Summit Avenue

Historic mansions, churches, synagogues, and schools line Summit road in St. Paul, Minnesota, United States, making it the longest road of Victorian homes in the country. The street begins on the western edge of downtown St. Paul and extends westward for 4.5 miles to the Mississippi River, where St. Paul and Minneapolis meet. Similar roadways can be found in other major cities, such as Chicago’s Prairie Avenue, Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue, and New York City’s Fifth Avenue. When compared to these other examples, Summit Avenue stands out for having maintained its historic character and diversity of buildings. According to historian Ernest R. Sandeen, Summit Avenue is “the best preserved example of the Victorian monumental residential boulevard.”

There are two City of Saint Paul Heritage Preservation Districts and two National Historic Districts along Summit Avenue. Excluding the area within the Woodland Park Historic District, the two National Historic Districts are the West Summit Avenue Historic District, which stretches from Oxford Street South west to the Mississippi River along Summit Avenue, and the Historic Hill District, which is an irregular area roughly bounded by Portland Avenue, Lexington Avenue, Dale Street North, Pleasant Street, Marshall Avenue, and Grand Avenue.

Two neighbourhoods make up the city of Minneapolis: Ramsey Hill, which is bounded by Summit Avenue, Dale Street, Interstate Highway 94, and a line running north from the Cathedral of St. Paul (also known as Summit Hill or Crocus Hill), and Summit Hill, also known as Crocus Hill, which is a triangular region bounded by Lexington Avenue to the west, Summit Avenue to the north, and the bluffs to the south. The majority of the homes in this area date from between 1890 and 1920 and are grand, one-of-a-kind structures.

In 2008, Summit Avenue was recognized by the American Planning Association as one of 10 “great streets” across the country.

Summit Avenue was first established in the early 1850s, when Saint Paul was still in its infancy as a city. In the earliest days of the city, mansions began to develop on the hill. Six dwellings can be seen atop the hill in a photograph taken by Joel Whitney in 1859. The James J. Hill House stands on the site that was once held by Edward Duffield Neill. Beginning with the home of William and Angelina Noble and continuing westward, the photograph also includes those of Henry F. Masterson, Henry Mower Rice, Henry Neill Paul, and David Stuart. The Stuart home (312 Summit Avenue) is the last surviving example of this style of St. Paul architecture, making it one of the oldest buildings in the city.

Growth in the area didn’t start until the 1880s, after a period of stagnation caused by the American Civil War and its aftermath. In 1884, the city began supplying its residents with running water, and in 1887, a cable car system was constructed along Selby Avenue to make downtown more accessible. The Hill District quickly rose to prominence once the first streetcars began running along Grand Avenue, south of Summit, in 1890.

In the 1930s, the neighbourhood began to decay as many grand homes were converted into boarding houses or sat empty for decades. Due to the cliffs that separate the Summit Avenue region from downtown St. Paul, commercial development pressure did not destroy the home market there. In the 1960s and 1970s, the neighborhood’s fortunes improved as young couples learned that the Victorian houses they had their eye on could be purchased at reasonable prices and restored over time. Additionally, the formation of neighbourhood organisations aided in conservation efforts.

Summit Avenue had once extended from North Robert Street, but part of it was demolished to make way for the State Capitol Mall and Interstate 94 in the Capitol Heights neighbourhood. After the renaming of Summit Avenue to Thirteenth Street between Cedar and North Robert streets in 1953, the remaining part of Summit Avenue in that region between those two streets became Columbus Street.

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