August 15, 2021 West 7th/West End, Highland Park 9.3 Miles
(click on any image to enlarge)
Today I took a short ride confined to Highland Park and a very small slice of the western West 7th/West End neighborhood. Despite living in Highland for more than 35 years, I’ll occasionally come across something novel on a ride there, and this was one of those days.
Palmer Place is one of the uncommon Saint Paul streets that looks like an alley. Come to think of it, Palmer Place, lined with garages and the back of a couple apartments, also acts like an alley. As far as I can tell, the difference is that streets have names and alleys rarely do.
This three block long street runs parallel to West 7th until Milton Street, where it becomes the alley between Otto Avenue and Eleanor Avenue.
My quick dalliance with Palmer Place complete, I scooted back to Highland Park and to a couple who have the coolest garage in Saint Paul.
I first met Nancy and Vic when I stumbled upon their garage sale while on a bike ride in early June 2020. As I browsed, we talked about the plethora of unique items they had for sale. The conversation swung to the garage itself and how it became a neighborhood gathering place shortly after they moved in more than 20 years ago. They talked about the fascinating decorative elements that far and away surpassed any I’d seen in a garage.
Of course I wanted to do an interview and take photos immediately. They, however, cheerfully deferred until the garage sale was over and the garage back into its typical organized state. Between the COVID pandemic and commitments Vic and Nancy had, my return visit materialized about 14 months later.
It didn’t take long to notice that Vic and Nancy had a nice way of cooperatively telling stories, with a smooth back-and-forth, like relay runners passing a baton.
They are the second owners of their home and the story started before the house was built in 1950. Nancy began, “The story that we heard was part of this area was still not developed. And he (original owner Charlie Coe) knew a guy who had purchased this vacant land, who was down on his luck and needed some money. So Charlie made him an offer and that’s how he wound up with this piece of property.”
Charlie lived in the house for 51 years – until 2001. Vic and Nancy bought the home when 93 year old Charlie moved into an assisted living facility.
Vic picked up the story there.“ There was a lot of stuff left behind, inside and out. We told them, ‘We’ll take it as is but we want a deal.’ We got a deal,” continued Vic. “We went through and it was amazing, some of the stuff we’d find.”
Nancy added, “He asked his kids to clean out the house. And they did. They put it in the garage and walked away.”
Vic elaborated, “They took what they wanted and left the rest in the garage.”
Then Nancy said, “ That’s what got us interested in the previous owner’s background was because a lot of stuff was left behind.”
That “stuff” included photos, a plat map of the property, blueprints, the $11,000 contract for construction of the house and my favorite, the receipt for a case of dynamite and blasting caps the builder used to blast a hole for the basement. “They didn’t have Jack hammers,” Vic told me, “so they blew a hole for the foundation, because you go down 18 inches and it’s nothing but solid stone.”
Nancy talked about some newspaper articles featuring Charlie that she and Vic discovered. “He (Charlie) started the Gopher State Jim Beam decanter collector club. So these things (newspaper clippings) that were left behind talked about his hobby of collecting Jim Beam decanters.”
“We’ve got pictures of nothing but shelves from floor to ceiling, with decanters,” Vic explained, “And he sold it, from what we were told, for about $150,000. He took the $5,000, $6,000 ones with him when he moved, but he sold the rest of his collection.”
With the back story complete the three of us sauntered to the alley and the spacious three-stall garage. “It’s the Back Lot Bar,” said Vic, who also dubbed it “The neighborhood rec center.”
I gazed about but couldn’t decide where to look because of the immense assortment of relics vying for my attention. I wondered aloud how Vic decided what to display in the garage. He replied matter-of-factly, “This is stuff I couldn’t bring in the house,” and then he laughed.
Vic went on to chronicle how he acquired some of the assorted artifacts on display.
With so many compelling possessions, I wondered if Nancy and Vic each had a favorite. Vic answered without hesitation. “The ping pong table that my dad got as a bonus in 1960 from work.” This memory evoked such strong emotions that Vic paused several seconds to collect himself. “Instead of taking my mom out to dinner, he told his boss, ‘Nope, I want a ping pong table for the kids.’ So, what is it? 60 years later I still got, and we use it,” he paused, chuckled, and added, “for garage sales.”
Obviously, the ping pong table will always have great meaning to Vic. “We played on that for many, many years. And the fact that it’s survived. It went from Amityville, New York to Burnsville, Minnesota and now St. Paul, Minnesota. Sixty-one years.”
For Nancy, it’s a couple of beer signs that belonged to her grandmother. “The Hamm’s signs probably have the most embedded nostalgia.” Nancy grew up in Albany in Central Minnesota where the Cassava Days festival was held each summer. Albany firefighters built a beer garden of two-by-fours which were covered by the Hamm’s scenics.
Nancy continued, “When the party was over, Hamm’s didn’t want them back, but my grandmother wanted them. Over the winter months, when she couldn’t be out gardening, she would cut all these pictures out from Field and Stream and Boy’s Life and Cabela’s and catalogs like that. And she glued all of these scenic extras onto this Hamm’s backdrop.”
