For 26 years, John Yust puzzled over the stone house on N. Smith Avenue in St. Paul. The stiff, boxy frame, the deep scar spanning the width of the facade, the oddly placed doors and windows.

"I drove past that house every day, and there was just something about it that didn't make sense to me," said Yust, an architect who has worked on many historic preservation projects in the Twin Cities.

Yust talked about the house with Tom Schroeder, one of his best friends, and a longtime neighbor in the Uppertown neighborhood just north of the High Bridge. Schroeder was intrigued, too, and even got a tour in 1995 from the elderly woman who lived there after he worked up the courage to knock on her door.

But it wasn't until three years ago, when the house went vacant, that Schroeder and Yust really got to chew on the house's many historic and architectural puzzles. Their research intrigued them enough that Schroeder bought the house for $60,000 in May 2008, allowing them to dig on the site.

The result was six bankers' boxes full of treasures, including: a 1917 German Weimar coin, a dog collar with an 1877 license, women's corsets and an 1898 St. Paul Police Manual, with handwritten notes.

But the biggest revelation was that the stone house was not built to be a house at all, but a saloon that went belly up after the financial Panic of 1857. Yust and Schroeder now believe it's the oldest surviving commercial structure in St. Paul.

Their vision -- still underway, with much to do -- is to return the stone house to its pre-Panic look, with extensive gardens and a post-and-beam barn.

With most of the research and demolition behind them, they'll next add the tongue-and-groove reclaimed wood floors, the antique iron hardware, and rehang the original two-panel vertical pine doors. Their hope is to create a 19th-century-style social club with small-batch German lager and a whiff of boom times in the air. And a well-deserved place on the National Register of Historic Places.

"Our dream is to bring it full circle," said Yust. "It was opened in the heat of optimism, and then that was dashed by the Panic. And now we're working to bring it back again."

The early intrigue

When Yust and Schroeder were still researching the house early on, they spent hours at the library and investigating other stone structures around the metro area, even making comparative analyses of Yust's own stone house, a few houses away, which was built by the same stonemason, a German immigrant named Jacob Amos.

The pair brought in David Maki, an archaeological geophysicist, to conduct electrical-resistance and ground-sonar tests, as well as archaeologists Mike Madsen and Mike Justin, both of HDR Engineering, to dig into the site.

"It's a mansion of information," said Schroeder, who lives kitty-corner from Yust in a restored Victorian. "And to discover that the house was really a saloon ... well, it just confirmed all our suspicions."

The stone house was built when the Minnesota territory was feverish with land speculation. In less than a decade, from 1850 to 1857, the territory increased in population from about 6,000 to nearly 150,000, making housing in short supply.

In St. Paul's Uppertown, the piece of land on which the house was built changed hands four times in 1853 and 1854, and increased in value by 275 percent. German immigrant Charles Fuchs erected a stone-faced saloon on-site, having heard that his plot would be on a major thoroughfare between Fort Snelling and downtown St. Paul. Until the Panic got in the way.

The collapse

In 1857, a major New York bank collapsed under the weight of fraud. A few months later, the SS Central America sank in North Carolina's Outer Banks, carrying one-third of that year's gold supply. Backed by the gold standard, the U.S. economy buckled under the strain, and investors called in their loans, which, in turn, burst the overinflated real estate bubble.

The emerging territories got it the worst, and half of St. Paul's population fled the city. Work halted on an early version of the St. Paul Cathedral. All but two of the local banks closed. The local king of real estate, Henry McKenty, who named Lake Como, lost everything and killed himself with a revolver.

The major thoroughfare was diverted elsewhere and it's possible that the stone saloon never served a single customer. It sat vacant for a spell until Amos, the German immigrant, moved in with his family. Schroeder thinks it was because Fuchs couldn't afford to pay him.

Over time, the saloon was modified into a house, and settled into its quiet residential existence. That is, until the two history sleuths took a shine to it.

Ironically, it was the hemorrhaging of the real estate market in 2007 that allowed Schroeder to buy the stone house and reassemble the adjacent properties to match the original lot size.

"It was a joyous feeling," says Schroeder, "to buy this house and know that we're going to bring it back to what it was always meant to be."

Alyssa Ford is a Twin Cities freelance writer.