July 2, 2019
Merriam Park, Hamline-Midway, Como Park
Living in the southwestern part of Saint Paul means I almost always have to ride east, north, or both, and so it was with this ride to the Como Park neighborhood.
From the pause at Charles, I moved almost due north along Fry Street until Taylor Avenue, where I was effectively forced to turn. (Fry dead ends half a block north of Taylor because of the limited access to Pierce Butler Route.) Pedaling one block east on Taylor and I was at Snelling, one of the busiest and least bike-friendly streets in Saint Paul.
At this spot there are two options; take the risk of riding north on Snelling a half mile from Taylor over Pierce Butler and two sets of railroad tracks to the off ramp to Como Avenue, all the while vehicles whip past at 40 miles per hour or faster. The much safer but much longer route is to continue east along Taylor to Hamline Avenue, then go north over multiple railroad tracks to Energy Park Drive, east to Lexington, and north to Como Avenue. The disadvantage is its about a mile and a half longer.
Being inherently lazy I chose the Snelling Avenue route, which I regretted almost immediately. It’s an understatement to call vehicles whipping past at 40 miles per hour or faster disconcerting. I considered taking pictures to better explain this but knew the smartest move was to get off Snelling as quickly as I could.
After exiting Snelling I continued north a couple of blocks to Canfield Avenue and the former Sholom Home East campus that is in shockingly bad condition. The four building complex occupies one city block and one of Saint Paul’s most visible corners on Snelling Avenue, across from the main entrance of the State Fair. Since the building at 1554 Midway Parkway closed in 2009 several plans for redevelopment have fallen through because of a lack of funding. Meanwhile, the building falls apart and the grounds deteriorate, victimized by neglect and vandalism.
A couple of nearby streets are peculiarly aligned. McKinley Street is basically a two block-long thoroughfare and it’s the northern block that is oddly laid out. As you can see below, McKinley actually becomes Holton Street at Arlington going north for 10 or so feet and then reappears to the west. McKinley then diagonally bisects the block bounded Holton on the east and Pascal to the west.
This street alignment resulted in the unusual intersection and signage.
Many of Saint Paul’s residential lots, including those in this chunk of Como, are between 40 and 50 feet wide and about 125 feet deep. A couple of the homes here use their lots in unusual ways.
There is nothing like an unanticipated discovery. Today it was seeing the copula-capped Victorian house on Nebraska Avenue at Sheldon Street. Oriented with its front porch and entrance facing the east rather than Nebraska Avenue like neighboring homes, 1371 Nebraska, best known as the George H. and Hannah Hazzard house for its original occupants, was built about 1870. With its semicircular gravel driveway, large lot and abundant trees and bushes, I felt as if I had been transported to a country farmstead.
Circumstantial evidence suggests the front yard once went all the way to Hamline Avenue, a plausible explanation for its east-facing entrance. Plat maps available online don’t confirm this but I found a late 18th century reference to the home’s address being 1511 Hamline Avenue North.
The property and the Hazzards have a long and fascinating history. Accounts differ as to whether Hannah (Hoyt) Hazzard and George Hazzard were given the 10 acre property by Hannah’s brother, Lorenzo Hoyt, as a wedding gift or if they purchased it from him. No matter, George and Hannah Hazzard had the Italianate-style house built in the early 1870s. At that time the house had neither electricity nor indoor plumbing. (Both were added to the home in the early 1900s, long after Hannah and George had moved out.)
After the Hazzards sold the home, it changed hands several times through 1950, according to the May 1991 Park Bugle newspaper. Como Presbyterian Church bought the home in 1950 and used it until 1958 when it was sold again. About 1951 the Hazzard Home was split into a duplex and gradually deteriorated. And so it went until 1986 when, according to the Park Bugle, Ron Dorumsgaard and his mother purchased the property. They returned the Hazzard home to its original glory, ultimately turning the Victorian beauty into the Como Villa bed and breakfast. Information is sparse, but some years later, Como Villa closed and the home was again sold.
As for Hannah (Hoyt) Hazzard, she (and her brother Lorenzo) were part of the influential early Saint Paul Hoyt family, from which Hoyt Avenue draws its name. Their father, Benjamin Hoyt, was a Methodist minister, one of the founders of Hamline University and a prolific investor in real estate.
George Hazzard, meanwhile, had a far less comfortable upbringing than his bride. After the death of George’s father when George was four, his mother raised him and his two sisters. The family moved to Winona, then the Taylors Falls area where George formed a deep love of the Dalles of the St. Croix. Several years later they relocated to Saint Paul, where George found success unloading barges.
As a Ramsey County commissioner he led the effort to create a permanent spot for the Minnesota State Fairgrounds on what was the county’s Poor Farm.
Hazzard’s lobbying efforts resulted in the creation of Interstate State Park in both Minnesota in 1895 and Wisconsin in 1900, protecting in perpetuity his beloved Dalles of the St. Croix from development. Interstate State Park was the first in the nation operated by two states.
Back on the road, or street, Sheldon Street to be precise, was a garden loom, something that was unknown to me prior to this stop.
I continued the journey south on Sheldon which ended at Frankson Avenue. Taking a right on Frankson I almost immediately came upon a grand fence that framed a luxuriously landscaped yard.
