Hearing set Dec. 5 on historic home’s possible demolition

Historic preservationists are still holding out hope that the 170-year-old Justus Ramsey House can be saved either at its current West End site or a new location in the neighborhood. The two-room limestone dwelling is believed to be the oldest house in Saint Paul still in its original location. A permit for its demolition will be reviewed by the Saint Paul Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) in a public hearing at 3:30 p.m. Monday, December 5.

A November 7 hearing before the HPC was laid over to give preservationists, neighborhood groups and property owner Moe Sharif time to consider how the house might be saved. The house is located on the patio of Sharif’s Burger Moe’s restaurant at 252 W. Seventh St. Sharif applied for the demolition permit this summer, citing the house’s structurally unsound condition. Preservationists have since rallied to try to save the structure.

The house was built by Justus Ramsey, the brother of Minnesota’s first territorial governor, Alexander Ramsey. It is believed to have been built in 1852, although some accounts date its construction to a few years later.

Justus Ramsey House
Located on the patio at Burger Moe's restaurant on West Seventh Street, the 170-year-old Justus Ramsey House is looking a little worse for wear these days. The two-room home has a gaping hole in the roof, and part of a wall has collapsed into the interior.

The house has local and national historic designations, and it is part of Saint Paul’s scattered-site historic district of limestone structures.

A dwelling for Saint Paul’s earliest Black residents

Justus Ramsey apparently never lived in the house, but likely built it as an investment. One of its early occupants was Robert Smith, who later became mayor of Saint Paul. The house also has strong connections to Saint Paul’s early African-American population. Saint Paul historian Jim Sazevich and West End resident and businessman Tom Schroeder have researched that history.

Former slaves George and Maria Perkins lived in the Justus Ramsey House from 1900-08. George Perkins worked as a railroad porter. Several other railroad porters called the house home over the years, according to Schroeder. Other tenants worked as maids, butchers and laborers.

Lizzie Battle, a hairdresser and hatmaker, lived in the house. She used a small wooden structure in front of the house as her shop. That shop was destroyed when West Seventh Street was widened in 1933. Other tenants included John and Daisy Hall, sisters Alice Dean and Hattie Key and Key’s daughter Lucy, who were all from Alabama and shared the house with a boarder named Charles Alexander. The structure later served as an antique shop before Burger Moe’s built its patio around it.

 

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Little Bohemia rallies to historic home’s cause

Schroeder, who owns the nearby Waldmann Brewery on Smith Avenue, has been working on the house’s preservation with the Historic Irvine Park Association, the West Seventh/Fort Road Federation, the Little Bohemia Neighborhood Association and Historic Saint Paul. The parties are seeking an environmental assessment for the house, which was condemned by the city in September. Options for the house include demolition, restoration on site or restoration at a new site.

Through his representatives, Sharif has made it clear that he wants the house moved. “Moe cares deeply about the community and Saint Paul’s history,” his representatives stated after the November 7 HPC meeting. “He’s open to any conversation regarding the best way to preserve the building and the history it represents. The other challenge to address is the need for a quick resolution because the building now is not safe.”

Fort Road Federation offers its support

West Seventh Federation board members agreed on November 14 to continue sharing information on the house, its history and future prospects. The nonprofit organization Rethos (formerly the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota) has offered grant assistance.

Federation members are concerned that if the Justus Ramsey House is demolished, it could set a precedent for other historic structures, including Forepaugh’s, the 1870 mansion at 276 Exchange St. that was turned into a restaurant decades ago but closed in 2019.

Report: Damage can be repaired

The roof and chimney of the Justus Ramsey House are damaged and one of its walls has collapsed. MacDonald & Mack, a consulting firm hired by the city to assess the house’s condition, has stated that the damage can be repaired and that moving the house is feasible.

MacDonald & Mack’s report on the Justus Ramsey House also indicated that the holes in the roof and gaps in the chimney appear to have been made by other than natural causes since the missing materials were not found in the debris inside the house. The report states that the “observed deterioration (of the house) does not correlate with natural deterioration mechanisms,” though deferred maintenance and a lack of repairs has contributed to the deterioration.

Justus Ramsey House
The facade of the Justus Ramsey House as it appears today.

Cost of moving and rebuilding house estimated at $132,000

Sharif released a report from BKBM Engineers that outlines the dangers posed by the structure and why it should be demolished. A letter from Advanced Masonry Restoration outlines the serious need for repairs. The letter estimates the cost of moving and rebuilding the house at about $132,000.

However, according to structural engineers from Palanisami & Associates, the condition of the house “is not suitable for repair. The original building walls and roof have been modified over the years to accommodate modern materials such as roof shingles and a brick chimney. The front wall appears to be original construction. (However) it is not practical to reassemble deteriorated limestone pieces of the south and east walls to match the original condition. The building is not suitable for any occupancy without insulation and fire-rated walls in compliance with current code.”

Richard Dana, a construction consultant and former chair of the HPC, submitted testimony supporting the MacDonald & Mack report. He cited the years of renovation to the house, including the removal and replacement of the wall that abuts Tom Reid’s Hockey City Pub. “I really don’t know how you maintain a building when everything you should do is a code violation caused by actions taken in the past,” Dana said.

— Jane McClure

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