Every old house tells us a story. But if those walls could speak, would they talk about tragedy or farce? Or would their tale have a touch of irony of the sort that led a New Jersey homeowner to post a plaque reading, “George Washington might have slept here”? If, that is, the Father of His Country hadn’t been otherwise detained Crossing the Delaware that night.
Minnesotans may never find a visit from George Washington in the story of their homes, but that doesn’t mean area dwellings haven’t had their own brushes with historic figures. Three Minnesota governors lived in St. Anthony Park. In those years before Minnesota had a formal governor’s mansion, the state’s chief executive generally maintained his own residence. Nineteenth-century governors William R. Marshall and Andrew R. McGill lived in imposing Victorian residences that still stand in the Langford Park area. In the 20th century, Gov. Elmer L. Andersen built a distinctive modern home on Hoyt Avenue.
But political history isn’t the only thing you might learn about your house. Across the street from the Andersen house is a big white colonial that offers a “two-fer” in artistic accomplishment. Built in 1933, several decades before the Andersen house, the colonial housed a mathematics professor at the University of Minnesota named Raymond Brink and his family.
A few years after the Brinks moved in, literary history was made in that house when the lady of the house, Carol Ryrie Brink, produced the classic children’s novel, Caddie Woodlawn, based on the pioneer adventures of her grandmother. Winner of the 1937 Newbery Award for excellence in children’s literature, Caddie Woodlawn remains almost as popular today as when it was written. Mrs. Brink did her writing in longhand at a desk in the corner of the living room while her children were at school.
Decades after the Brinks had sold their house and retired to California, another artistic talent made his home in the white colonial. Greg Howard, originator of the Sally Forth comic strip, is also said to have grown up there.
Howard and Brink were in good company. Other literary lights that have spent time in the area (however brief their stay may have been in certain cases) include Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow, biologist/essayist Lewis Thomas and all-round Minnesota institution Garrison Keillor. And then there’s the academic contingent. With its proximity to the University of Minnesota, it’s not surprising that more than a few famous researchers and scientists have made their homes in the area. Psychologist B.F. Skinner, economist Walter Heller and Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug, founder of the Green Revolution, all lived in St. Anthony Park.
Learning that your house had a famous previous inhabitant is fun, but it isn’t the only thing that makes a residence stand out. In fact, the term “conspicuous consumption” was invented by Minnesota sociologist Thorstein Veblen to describe the kind of opulent display found in a house on the corner of Midway Parkway and Hamline Avenue. Known universally as the “house with the lions,” it’s one house that every visitor to Como Regional Park remembers. The green-and-white tiled mansion with the statuary lions guarding its gate was built by early 20th-century land developer Thomas Frankson for the princely sum of $17,000 in 1914. It originally featured a conservatory surrounded by a moat-like body of water, as well as a seven-car garage.
In the early 1940s, the house became the headquarters of a most unusual organization, the Midwest Hebrew Mission. Led by Julia Solverud-Knutson, a highly accomplished woman who had been a rural superintendent of schools, a social worker, lecturer and occasional traveler to the Holy Land, the Mission was dedicated to the quixotic goal of the “conversion of the Jews of the Upper Midwest.”
To the disappointment of Knutson and her colleagues, the Jews of St. Paul proved remarkably skilled at resisting the come-to-Jesus moments offered by the Hebrew Mission. A quote from the organization’s 1945 annual report says it all: “… the fruit [of our work] among the Jews is so negligible that it can scarcely be seen at all, for hardly a Jew can be found on the church rolls in the entire Northwest.”
Nevertheless, the Mission persevered into the early 1970s, when the house with the lions once more passed into the hands of a private family.
When you investigate the story of your house, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be pleased with what you learn. Not all history is sunny, and not all stories end happily. Most murders, after all, happen in someone’s house. You might even discover that your house is haunted.
That was the experience of several generations of owners of a certain tall, white house on Como Avenue. Some claimed to hear ghostly typing from an upper floor, harking back perhaps to the days when the house was rented to college students who never finished their assignments. All agreed that a certain blue velvet sofa—too large to be removed from the attic—could send shivers down the backs of those who sat on it, even on the hottest days.
It takes the right sort of homeowner to enjoy a resident ghost, but it helps if the spirit has a relatively benign obsession, like the ghostly typist.
Other ghost stories from the past are more painful. These spirits never cause clanks in the basement or creaks on the staircase, but their stories can sometimes linger the longest, and echo with a warning to the happiness of all the residents that follow them.
One St. Anthony Park resident remembers being delighted when she unexpectedly encountered a longtime resident of the neighborhood who had every reason to know the history of her house. The older woman was the first cousin of the family that had lived there in the 1920s and 1930s. Asked if there were any stories about the house, the woman grew silent for a moment, and then responded, “Yes, but you may not want to hear the most unforgettable one.”
As a little girl in the 1920s, the woman had attended her first cousin’s sixth-birthday party held in the dining room. Tragically, the birthday child’s gauzy party dress caught fire and, in that era of primitive emergency medicine, she died of her burns. There were scorch marks on the dining room floor where the child had fallen.
The current owner already knew about the scorch marks, now long covered with carpet. She has never told her family about the tragedy, but every year she watches her own children leaning over to blow out their birthday candles and she thinks of the little birthday ghost, whose long ago party ended so differently.
Judy Woodward lives and writes in St. Anthony Park.