I’ve included many gardens in the blog because of the nearly endless variety, style and quality of the plots. From the sidewalk the view of this yard at Frankson and Hamline was even more splendid, bursting with color from many dozens of flowers precisely placed in gardens and pots around the yard.
Marcus Phelps-Munson was playing with his dog Nina as I peered through the fence. I complemented him on the garden and we chatted for a few moments before he invited me in for a tour.
Marcus and his husband Gary Epperley, moved from Sammamish, Washington, near Seattle, to 1359 Hamline Avenue (at Frankson) in the winter of 2017 when Gary took a job at 3M.
Not surprisingly, Marcus said the cold winter is the biggest difference between Washington and Saint Paul. Gardening here, said Marcus, is another thing he and Gary are adjusting to. “We needed to live through it for a year to see what was there (in the yard.) This year we’re slowly doing some things.
“There was arborvitae all around the perimeter (of the yard.) But a dog does not respect arborvitae, especially on a main road where people go biking by or walking by with all their dogs. She would want to run out and say hello to everyone.”
Marcus solved the problem by designing a wooden fence with alternating panels of solid and lattice, which replaced the arborvitae in September of 2018. “This allows us to be out here and just like when you went by, interact with the neighborhood, still be in our yard, but be able to talk and invite people up.”
“I love the neighborhood,” continued Marcus. “The people out here are even friendlier than they were out in Washington, which is nice. Gardening was a little easier out there and I’m learning what you can grow and what you can’t grow.”
Marcus likes to push boundaries with his gardening. “I’ve always had a certain amount of zonal denial. We’ll try to grow things there that you can’t. A lot of the older homes have a small sunroom that is part of the house. I utilize that room to overwinter a lot of different things and started some seeds in there too.”
Marcus explained, “We have some large purple datura and brugmansias that I’ve started from seed. I collected those brugmansia seeds when we went to France last year. We stopped at a park and in that park was a beautiful brugmansia plant that had some seed pods hanging off of it. So I collected a seed pod. I started those seeds this year and the plants are out here.”
One of the plants that Marcus and Gary brought from Washington is Bergenia. “It’s common name is pigsqueak because when the leaves rub against one another they make sort of a squeak. This variegated version we found when we were out plant hunting when we lived in Washington state.”
“A lot of times when I get plants. I will leave them in their pot and move them around prior to planting. It’s so much easier to move it when it’s still in the pot. So I get a feel for where it wants to be. It lets me know if it’s happy there. You listen to the plants, they’ll tell you.”
Marcus strives to layer plants from front to back, with different height plants and to maximize blooms throughout the growing season.
A major draw for Gary and Marcus they live across Hamline Avenue from Como Park. It didn’t take Marcus long to find the Como Conservatory, from which he’s gotten plants. “They periodically will sell different plants that they’re getting rid of. They have a really nice bromeliad collection that in the winter, they tend to thin out. They’ve grown beautifully, and naturally they spend the winter inside. Some people like to summer on the coast. Well, they summer out here on the patio.”
Despite the proximity of their house to Como Park and Zoo, it’s rare for Marcus or Gary to hear much from either. “We do hear the occasional sound from the amusement park. Sometimes you’ll hear the kids squealing which is kind of nice.”
“In winter if I’m out here, I will hear people taunting the wolves because the wolf enclosure is directly across. In fact, we can see them from our living room in the winter because the trees have dropped their leaves.”
Right now the yard is more about work than leisure, according to Marcus. “Once we get things a little bit more established and down then yes, we’ll spend some more time on the patio.” But he added, “Sundays, we open up a bottle of wine and we’ll sit out here on the swinging bench and enjoy the area, talk with people as they go by.”
Marcus got the gardening bug when he was young. His first gardening memory is from when he was about five and living in West Palm Beach, Florida. “I wanted to put a little garden in the backyard and I dug out a small patch of dirt back there. I remember that I had planted lima beans up against a cyclone fence that the neighbor had so it was a perfect thing for lima beans to climb on and they did very well. Why I planted lima beans I have absolutely no idea because it’s one of the very few things I really don’t like!”
While taking their gardening seriously, Gary and Marcus have added a touch of frivolity to their garden – in the form of dinosaurs.
The dinosaurs started by accident about 12 years ago. The way Marcus explained it, on a trip to one of the islands off the Washington coast, he and Gary stopped at an old-style drug store. “They had this fantastic heavy-duty, quality dinosaur. So I bought that and I thought it just looked wonderful in the garden.” Since then, on their yearly vacation, he or Gary will add another dinosaur to the herd.
As for enhancing the already amazing garden, Marcus has plans. “I would love to put in a small pond feature or waterfall. Something I had in my head was perhaps putting something at the corner of the garage having some boulders right up to the corner and then some of these bricks. Having them sort of splay out, intermixed with the boulders. So it looks like over eons and centuries the boulders were taking back the area and just pushing out from the garage.”
Marcus and I exchanged a couple of emails after our July 2 meeting. He very kindly set aside three plants for me. I am very pleased to say that all three are doing well (thanks to my wife’s green thumb.)
Note: This is where I usually post a link to the map of the ride. However, due to what most likely was operator error, the GPS recording of the ride is unavailable. I am in the process of recreating the route and will add it later.