A hand-painted sign, courtesy of 7-year-old Lochlan Swanson, is taped to the door of the Hope Engine Company No. 3 firehouse. It reads: “History Matters.”
There may be few St. Paul neighborhoods where history matters more than in Uppertown, a burgeoning area that takes in the West End, Little Bohemia and Irvine Park and boasts homes dating back to the 1850s.
All of which makes plans to tear down the firehouse — the city’s oldest municipal building, dating from 1872 — especially vexing to residents who have been battling for decades to save history from the wrecking ball.
“This, more than any other neighborhood in the city, has cut its teeth on preservation battles,” said Tom Schroeder, an attorney whose Uppertown home was built in 1877 and is working pro bono with a group fighting to preserve the firehouse.
Within hours of learning of a permit to demolish the station, Schroeder said, neighbors mobilized to save it. The fight is scheduled to continue Monday in a Ramsey County courtroom, where they will face off against developer David Brooks and his plans to build a Marriott hotel on the site.
That Brooks is the developer they’re fighting seems strange to neighbors. Brooks, whose plan to tear down the firehouse was temporarily halted by a judge March 21, has won praise in the past for his commitment to historic preservation while developing other properties.
“My clients recognize the good things Dave has done in the past, and they appeal to his better nature to continue the good work going forward,” Schroeder said last week.
Brooks declined to comment, said Chuck Repke, who is representing him. But negotiations with Brooks are ongoing, said City Council Member Rebecca Noecker, who met with Repke, city officials and others early last week.
“We are trying to find a workable solution here. We want to preserve the property,” said Noecker, who added that she also is excited at the prospect of a new hotel in the area and proposed one possibility: “Incorporate the firehouse into the Marriott.”
Forty years of fights
The Uppertown neighborhood has championed preservation since the early 1970s, when residents scored National Historic Preservation District designation for Irvine Park, the city’s first, said Jim Sazevich, an area resident and research historian. Twenty-four houses were saved, 18 at their original sites, he said.
The neighborhood’s oldest house, which is also St. Paul’s oldest structure, was built in 1850; two others were built in 1853 and 1854. Hundreds of area homes are well over 100 years old.
“I have helped save 50 to 60 homes in this area,” said Sazevich, 66, who does genealogy and home research around the state and has worked for the Minnesota Historical Society. “Sometimes it’s just by saying, ‘Look who lived here.’ ”
Other battles over the years have included foiling the state Department of Transportation’s plan to reroute traffic for a rebuilt High Bridge through the neighborhood, as well as stopping plans to build an overpass at Chestnut Street. Redevelopment of the Schmidt Brewery into artists lofts also is considered a victory for preservation.
John Yust, an architect who bought his 1873 house more than 40 years ago and designed the Stone Saloon on Smith Avenue, a historic beer hall that is set to reopen soon, said of the area: “We have visionary people in the neighborhood and have had some great successes. The history is kind of the glue that really binds West Seventh and makes it a delight for people to live and work and play here.”
Neighborhood residents always assumed the fire station was safe, Sazevich said, until a demolition permit was recently discovered. Sazevich, a friend of Brooks’ for 40 years who has done research for him, said he cannot understand how the fire station has reached this precipice.
“Saving buildings in a historic neighborhood does not give you a free pass to tear down others,” he said.
Noecker said she is hopeful that there’s some way to save the building while still moving forward with the development.
“There is not a better community to be involved in this,” she said of neighborhood activists who have bought time to work on a compromise. “I am not sure that would have happened anywhere else.”