After more than an hour of debate over plans for the Marshall Avenue Flats, the Saint Paul Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) made several recommendations on October 4 that could mitigate the impact of the six-story apartment building on what was once the playground of the former Richards Gordon School at 1619 Dayton Ave.

The commission is suggesting that the school building be nominated for the National Register of Historic Places. It is also asking developer PAK Properties to commission a history of the building, create a virtual or physical exhibit of the school, and make a plaque or historic display of the limestone retaining wall that was built around the property in 1936 by the Works Progress Administration.

The recommendations now go to the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), which reviewed the project earlier this fall. The Union Park District Council voted in support of the project on October 6, including taking steps before deteriorated sections of the wall are replaced.

City planning staff determined that the 98-unit Marshall Avenue Flats would not have an adverse effect on the former school building. SHPO staff disagreed, stating that the project would diminish the school building as a historical resource.

The Marshall Avenue Flats has been on the drawing boards for several months. The building is to be constructed at the southeast corner of Marshall Avenue and Fry Street. It would be situated just north of the former school, which is now used as offices.

The HPC set aside the idea of asking that the Marshall Avenue Flats be redesigned, though that was also debated at length on October 4. Some commissioners liked the modern design and charcoal-colored building materials. Others called it a “dark tower.”

Some commissioners liked the modern design and charcoal-colored building materials. Others called it a “dark tower.”

Developer Richard Pakonen expressed support for the suggestions, noting he has done several historic building rehabilitation projects in the Twin Cities. His intent is to retain the school building.

The HPC’s review was also tied to federal funding the apartment project has received.

According to an HPC staff report, the construction of Richards Gordon School was funded by the city in 1911, designed by local architect Raymond Gauger in the Beaux-Arts style and built by local contractor Paul Steenberg. The brick building was one of the city’s first “fireproof” schools built with reinforced concrete and clad in brick. The school followed the early pattern for an eight-classroom school with large “recitation rooms” capable of holding 40 students.

In 1917, an addition was built and the 12-room school housed 450 students. In 1923, a matching addition was built under the direction of city architect Frank X. Tewes.

The school was named after Richards Gordon, a prominent local businessman and cofounder of the fur wholesale company Gordon & Ferguson. Gordon died in 1911 and his son, Charles W. Gordon, was named president of the company.

Among the thousands of students who attended Richards Gordon was Peanuts cartoonist Charles M. Schulz, when his family lived above his father’s barbershop at the southeast corner of Selby and Snelling avenues.

— Jane McClure


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