The fact that Lowertown, in downtown Saint Paul at the foot of Robert Street, is north of Uppertown, at the foot of Chestnut Street near Irvine Park, may seem puzzling, but it actually makes perfect sense. The Mississippi River takes a few turns as it passes through the area, forming a sort of sideways S-curve that means it is flowing north as it passes through Saint Paul. Thus, boats would arrive at the upper landing before they arrived at the lower landing.
The two landing areas were located at two breaks in a line of 80-foot-high sandstone and limestone bluffs along the river. The populated area surrounding the upper landing became Upper Town, then Uppertown, and likewise the area surrounding the lower landing became Lower Town, then Lowertown.
(See photo credits at end of story.)
In Saint Paul’s earliest days, these two landings were engaged in intense rivalry for the commerce flowing through the village that would later become a city. The lower landing had two advantages: the enthusiasm of its merchants and residents, and geography. It was at the foot of Trout Brook and Phalen Creek, which formed a corridor that would accommodate railroad beds more readily than its rival.
Jeffrey A. Hess and Paul Clifford Larson describe the two locales’ competitiveness in their book, Saint Paul’s Architecture, noting that the two landings couldn’t even agree on the time of day, literally, varying as much as 15 minutes and refusing to conform to each other. Plus, the platting of Upper Town made no attempt to coordinate with Lower Town, and in fact its residents “proclaimed their independence by skewing their grid at a forty-five-degree angle to St. Peter Street.” The authors quote one civic leader as saying, “the two plats appear to have taken a running jump at each other, like two rival steamboats.” Moreover, “The several plats that later conjoined Upper and Lower Town were skewed at yet other angles, creating a curiously ‘Old World’ setting of twisting thoroughfares with closed vistas.”
Eventually, Lowertown got the upper hand. It was, in fact, where Saint Paul began. The notorious liquor dealer Pig’s Eye Parrant located there in 1840 after being evicted twice from the outskirts of Fort Snelling. Henry Jackson followed him in 1842 and opened the first store, after which men named Roberts and Simpson opened small Indian trading shops, as Sheldon Arbut mentions in his Saint Paul History (www.cityhistory.us/stpaul, quoting Neill’s History of Minnesota). The story continues: “In the year 1846, the site of St. Paul was chiefly occupied by a few shanties, owned by … fellows … who sold rum to the soldier and Indian. The village has five stores … and … contains a dozen or twenty families.” In 1841, Father Lucien Galtier erected a small wooden chapel near the landing, an event which marks the beginning of the city, in that he named it the Chapel of Saint Paul, and the town later adopted that name as well.
Not long afterward, Saint Paul became a boom town, because it was a gateway to the west, situated at the head of navigation of the Mississippi River. By the mid-1800s, according to the brochure “Tour St. Paul: East Side to Lowertown,” the city “became a bustling center of transportation and commerce. Railroad companies and others filled the floodplain, and Trout Brook and Phalen Creek were piped underground in storm sewers.” The National Park Service, which manages the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, says during the 1800s, St. Paul’s “Lower Landing was one of the busiest steamboat landings in the United States. It was the arrival point for tens of thousands of immigrants entering Minnesota. On average, each steamboat carried several hundred passengers, and the number of steamboat arrivals grew from 256 in 1854 to 1068 in 1858.” Even before the railroads flourished, oxcarts brought furs from the north and returned with provisions every year; the furs shipped on the steamboats to points south.
During the late 1800s, Lowertown essentially WAS Saint Paul. In 1875, 70 percent of the town’s residents lived within a mile’s walk of downtown, Hess and Larson note. Also during this time, the character of Lowertown underwent dramatic change from primarily residential to a warehouse district. In fact, there were two Lowertowns. In On the Street Where You Live, Donald Empson says the first Lowertown encompassed an area east of downtown which thrived as an affluent residential area from 1860 to 1900. However, he says, “with the expansion of the railroads, a corollary warehouse district encroached upon and finally replaced this entire neighborhood.” Though the earlier town had included commercial ventures such as hotels and shops, this was commerce of an entirely different magnitude. Famous architects competed to build the multi-story buildings that lined the streets.
And Lowertown’s boundaries shrank. “During the 1880s,” Hess and Larson say, “Lower Town acquired a more restricted sense of place. It evolved into a pure warehouse district, eventually embracing a section bounded by Jackson Street, Olive Street, Third Street (renamed Kellogg Boulevard), and Seventh Street…. [Here were] some of the largest houses in the country for drugs, hardware, dry goods, groceries, boots, shoes, fur goods, hats, gloves, harness, and saddlery – massive structures [that] well nigh shut the sunlight out of the narrow streets on which they stand.” In fact, Noyes Brothers and Cutler Wholesale Drug Warehouse was the largest drug warehouse in the world.
