Irvine Park: The Years Have Been Kind to This Early Settlement

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In the shadows of downtown St. Paul lies one of the city’s loveliest and oldest areas, Irvine Park. It dates from 1849, the year Minnesota became a territory. Its peaceful atmosphere and graceful homes, clustered around a small square with a fountain, belie its urban surroundings.

In its early years St. Paul, without a sister city to compete with, had its own internal rivalry. For a few years, the Lower Landing (now downtown) battled the Upper Landing (near Irvine Park) for dominance as the city’s commercial center. The Upper Landing was John Irvine’s ferryboat dock, and the tamarack trees in the nearby marsh provided fuel for the boats, according to “A Brief History of Irvine Park.” Many of the houses in Irvine Park were built in this early time of St. Paul’s history.

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The name Irvine Park refers to the central square itself, the homes surrounding it, and the National Historic District with boundaries extending outside the immediate square. Irvine Park’s history encompasses great extremes: at one time it was “the most gracious of the neighborhoods that lay close to the Mississippi,” says Virginia Brainard Kunz in The Mississippi and St. Paul, but it suffered drastic decline and deterioration during much of the twentieth century, until the Historic District was declared and extensive renovation efforts made it desirable again. In fact, a number of the historic houses now in the area were moved there from other sites to save them from destruction.

Early on, most of Irvine Park’s houses faced the Mississippi River, and the neighborhood extended down the bluff, which was not very steep until the railroads were built. At the time, the park square was a grazing ground for cows. “Several families in the district kept cows in those days–so many that a boy came early in the morning to collect them and conduct them to a pasture below Oakland Ave…. Around 5 in the afternoon we would see the procession loping home again — each cow turning into her home gateway when she reached it” (Remembrance of Things Past, Polly Caroline Bullard).

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The range of income and occupations represented by Irvine Park residents over the years has been wide indeed. Elected officials, real estate developers, owners of coal, milk, and tanning businesses, proprietors of hotels and saloons, master carpenters, the owner of a pickling plant, a bathman for a treatment center nearby, officers of the law, livestock dealers, coachmen, railroad conductors, housekeepers, and common laborers. Perhaps the most interesting occupation was an embalming business that boasted a “lady embalmer” specializing in women and children (“Brief History”).

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Several of the Irvine Park residents were the founding families of St. Paul, Governor Alexander Ramsey being the best known. Because his family lived in his “mansion house” at 265 South Exchange Street for 92 years, its interior and furnishings are particularly well preserved, and it is open for tours. The Mannheimer brothers, who lived in the house at 270 Fort Road, owned a dry goods store that later evolved into Dayton’s. Two newspapermen, Henry Carver, owner of the Pioneer, and Frederick Driscoll, business manager of the Press, presided over publications that later became the Pioneer Press, “a Republican paper” (“Social Calls Without A Bonnet! Dorothy Hozza).

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General John Henry Hammond, one early homeowner, was General William Sherman’s chief of staff during the Civil War (Sherman Street is named for that general), and his sons, “the Hammond boys,” went on to become ambassador to Spain and the Roosevelt family lawyer. Dr. Justus Ohage, who lived at 59 Irvine Park, performed this country’s first successful gall bladder surgery at St. Joseph’s Hospital in 1886. He built public baths on an island he owned, out of concern for public hygiene, then donated them to St. Paul, even suggesting a name his donation: Harriet Island, after Harriet Bishop, the city’s first educator (“Brief History”).

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Margaret Kerfoot Vernon Rogers, who lived on South Exchange Street, was president of St. Paul’s first women’s suffrage organization. William Marshall, who lived at 30 Irvine Park, served two terms as Minnesota’s governor and “secured the vote for blacks in Minnesota two years before the Fifteenth Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution” (“Brief History”). Charlotte Knox, who lived at 284 South Exchange Street before the Rogers family, held musical events there that later evolved into the Schubert Club.

The most colorful early resident, Nathaniel Pitt Langford, discovered the Yellowstone geysers and was Yellowstone National Park’s first superintendent. Earlier, when he was a revenue collector in Montana, he spent much of his time protecting gold transports from bandits; when he retired he fascinated Irvine Park youngsters with tales of his exploits (“Without A Bonnet!”).

