I live in a teardown. My house was built in 1880. The clock is ticking for both of us. If I don’t do something to save it soon, it’s demolition time for this old house.
My great-grandfather spent $5,000 to build his clapboard dream home at One Crocus Hill on a dead-end street that used to be his driveway. The easternmost half-block of Goodrich Avenue — the part overlooking the Mississippi River valley and downtown St. Paul — got its new name in the early 1900s. Eventually the entire neighborhood became known as Crocus Hill. That our 14 houses on Crocus Hill (the street) are numbered in the order they were built (mine is the oldest) confuses things even more for the pizza-delivery guys.
My grandmother was born and died in the house. My mom and her sister grew up in the same pair of identical rooms across the hall that my own daughters occupied until they went off to college. If I sold today I’d get half a million for a lot with breathtaking views. Thirty years ago, I paid less than half that for the same lot and the house combined.
Houses aren’t people. I know that. I am passionately fond of my house, nonetheless. The feeling is mutual. The floors creak love sonnets when I step on them, and the radiators dribble plaintively when I forget to bleed them. My house was tall and handsome before I gave it a new coat of paint last fall. Now it’s tall, dark and handsome. If it were human, we would run off to the Bahamas together. As it is, we stay put and I keep myself busy during the cold winter months bringing my house creaking and dribbling into the 21st century.
At the moment, I’m huddled in a down parka (the insulation, such as it is, dates to 1920) before a sunny window contemplating the next stage in the remodeling equivalent of hara-kari. The attic went under the knife first; then the kitchen. Over the winter, the second floor was reduced from 10 rooms to three to make way for a master suite with radiant-heat floors and a walk-in closet, features unheard of when my grandmother fitted the tall windows with heavy brocade drapes to conserve heat. We’ll start framing the front porch addition this spring.
Vintage houses are like people in that the older they get, the more tenuous is their hold on existence. Old houses in good neighborhoods are doubly imperiled. Wrecking balls haunt my dreams. Young people like the look and feel of our neighborhood so much that they’re tearing down houses like mine and putting up new ones like it that have 21st-century amenities built in.
I started my second-floor demo in January. The misery of inhaling dust from crumbling lath and plaster is mitigated somewhat by the treasures that tumble out of the walls as I bang into them with my sledgehammer — tiny button-up leather shoes, canning cookbooks, tobacco pouches, a pack of Chesterfields, an iron no bigger than my fist but heavier than a barbell, a Catholic book of saints, a six-rodent mousetrap that still works, a five-pound hammer head and thousands of corn husks stuffed into the walls as insulation when maids lived in the attic.
I tell my noncomprehending Minneapolis friends, most of whom are downsizing to ’50s ramblers, that living like a mountain goat will keep me fit as I enter my dotage. The remodel itself would have the same healthful effect, what with all the heavy lifting, were it not for the plaster dust. I wear a respirator but remove it when I sleep.
I tell my St. Paul friends to leave me alone. Several are preservationists trying to save houses like mine. They want to enlarge the Historic Hill District to include Crocus Hill. The Frank B. Kellogg house, whose brownstone façade I can glimpse a corner of from my third floor, is already (properly, in my view) protected as a National Historic Site. The rest of our homes are exposed to the caprice of the marketplace, regardless of their historical significance based on who designed them or lived there at one time — two of several factors that determine if a house merits protection by our local Historic Preservation Commission’s 13 volunteer members.
Residents of the Hill District must submit plans for exterior alterations to the HPC. Initially intended to help idealistic young “urban pioneers” save rundown neighborhoods (the local designation came with low-interest loans and other incentives), the HPC’s stringent requirements nowadays can get pricey to meet.
If a mansion’s slate roof needs replacing, you’re looking at six figures. Summit Avenue’s historic status is in many ways a ball and chain homeowners willingly lug around for the same reason I lug around my sledgehammer.
I do find it interesting that the most “perfect” example of Victorian-era revivalist architecture, Summit Avenue, is also home to many midcentury ramblers, which are enjoying their own revival of sorts, though without much help from the preservationists. This raises the question: What should we be preserving? Because I am constantly fooling around with my house, I don’t relish the prospect of having to take whatever I do before a review board. I don’t doubt the board’s excellent taste. I do question why I should assume it’s better than mine.
