A century ago, the Meeker Island Lock and Dam was on its deathbed along the Mississippi River gorge. Built on the Minneapolis-St. Paul border from 1899 to 1907, the lock and dam was about to be eclipsed by a newer operation downriver. With hydroelectric power, that newer dam eventually would lure automaker Henry Ford to build his plant in Highland Park. The last boat passed through the Meeker lock in 1912. After five years, the dam was obsolete.
All that ancient history was good news for Alan Hooper, a biology professor and bacteria expert at the University of Minnesota. For 30 years now, he's lived in the transplanted lockmaster's house. His daughter, Nadja, grew up there and a retired couple from Virginia rent out the adjacent cottage and former art studio.
St. Paul is littered with old houses with quirky histories. Hooper's takes the cake. To wit: The fireplace features a cooking pot dangling from a metal arm. According to the yellowed newspaper clipping Hooper dusts off nearby, that metal arm came from the rail of the observation car of Abraham Lincoln's funeral train.
He's also got the 1918 contract signed by the renowned St. Paul artist Edward Brewer that explains how the lockmaster's house ended up a half-mile east of the river on Pelham Boulevard. It's near the northwest corner of the Town & Country Golf Club in the Desnoyer Park neighborhood.
"For the sum of $300," the contact says, the owner "agrees to move the dwelling ... in first-class, workmanlike manner."
It goes on to spell out that $100 would be forked over "when the building is ready for rolling," another $100 when it's out of the street and the final payment when the job is complete. And "the work is to commence right away."
Adjusted for inflation, the $300 translates into $4,500 in today's dollars.
Brewer constructed a new first-floor walkout in 1918, complete with the fireplace, and plopped the lockmaster's house on top of it after a team of horses rolled it up Pelham. The old lockmaster's lookout window, from where he could survey the boat traffic on the Mississippi, is now Hooper's bathroom dormer window. The house includes wooden doors that Brewer scavenged from local churches.
"By the time he was finished he had turned the whole layout into a reasonable facsimile of an English-style country estate," according to a 1980 Minnesota History magazine article.
Brewer was famous for his portraits and his popular Norman Rockwell-esque Cream of Wheat ad illustrations that ran in national magazines from 1911 to 1926. He painted a couple of the gubernatorial portraits hanging at the State Capitol -- C. Elmer Anderson and Elmer L. Andersen -- not to mention the Lincoln portrait that hangs behind the Minnesota House speaker's chair.
Much of the artwork was created in the Shakespearean cottage Brewer attached to the lockmaster's house in 1926.
Hooper bought the place from Brewer's son, Dave, an eccentric former pilot who lived for a time near the Haight- Ashbury corner in San Francisco and died last year at 91 after a "radically creative, wickedly intelligent and wonderfully Bohemian" life, his obituary said.
Hooper led visitors to the original lockmaster's house foundation that can be seen atop the bluff along E. Mississippi River Boulevard near a 2007 renovation of the Old Wagon Road. Originally from Berkeley, Calif., Hooper grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich. He just returned from dropping his daughter off for her first year at Vassar College in New York.
"This whole place is a bizarre curiosity," Hooper said of his home. "Sometimes there are creaky, ghost-like noises. But it always turns out to be my cat."