As a law student at William Mitchell in the late 1990s, David Meisenburg would go out of his way to walk past the New York-style row house on Summit Avenue.
“I used to take the long way home,” he recalled. “I love architecture, and I thought those row houses were unbelievable! I was envious of whoever designed them.”
Almost 20 years later, Meisenburg was living across the street from the eight-unit stone row house known as Summit Terrace. One morning he awoke and noticed a red sign in front. “I barely got all my clothes on and ran across the street,” he said. Just as he’d hoped, it was a “For Sale” sign — planted in front of the unit with a metal marker identifying it as the onetime home of novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, who lived there in 1919 while finishing the manuscript that would become “This Side of Paradise.”
Meisenburg jumped on the internet to look up the price. “I thought it was a little high,” he recalled, so he set up alerts to notify him by e-mail of any reductions. When the price dropped, he arranged to take a look inside the three-level row house. “It was really beautiful,” he said, with a huge arch between the living and dining rooms.
So he decided to make an offer. “The timing was just perfect,” he said. His business was doing well, and his passion project, an organic vodka made from potatoes and corn grown on his family’s farm, was temporarily in limbo. “I was waiting for the state of Wisconsin to give me my permit.” The row house was “something I’d admired a long time. I just loved the place! When’s the opportunity going to come again?”
Meisenburg moved into the row house in December 2016, just in time to celebrate the holidays. “It was very special to have Christmas here,” he said. “You could see the Christmas tree through the window. It was sort of like being in a Christmas movie.”
He’s made very few changes to the home, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Because of that designation, the exterior can’t be altered. Meisenburg can change the interiors, but he saw no need to. The previous owners had already restored them from an earlier Polynesian theme to period-appropriate Victorian-style decor. “They brought it back to its original character,” he said. “I wanted to keep the same theme.”
But he did need appropriate furniture. “Someone suggested the types of pieces I should have so I started researching,” he said. “Settee? I had no idea what a settee was.” He ultimately found a pair of the small antique sofas in Chicago and brought them home in a pickup truck.
For artwork, he chose framed vintage photos from Germany, where he once studied, and paintings by contemporary artists including Dennis Larkins, who created an original, featuring Meisenburg’s vodka, that now hangs in his dining room.
On the third floor is the office where Fitzgerald wrote, with a balcony, overlooking Summit Avenue, where the novelist smoked cigarettes. Meisenburg has turned the room into “an ode to F. Scott.” There’s a vintage desk with a portrait of Fitzgerald above it, copies of his novels and a “Great Gatsby” movie poster, along with some of Meisenburg’s own personal family mementos.
Owning and living in a piece of history is “pretty cool,” he said.
The house has been a people magnet — in more ways than one.
“When you host a party here, it’s not hard to get people to come,” Meisenburg said. He celebrated the launch of his vodka, Treboles and Key, with a Fitzgerald-themed soiree last September. A Fitzgerald scholar presented a monologue, and a dancer performed at the stroke of midnight, which happened to be Fitzgerald’s birthday. “I didn’t pick the date because of that date. I found out a week before. Sometimes you just get lucky.”
Meisenburg still gets e-mails asking when he’s going to have another party in the row house, he said.
He’s also had a few uninvited guests. Once, when he forgot to lock the front door, he came downstairs to find two strangers in his living room. “They thought it was a museum,” he said. “They did get a free tour.”
Summit Hill House Tour
What: Tour 12 private homes and six public spaces in St. Paul’s historic Summit Hill neighborhood.
When: Noon to 6 p.m. Sept. 30. (Ticket counter opens at 11 a.m.; 10 a.m. for VIP tickets.)
Where: Ticket pickup locations on day of tour: St. Thomas More Catholic Church, 1079 Summit Av., Mitchell-Hamline College of Law, 875 Summit Av.
Cost: $30 in advance at summithillassociation.org. $35 the day of the tour, if tickets remain. New this year: VIP tickets, $100, that include access to all buildings, plus brunch at Dixie’s on Grand, free reserved parking at an off-street lot and exclusive admittance to the houses of your choice at 11 a.m., one hour before the tour opens to other guests. Proceeds benefit the nonprofit Summit Hill Association, and tickets are tax-deductible.