Michael Tierney understands why neighbors and historic preservationists want to save his family’s decrepit houses in St. Paul’s Merriam Park neighborhood. He feels a deep connection to them as well.
After all, 1905 Iglehart Av. was where he and eight siblings grew up, sharing four bedrooms and a single bathroom. Where his octogenarian parents lived until just a year ago, leaving behind a property and a neighboring duplex whose lots are more valuable that the worn-out structures on top of them.
If the St. Paul City Council passes a moratorium on demolitions in the neighborhood Wednesday, it will do more than keep Tierney’s family from selling to developers who would knock down the houses at 1905 and 1911 Iglehart. It would deplete his parents’ resources and strain the kids’ ability to pay for their parents’ final years.
“This is home. We love this house,” he said inside the former family room of 1905 Iglehart, its walls and floor in disrepair, a cold draft whistling through rickety windows. “We’d love to turn it over to a family similar to ours. But our parents need this sale. It’s their 401k.”
The Tierneys helped fill the chambers during a public hearing last week, pleading with council members not to pass the moratorium. They offered a stark counterpoint to several of their neighbors, who urged the council to pass the moratorium as a way to slow teardowns while the city studies whether to designate more than 40 Merriam Park homes a historic district.
In a city that values its historic buildings, while also seeking to increase housing for a swiftly growing population, the debate has come to a head among the 100-plus-year-old homes of Merriam Park.
Council Member Samantha Henningson, who represents the neighborhood, said she suggested a nine-month moratorium to study the neighborhood and make the process more deliberate. Several neighbors — many of whom have spent large sums to restore their own homes — urged the moratorium be passed.
On Tuesday, Henningson said she continues to deliberate the “complicated issue” with her colleagues on the council. “Given this property, it makes [a moratorium] a little more challenging,” she said.
Both Iglehart Avenue homes are well over a century old. The home at 1911 was a duplex that the family rented out until a year ago and had been the childhood home of his father, also named Michael. The elder Michael and his wife, Phyllis, bought the house next door more than 50 years ago and moved shortly after the younger Michael, the seventh of nine children, was born. The elder Tierneys now have 17 grandchildren, including Twins player Joe Mauer, whose photos are tacked on walls throughout the house.
It was a house filled with lively kids who attended nearby St. Mark’s Catholic School, skated on a homemade sideyard ice rink in the winter and played ball on the other side when the weather was good.
The elder Tierney — who worked as a service department manager, first for Montgomery Ward, then several auto dealerships — was the handyman, fixing what needed to be fixed “all by himself,” his son said. But after breaking his knee in a 2001 fall from a roof, the houses fell into disrepair, inside and out.
It’s not just the peeling paint, or the add-on kitchen that is pulling away from the house, the younger Michael Tierney said. “It’s what you can’t see,” such as the original wiring, the original plumbing and the in-wall insulation made up of century-old newspapers.
A year ago, the kids finally persuaded their parents to move to a senior care facility and put the houses on the market. Separately, the homes were listed for $300,000 and $350,000, Realtor Sara Hannahan said.
With a 2017 Truth-in-Sale of Housing statement that lists 10 hazardous items and 35 items considered below minimum, there were no offers for 1905. The duplex next door attracted only a couple low offers, she said. But, listed together for $599,000, developers who planned to tear them down and build multi-unit buildings in their place stepped forward.
Neighbors who wanted the houses preserved spoke up, prompting one developer to back away. A second developer who said he would raze the houses and build duplexes could soon be blocked.
Standing in a kitchen lit by a single fluorescent bulb, Michael Tierney said he and his family wish families would buy and repair the homes. But he’s been told it would cost at least $150,000 to get 1905 up to code — and much more than that to restore it to entice a family to buy it. And that doesn’t count the thousands his parents will have to pay for taxes and utilities if a moratorium passes.
“It’s disheartening that neighbors just assume they can take control of all this without regard to my parents’ needs,” he said.