Before the warehouses took over, the town evolved from its roots as Pig’s Eye’s liquor store into a more genteel place to live. Mary Hill, wife of railroad tycoon James J. Hill, had lived most of her life in Lowertown, and the couple lived and raised their nine children there until they moved to their Summit Avenue mansion in 1891. John Ireland, who later became Saint Paul’s bishop, spent his younger years there. That the town’s prominent citizens had their roots there might not seem surprising, but the area was growing fast—from 2,000 in 1850 to 10,000 in 1857, and even more in ensuing years—and the early settlers’ continued ties over the years suggest strong bonds were formed in the early Lowertown neighborhood, which Eileen R. McCormack describes in “Mary Hill’s Lowertown, 1867-1891.” David Riehle, studying the same area, notes the commingling of the classes there, for the same area held a number of boarding houses, various churches and social organizations, and people presumably mingled as they walked to work or to run errands. The center of this neighborhood was a Lafayette Park, where now state office buildings stand on Lafayette Road; before the interstate highway system was built, this was still an extension of the town based around the Lower Landing.
In “Borup’s Addition and the Prosperous Pioneer African Americans Who Owned Homes There,” Riehle examines another part of St. Paul’s beginnings near the Lower Landing. Borup’s Addition was bounded by Robert, Seventh, and Broadway streets and what is now Interstate 94. Many African Americans purchased lots and built homes there, “long before the city’s black community became centered in the Rondo district,” Riehle says. A number of them were leaders in the successful effort to win suffrage rights for African Americans in Minnesota shortly after the Civil War. Temperance Street is the last remnant of this lost neighborhood, though the old buildings have been replaced by new housing units.
The warehouse district that replaced the Lowertown residential area remains, and many of the buildings have been renovated into living and office spaces. This district, officially the Lowertown Historic District, encompasses 12 blocks of historic buildings, centered in Mears Park. In 1849, what’s now the park topped a 60-foot-high hill four blocks long and two wide. It was called Baptist Hill because First Baptist Church was built on it. John Smith, who owned the land, donated it to the city as a park because he considered it too steep for any more buildings to be placed there. The hill and the church building were leveled in 1910. Where the church stood was called Smith Park for many years, then changed to Mears Park in honor of Norman B. Mears, who launched an effort to preserve the district in the early 1970s but died in 1974 before it was realized.
The warehouse buildings in Lowertown are united architecturally by similar heights and similar building materials. Most are brick or stone, and most are three to six stories tall. “More than merely functional, these warehouses were highly ornamented displays of wealth and power,” say Richard Moe and Carter Wilkie in “Changing Places: Rebuilding community in the age of sprawl”: “built to last far beyond the lifetimes of their owners.” Many of these buildings are clustered around Mears Park and the nearby Farmers’ Market.
- The Railroad and Bank Building (now First Trust Center), 176 East Fifth Street, was where James J. Hill planned to unite all his offices. It was the largest office building in the Twin Cities until the IDS Center was built.
- The Great Northern Building is at 180 East Fifth Street. Along Broadway one can see the archway where James J. Hill entered the enclosed courtyard of his office building.
- The north side of Mears Park is fronted by three buildings on Sixth Street, all built by architect J. Walter Stevens: the Noyes Brothers and Cutler Building (now Park Square Court), where the Prairie Home Companion radio show was first broadcast, the Konantz Saddlery Company Building (later the Railroader Printing House), and the Koehler and Hinrichs Company Building, where butchers’ and meat packers’ supplies were sold wholesale.
- East of Mears Park lies the residential Cosmopolitan Building, formerly the Finch, Van Slyck, and McConville Dry Goods Company; a 1923 addition was built by renowned local architect Clarence Johnston.
- A block north of the park, on the west side of Wacouta, is the Gilbert Building, formerly the Wacouta Street Warehouse, by Cass Gilbert, featuring the “slow-burn” construction method so popular in that era of devastating building fires. The Cardozo Furniture Company was housed here in the 1930s and 1940s.
- Along Fifth Street to the south of the park lie three buildings by J. Walter Stevens: the Powers Dry Goods Company, Fairbanks-Morse Company, and John Wann Building. The Powers Company became a major department store in the area, and that building is now the Lowertown Lofts; the Metropolitan Council was housed in this block for a number of years.