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Several of the early Irvine Park residents were impressively industrious. Frank Jansen, who built a duplex at 278-280 Sherman Street in 1911, was “a furniture manufacturer, city councilman, grocer, saloon keeper, lamplighter and assistant city weigher, as well as owning a wood and fuel business (“Brief History”). The intriguing Otto Dreher, who built the home now at 300 South Exchange Street, came to St. Paul with a theatrical troupe in 1857, did dramatic readings at the Athenaeum, served as an officer in the Civil War, edited a German-language newspaper, was a partner in an upholstery firm, served as secretary of the St. Paul School Board, and belonged to no fewer than six German singing societies. William Marshall, mentioned above, was “a man of prodigious activity.” He had been a surveyor, owned a hardware store and bank, consolidated two newspapers, and served with distinction in the Dakota and Civil wars before his political career began (“Brief History”).

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Even more interesting are some of the more scandalous stories about the Irvine Park residents. Perhaps the most memorable is that of William Dice Rogers of 306 South Exchange Street, who was discovered in 1860 “paying a social call to a neighbor’s wife in her parlor while wearing only his shirt.” Another man who lived in the same house, Aleck Johnson, was also involved in scandal. He was state immigration agent to New York and Chicago, for which service he was knighted by the king of Sweden, but apparently his traveling nature caught up with him when his wife discovered he had other wives in the cities he visited frequently, and sued for divorce. Annie Rogers Wood, whose brother had gone calling without wearing his pants, suffered the further indignity of a spouse involved in a scandal. Her husband Charles was accused of stealing $10,000 from the Minnesota Valley Railroad while he was railroad agent. He said he dropped it accidentally off the Wabasha Bridge, but no one could find it, so he was charged in court. The shame of this family scandal prompted his father-in-law and brother-in-law to physically assault the judge and plaintiff in the case during the hearing (“Brief History”).

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While those residents are long gone, the Irvine Park neighborhood now boasts many elegant, painstakingly restored buildings. The oldest building in St. Paul, the Symonds House, is at 234 Ryan Avenue. Other structures of interest are the Louise Block at 269-271 Fort Road/West Seventh Street, where Minnesota architects Clarence Johnston, Cass Gilbert and James Knox Taylor trained; the Murray-Lanpher House at 35 Irvine Park, whose original owner Michael Murray died of pneumonia before the completion of the mansion he had promised to his wife during their courtship; and the Wagner-Marty House, which has the distinction of being moved twice and moved the farthest to reach its present resting site–it was first displaced from its original site in Woodbury Township to make room for Highway 12 in 1956, then again in 1983 when Interstate 94 was built (“Brief History”). The John McDonald House at 56 Irvine Park was moved from Smith Avenue in 1978, and it was cited with a parking ticket when it had to sit in the street overnight.

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The architecture in the Irvine Park Historic District represents virtually all styles employed in the city over its history. In addition to Federal, Georgian, Gothic Revival, Italianate, and French Second Empire, the area boasts examples of Carpenter Gothic, Midwest Square, and one “best described as” Victorian Eclectic (“Brief History”). In its architecture as well as its residents, Irvine Park has been a mirror, a microcosm of St. Paul throughout their shared history.

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During the Civil War, according to the “Brief History” of Irvine Park, Joseph and Mary Lanpher Forepaugh were partners in a dry goods business that supplied military troops, but left shortly after. They built a mansion in 1870 on three lots on Exchange Street, and later purchased another five adjoining lots which became their formal gardens. Perhaps because of his interest in landscaping, Joseph Forepaugh spearheaded the development of the park where the cows had grazed. The next owner of the house was General John Henry Hammond, mentioned previously. The next owner, Restaurants No Limited, extensively refurbished the mansion in 1976, “to the wonderment and acclaim of those who had believed the building past saving.” It is now the elegant Forepaugh’s restaurant.

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Other Irvine Park residences that underwent extensive renovation in the 1970s include the Symonds House at 234 Ryan and the Simpson-Wood house at 32 Irvine Park. More details of the history and architecture of the houses in the Irvine Park area are available in “A Brief History of Irvine Park” by the Historic Irvine Park Association (no date).

December 2004, revised November 2016 and November 2019

 

 

Categories: Architecture, Minnesota History, Parks, Restaurants, St. Paul HistoryTags: , , , , , ,

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