Downtown, Irvine Park 12.8 Miles
August 12, 2013
On this evening, downtown Saint Paul’s biggest attraction was not the Children’s Museum, the Capitol or the Science Museum. No, it was the giant Idaho potato sitting on a 53 foot trailer in front of Xcel Energy Center.
Truth be told, it’s the reason I rode downtown. In the 30 or so minutes I hung around the potato, a couple of dozen folks, including a uniformed postal worker and several families, came by with quizzical looks on their faces and cameras in their hands.
“It’s a beautiful night to gaze upon a potato.” Holly, Como Park, Saint Paul
Holly and Todd (last name withheld at their request) of Como Park were driving home from dinner when they noticed the potato and stopped to check it out. Their amusing banter began almost instantly. Holly’s first question to me was, “Do you want me to be a tater commentator?”
Todd explained their motive for shooting pictures of the prodigious potato. “I have a buddy from the Marines that is from Idaho and I’m always giving him crap about Idaho. Especially Larry Craig1 and everything else and what better thing than to get a commentator on the potato. “
Todd and Holly have excellent rapport, finishing each others’ sentences. One exchange went like this:
Todd. “ it’s not a real potato. “
Holly. “Somebody went up and scratched it.”
Todd. “And they were disappointed I think.”
Holly’s final comment, “We only have eyes for that potato.”
The idea of the giant potato, according to www.BigIdahoPotato.com is to raise awareness and money for Meals on Wheels, a non-profit that delivers meals to the homes of seniors and some senior centers.
Two blocks west of the temporary resting spot for the potato and its 18 wheeler is the intersection of West Seventh and Chestnut.
What is now formally called Cossetta Alimentari but is still known to locals simply as Cossetta’s, is 102 years old. The Italian restaurant and market completed a $10 million expansion and renovation this year. The expansion stirred up lots of controversy because the City of Saint Paul provided $1.175 million in forgivable loans for the project.
Moving south and west I approached the historic Irvine Park neighborhood, the only remaining frontier neighborhood in Saint Paul. John Irvine and Henry Rice platted the area in 1849, six years before Saint Paul became a city. Eight of the homes still standing in the Irvine Park Historic District were built before 1853 and many of the others were built by 1890.
While nice for a time, the 1920s marked the beginning of a precipitous deterioration of the neighborhood. A 1930s housing report said the neighborhood “…takes in the less desirable rooming-house district,” according to “The Street Where You Live: A Guide to the Place Names of St. Paul” by Donald Empson.
By 1979, a whopping 96 percent of the Irvine Park housing was classified as “substandard”, leading city officials to plan to bulldoze the area and construct high-rise apartments.
A concentrated effort by resolute area residents and others forced the city to reconsider and then scrap the idea. A restoration plan led to the renovation of many historic homes, the demolition of some and relocation of others to Irvine Park. In 1973, much of the neighborhood was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, signaling success of the gutsy, unwavering preservationists.
Alexander Ramsey, Minnesota’s first territorial governor and second governor of the state, had a lavish home constructed in 1868 on Exchange Street. Among the accoutrements Ramsey added to his home were hot and cold running water, gas lighting and hot water radiators (all considered luxuries at the time.) Anna Ramsey, the wife of the governor, went to New York in 1872 to shop for furnishings for the house. According to the Minnesota Historical Society, which owns and operates the Ramsey House, she was so successful that her purchases filled two box cars!
Ramsey’s legacy is mixed-he’s likely best known for being the first governor to offer the services of troops for the Union Army for the Civil War. Ramsey also was deeply involved in the forced relocation of the Sioux (Dakota) Indians of Minnesota. Ramsey called for them to “be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state.” One of the best places to get more information about Alexander Ramsey, his family and home, is through a tour of the Ramsey House and at the Minnesota Historical Society’s website at http://collections.mnhs.org/governors/index.php/10003972 and http://www.usdakotawar.org/history/alexander-ramsey .
A gallery of Irvine Park sights. Click on any image to enlarge.
It was close to 8:30 and the cloud-filtered sun was dimming. That meant time to start my trip home. However John Gladis was moving a recycling bin in front of his McBoal Street house as I rode up. We struck up a conversation, the topic of which turned to his duplex. When John bought the house in March 2005 its condition was “Terrible. I brought it back to life. It was neglected for, I would say, easy 50 years.”
John told me he’s been fixing up the house almost since he bought it and he’s still not done. He estimates he’s put in between 2400 to 2600 hours (300 to 325 days at eight hours per!) renovating the house. He called it, “Ten rooms of gutting and starting over.”
Ramsey County records indicate 170 McBoal Street dates to 1900, but John suspects the house was built in 1882 based upon relics he found during renovation. “I have an old summer kitchen which still has the chimney there. Underneath that I found, I don’t know if you call them artifacts or just things, but I found an old pop bottle…and then an early toothbrush I think was made of bone.”
John brought me into his home and showed me the results of his vast remodeling project. He talked about the neighborhood and Irvine Park, the park. “It’s pretty tight-knit. Everybody walks. Irvine Park helps. It’s not a child’s park; it’s for the adults. It’s just where you can meander and gather. It’s just kind of a little gathering pot for the whole little neighborhood. “
I burned more than an hour of John’s time, it was approaching 10 p.m. and dark, so now it really was time to go. I normally don’t ride this late so I texted my wife, Sue, to let her know all was well and that I was on the way back. I wasn’t surprised to find she wasn’t the least bit worried. I come back from nearly every ride excited to share with her my latest sagas and tonight was no different.
Click the link to see a map of the ride into Downtown and Irvine Park.
1Larry Craig was a U.S. Senator from Idaho when he was arrested in a men’s room sex sting at Twin Cities International Airport in June 2007 and charged with disorderly conduct.