So earlier this year, when the impending demolition of a 1906 Queen Anne at 27 Crocus Place (a bluffside block adjacent to mine) lit a match beneath preservationists determined to save it, I sided with the owners and sharpened my Sawzall.
I’m all for government regulation, but only when market forces need reining in. Moreover, there’s a reason the “residents” of Colonial Williamsburg take off their breeches and go home at quitting time. Who wants to live in a museum? And while Crocus Hill may be home to some nice old houses, it’s hardly New Orleans’ French Quarter or Boston’s Beacon Hill. Those neighborhoods are protected because of the coherence and originality of their architecture. What many of our grand mansions are about is money — specifically, the timeless enthusiasm of new money for bold one-upsmanship. I’ll see your Georgian Revival and raise you Richardsonian Romanesque.
This is not to say we don’t have some fine old houses. Permit records date only to 1885, but I’m guessing my great-grandfather relied on his own architectural instincts instead of hiring an architect like the illustrious Clarence Johnston, who moved into the house at No. 2 Crocus Hill and turned it into a timbered English Tudor masterpiece in 1910. Otherwise our half-block is a mixed bag. In 1887, the lot east of mine at No. 6 sprouted a multi-turreted combination French Renaissance, Gothic Revival, English Tudor and Richardsonian Romanesque monstrosity that was the first St. Paul residence to have electric lights throughout. It was razed in 1935 and replaced by a far lovelier, albeit smaller, brick Georgian Revival mansion. No. 8 had its third floor sliced off in the 1960s and looks more like a Le Corbusier than a Clarence Johnston.
Maybe what should be protected are the more indigenous Prairie-style and Arts and Crafts homes from the post-Victorian era. Many of them are far from opulent — some of the best are one-and-a-half-story bungalows — but all are imbued with post-Victorian ideas. The best buildings have always been about ideas, and big thinkers whose ideas inspired turn-of-the-century architects, like Emerson, Melville, Whitman and Thoreau, hewed to a rationalist philosophy that celebrated the relationship between individual freedom and the natural order.
“Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling workhorse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law,“ wrote the Chicago-based architect Louis Sullivan in 1896. He is credited with inventing the skyscraper.
The owners of 27 Crocus Place say their new house will pay homage to the architecture that it replaced. But it won’t resemble the twin McMansions in Mac-Groveland that were slated to replace a small Dutch colonial before neighbors succeeded in derailing the demo (I was with the neighbors on that one). For one thing, their architect, Julie Snow, is a renowned modernist. My hope is that she will imagine the site in its most pristine state — before houses replaced wigwams, coyote dens and eagle’s nests. I’m hoping that the new 27 Crocus Place adheres to those timeless tenets of architecture that Sullivan revered, such as proportion and scale as well as the growing awareness of today’s big thinkers that we need to take ourselves down a peg on the natural order.
Modern architects from Frank Lloyd Wright to Julie Snow have argued through their work that living in harmony with nature is our only hope of surviving as a species. “Sustainable is beautiful” is the 21st-century credo, and it will be the message of the most enduring 21st-century architecture.
I would not condone the teardown of Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles any more than I would Philip Johnson’s Glass House. Both are superbly designed examples of cutting-edge intellectual ideas that inspire artistic genius. But just as some French châteaux are better than others, so it is with our historic houses. A grace period for informed debate over the merits of a particular house before it is destroyed is perfectly appropriate. But when preservationists insist that an old house whose best feature is a stunning view is more important than a minimalist glass cube, I say they are missing the point of preservation.
What matters isn’t so much what is saved as what isn’t, and throughout history what isn’t saved has been almost everything. The Louvre contains a fraction of the world’s finest paintings. Its purpose is to showcase the creativity that produces paintings, poems, palaces and everything else we call art. Houses are not people, after all. I will always protect artists first, if only to save the rest of us from our own provincialism.
Bonnie Blodgett is a writer in St. Paul. Reach her at email@example.com.