Lindeke was on the rowing team. I got a picture of what life was like back then — the families belonged to country clubs and summered on Lake Minnetonka. I wanted to understand the people who built the homes, and I also spent quite a bit of time with the current owners sitting in their living rooms. They see themselves as stewards preserving the homes for the next generation.
What: Karen Melvin will sign books at 7 p.m. Nov. 19 at the Bookcase, 824 E. Lake St., Wayzata, and 2 p.m. Nov. 22, Barnes & Noble, 2100 N. Snelling Av., Roseville. For information, go to www.summitavenuebook.com.