The Justus Ramsey House, built in 1852, sits on the patio of Burger Moe's on W. 7th Street in St. Paul.
It's one of the oldest houses in the city and the oldest surviving limestone house from St. Paul's pioneer era, and it's listed on three historic registers — including the National Register of Historic Places.
But recent damage has prompted the stone cottage's owner to seek its demolition.
Neighbors say the owner apparently wants to add more tables to his patio.
"That's what Moe always says," said Dave Thune, a longtime area resident and business owner. " 'I could get four more tables in there.' "
Contacted by phone Friday, Burger Moe's owner Mojtaba Sharifkhani — who uses the name Moe Sharif — was asked why he applied to knock down St. Paul's oldest stone house.
"I'm not in position to talk about it," he said.
Asked if he would be willing to sit down and discuss it later, he said, "I don't need to talk to you." When asked for the name of his attorney or representative, Sharifkhani said, "No."
"Moe's been wanting to get it out of there for eight years," said Thune, the area's former City Council member. "He's been asking me, and I have been saying, 'Moe, this is an incredible asset. This could be a wedding chapel.' "
Thune added: "He just doesn't see it as an option for him. It's hard to keep a building upright if the owner doesn't want it."
Sharifkhani's move to raze the 16.5-by-34-foot cottage has mobilized preservationists to save another historic building in city's most historic neighborhood, said Tom Schroeder, an attorney and area resident. The Historic Irvine Park Association, Historic Saint Paul, the Little Bohemia Neighborhood Association and the West 7th/Fort Road Federation have joined in the effort.
Schroeder said preservationists filed an emergency petition with the state Environmental Quality Board for an environmental assessment in order to "stop the clock" on demolition. It was accepted for review.
Because the Justus Ramsey House is a local Heritage Preservation site — on the state and national historic registers — demolition permits must go to the Heritage Preservation Commission for review and approval.
A hearing before the city's Heritage Preservation Commission has been scheduled for Nov. 7.
Questions about damage
According to Crystal King, a spokeswoman for the city's Department of Safety and Inspections, Sharifkhani submitted a standard demolition application on June 29. DSI inspectors wrote condemnation orders on Sept. 21 and Oct. 10.
"This means that the house and the patio cannot be occupied," King wrote in an email.
Schroeder, who owns the historic Waldmann Brewery nearby, and Jim Sazevich say they wonder how such a historic building so quickly came to warrant demolition.
One of five surviving pioneer stone houses in St. Paul — a list that includes Waldmann — the Justus Ramsey House has been extensively reviewed and inspected over the years, Schroeder said. As recently as 2015, it was in "perfect condition." Now, there is a hole in the roof, the interior has been damaged, and part of an exterior stone wall has collapsed.
Sazevich, a historian with an encyclopedic knowledge of St. Paul's oldest houses, said he's known Sharifkhani from when he was "slinging hash" at the diner across the street from Burger Moe's. That diner is now the Downtowner — also owned by Sharifkhani.
The little cottage is an aggravation, Sazevich said.
"He came to me and said he wanted to tear it down or change it to better serve him," Sazevich said.
As the owner of an historic property, Sharifkhani should have been required by the city to keep it in good repair, Schroeder said. He wonders why that didn't happen.
"That's a great question," Schroeder said, adding he is required to do so for Waldmann.
Schroeder and others are raising the alarm on a fellow business owner because they say preserving even a few historic sites enriches the entire community.
"I don't know Moe very well, but I know him enough to know he's a good person," he said. "His values may not lie in preservation. Clearly not. I mean, he's applied for a demolition permit for this structure."
In an email, a spokesman for Mayor Melvin Carter wrote that "the mayor is aware of the issue and is monitoring with city staff."
City Council Member Rebecca Noecker, who represents the area, helped broker a deal in 2016 that saved St. Paul's Hope Engine Co. No. 3 fire station from being razed. It is now the Hope Breakfast Bar. Preservationists have asked Noecker to intercede again.
"I've heard a lot of concern from the community, from neighbors. I'm working to slow [demolition] down," Noecker said. "Often, we can find more creative solutions than it originally appears."
She pushed for an independent review of the structure, which has been cordoned off to keep the public away. The cottage's future, she said, is likely somewhere else.
"Everybody agrees this isn't the best location," Noecker said.
Neighbors have suggested moving it to other sites, including several vacant lots in the area or to open space near Keg & Case Market, on the grounds of the former Schmidt Brewery. A meeting is set for 7 p.m. Thursday at Waldmann to discuss alternatives.
Has she heard from the mayor's office?
"I have heard nothing from the mayor so far," Noecker said.
The small house was built in 1852 for Justus C. Ramsey, brother of Alexander Ramsey, who owned the property jointly with Alexander and others from 1849 to 1852, according to Sazevich. The first known resident was Robert A. Smith in 1853. Smith would later become St. Paul's longest-serving mayor.