- Visible from the southeast corner of Mears Park are the Gotzian Shoe Company Building at 242-80 East Fifth Street and the Paul Gotzian Building at 352 Wacouta Street, both designed by Cass Gilbert, and the J.H. Mahler Company Building at 258-60 East Fifth Street. The American Beauty Macaroni Company later moved into the Gotzian Shoe wholesale outlet and became a local landmark.
(Details excerpted from “Historic Lowertown: A walking tour,” by Virginia M. Westbrook, and “2003 Cass Gilbert Society Walking Tour: Cass Gilbert in Lowertown, St. Paul,” both available at the Minnesota Historical Society library.)
The Lower Landing was reconstructed in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administation and named Lambert’s Landing in 1937, after Colonel George C. Lambert, who had been prominent in the crusade to modernize Upper Mississippi River navigation by creating a nine-foot navigation channel. Most of the nearby land was removed in the 1950s to make way for the construction of Warner Road.
Empson’s On the Street Where You Live mentions the Lambert’s Landing mural by Seitu Jones (1986) on the north side of Warner Road across from the landing: “Planks from the old High Bridge boardwalk and stairs were memorably configured by Jones to represent the Mississippi River from Fort Snelling to Navy (Raspberry) Island.” A 22-acre Lower Landing Park has been added as well, featuring a long concrete esplanade along the river, and a re-rebuilt Lambert’s Landing.
Also in Lowertown is the Saint Paul Farmer’s Market—more than a market, it’s an event in Saint Paul every weekend morning May-October, featuring snacks and music as well as produce, and hosts more than 100,000 visitors each year. The Union Depot is nearby and is the end point for the Green Line light rail. These features all add to Lowertown’s ambience, as do its many resident artists.
Under the leadership of Mayor George Latimer and the McKnight Foundation, which donated $10 million, Lowertown was redeveloped in the 1980s. It had declined sadly over the years, as businesses gradually moved out to the suburbs. The Lowertown project involved 12 years of work by public/private partnerships and $350 million in investment; by 1990 two-thirds of Lowertown’s historic buildings had been rehabilitated (America’s Downtowns). Led by Weiming Lu as executive director of the Lowertown Redevelopment Corporation, the rehabilitation effort became a model for other urban villages around the world (www.mnhs.org/library/findaids). According to Empson, “The term ‘Lowertown’ faded from the vocabulary until resurrected by the historic preservation movement of the 1970s …. [when] the name Lowertown was revived to market lofts and condominiums in the old warehouse buildings on Sibley, Broadway, Wacouta, and Wall streets.”
The redevelopment was aided by Lowertown being listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, and, in 1984, the City of Saint Paul creating the Lowertown Historic Preservation District. A 2001 pamphlet simply titled “Lowertown” says 1,500 apartments and condominiums had been built since 1978, and $400 million had been invested in rebuilding and revitalizing the area, more than four times the original goal.
Andy Remke, co-owner with his sisters Sara and Stacy of the Black Dog Coffee & Wine Bar, said there’s been gradual growth in the years the Black Dog has been in the old Northern Warehouse building at Fourth and Broadway. Now, he said, “The neighborhood’s changed; it’s feeling more dynamic.” Andy sees the presence of the light rail as an extension of Lowertown’s history as a transportation hub.
Lowertown has been a central part of Saint Paul for so many years, it’s not likely to disappear from our vocabulary again. The “urban village” boasted 3,000 residents in 2010 and has grown considerably since. In 2009 Saint Paul’s mayor announced the creation of Lowertown Entertainment District, consisting of eight establishments offering evening entertainment in the area; as of 2020 there are quite a few more, including: Barrio, the Bulldog, Black Dog Café, Public Kitchen + Bar, Big River Pizza, Dark Horse, Barrel Theory Beer Company, Octo Fish Bar, and Saint Dinette.
A very important addition was the Saint Paul Saints ballpark next to the Farmers Market in 2015. Saints games and other activities (including winter ones) have brought numerous visitors into Lowertown. Lowertown annual events include the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, the Lowertown Blues & Funk Fest, and the Saint Paul Art Crawl.
Since before Saint Paul was Saint Paul, the Lowertown area has experienced boom-and-bust cycles and been a major part of the city’s history. This current boom has done much to revitalize downtown and is likely to last quite a while.
July 2010, revised September 2016, January 2020 and June 2020
Photo credits: All historic photos from Google Images: Early St. Paul, CSJ archives; Pig’s Eye Parrant, riversides.com and Wikipedia; Father Lucien Galtier, no source noted, and his chapel, Flickr.com; steamboats, Mnopedia; view of old railroads, substreet.org; Railroad and Bank Building, lowertownlanding.com. All other photos are mine.