Summit Avenue and the Hill District occupy the geographic and historic heart of Saint Paul. At the center of it all is Summit Avenue, Saint Paul's most renowned street, a midwestern mansion row that extends for nearly nine miles through the western half of the city, finally terminating at the Mississippi River.
Saint Paul’s leading architects-including Cass Gilbert, Clarence Johnston and Allen Stem designed fine homes here, and today the entire avenue is protected within national and local historic districts. The Burbank-Livingston-Griggs House (1863), the James J. Hill House (1891), Gilbert's superb Lightners House (1893), and Johnston's Dittenhofer House (1908) are among the avenue's architectural treasures.
The Hill District, which extends north and south of Summit and has gone by quite a few names over the years, creating the sort of confusing, ad-hoc nomenclature for which Saint Paul is all too renowned. Ramsey Hill, Summit Hill and Summit-University are the officially designated neighborhoods here, but names such as Crocus Hill, Cathedral Hill, St. Anthony Hill, Rondo, and Selby Dale still have their adherents. Whatever you choose to call it, the Hill District, which was added to the National Register of Historical Places in 1976, is an extraordinary residential environment. Extending back from the high bluffs overlooking downtown, the district is one of the nation’s great repositories of late Victorian-era housing, most of it designed by prominent local architects.
The district consists of two distinct neighborhoods. North of Summit is Ramsey Hill, much of which is in a local historic district as well as the larger National Register district. Victorian houses of every size, shape, and style populate the streets of Ramsey Hill, which includes the lower-and most spectacular-stretch of Summit Avenue. Summit is indeed the big attraction here, but if you wander along the side streets you'll discover numerous architectural gems, ranging from the stone-walled Luckert House (1858) to the lovely little Virginia Street Church (1887) to Laurel Terrace (1887), the city's most magnificent row house.
Officially, Ramsey Hill is part of the larger neighborhood known as Summit-University, which runs north to University Avenue and west to Lexington. The heart of Saint Paul's black community is in this neighborhood, although many residents were uprooted in the 1960s by construction of interstate 94, which obliterated historic Rondo Avenue as well as many homes and buildings.
The history of Summit Avenue and the Hill district goes back to the earliest days of the city. The first mansions appeared on the crest of Summit by the 1850s, when the settlers also began building homes farther out along the streets. Only a handful of these first generation dwellings survived, among them the much modified Stuart-Driscoll House (1858 and later), the oldest home on Summit. The rest of the Hill District didn't begin to fill in until after the Civil War, but even then development was hampered by a lack of ready transportation to the downtown area.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a great turnaround began in the Hill District. Young couples discovered the neighborhood’s long-neglected Victorian homes, which could be bought for the proverbial song, and began restoring them. Neighborhood associations and non-profit developers like Old Town Restorations, Inc., spurred preservation efforts and also built new infill housing in cooperation with an alphabet soup of city, state and federal agencies. Today, just as in the nineteenth century, the Hill District is one of Saint Paul's most desirable places to live.
Larry Millett is an adjunct faculty member at the College of Visual Arts.
Excerpts from AIA Guide to St. Paul’s Summit Avenue & Hill District, Larry Millett, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2009.