Then Nancy changed the direction of the discussion. “We tend to be repurposers, scavengers, dumpster divers…” Vic continued, “for stuff that our parents didn’t want anymore and none of the other brothers or sisters wanted it.” Nancy again. “So we hate to throw stuff away, especially if it’s fun stuff, nice stuff.”
This was the first of many mentions Nancy and Vic had about reusing or repurposing items. Turns out Nancy was practically born into reuse. “My parents grew up in the depression and with my dad being a blacksmith and then a farmer, we used everything, and he was capable of fixing almost everything.”
Vic added, “For me, it’s because I spent all my money on booze and partying.” And then he laughed heartily.
You can’t talk about their garage without talking about the neighbors, according to Nancy. “When we moved in, we found that it was a pretty tight knit neighborhood and I don’t want to say cliqueish ’cause it wasn’t. A lot of us were approximately the same age, give or take 10 years. Some of the neighbors had been here longer than us and they would hang out and have bonfires and drink beer and they just opened their arms and invited us into their little community.”
Vic said theirs was the largest and neatest garage, so it became the favored gathering place, even for some holidays. “Easter Sunday one year we had a table all set up with nice China and candelabra and the neighbors came over.”
Over the years the garage parties have decreased in number, according to Vic. “We’re all getting older. You’re 20 years older.” But he added, “There’s still the impromptu. All of a sudden they hear music or hear sound, next thing you know, you got five, six people over.”
In recent years Independence Day has become big at the Backlot Bar. Vic began, “4th of July, nobody else is doing anything. So that’s hanging out over at Vic and Nance’s and grill up some burgers and brats.”
“I call it the orphan 4th of July,” Nancy continued, “So anyone who’s not gone out of town to their cabin gets invited over to hang out.”
As they made improvements inside their home, Vic said he and Nancy also improved the garage. “Little by little, it came to be what you see today. It wasn’t like this when we bought the place.”
Two of the three garage stalls were empty but the third was chock full of stuff – racks with lumber and steel and an old wood stove – that Charlie left behind.
One big improvement came from adding air conditioning in the house. Vic ran a natural gas line to the garage and installed the old house furnace there. “If I have a project, ” Vic said, “I can heat it up in the wintertime and work out here, or have everyone come over with something to eat and spend the day and party.”
Among Vic’s numerous additions are insulation, the sheetrocked ceiling, a pull-down ladder and ceiling fans.
There are three big old tube televisions hanging in the garage. Vic and Nancy hung onto them because of their mantra to reuse things. But it’s not all old technology because Vic connected streaming devices to the TVs.
There’s another room attached to the back of the garage (facing the house) that we checked out next. It’s a refuge, Vic told me, for when conditions aren’t good for hanging out in the main part of the garage. “When it’s buggy out at night or getting too hot and muggy, we just come in here, crank up the AC.” As you’d expect, it’s also a furnace.
Nancy and Vic rescued many, if not most of the furnishings – the couch, a chair, tables, a rug, and more – in this room from going to a dump. Vic did the electrical, sheetrock and finishing work, including the tongue-and-groove ceiling, in the room.
With the tour of the garage interior complete we went outside to the part of the yard Nancy dubbed the Corral. The Corral is a triangular garden framed with fencing that decades ago was gates for the vault at the First National Bank in Downtown Saint Paul!
Of course, the obvious question was how did they get the old First National Bank vault gates? Nancy told me they came from her brother who “decided he no longer wanted them. He was going to scrap them. And I said, ‘If you’re going to scrap them anywhere, scrap them in my general direction,’ And that’s how we acquired this piece of history.”
Now, being bank vault gates, they weighed a ton – almost literally, so Vic and Nancy brought in a cherry picker and some heavy duty logging chains to get them in place.
A fountain prominently placed on the patio is another hand-me-down from Nancy’s family. “Vic, just few months ago, completely redid it, rewired it, new lighting, a new pump, and it works like a charm. It’s been in my life as long as I can remember; loved going to Grandma’s house and listening to the fountain.”
At this point Nancy and Vic unexpectedly invited me into their home for a tour of their decked out basement. Turns out it also has museum-like character.
At the bottom of the stairs is a dazzling ruby red bar with matching stools, a Mid-Century Modern masterpiece that is the focal point of the basement. Nancy told me, “So much of Highland was built post-World War II; a lot of houses built in the 1950s, and this was vogue. A bar and the checkered floor in your basement. So I’ve seen a lot of houses that had a bar in the basement, but most of them were big enough for three people to stand at. So yeah, this is a big bar.”
Although original to the home, Vic said they’ve updated the bar. “We put the mirrors and the glass shelves up. Otherwise it was just the brown chipboard all back there. It was just dark.”
Vic paused briefly and added, “It’s nice to look at; a pain in the ass to clean. But I wouldn’t know, would I?”
“No, you wouldn’t,” Nancy quickly replied, followed by a quick chuckle from Vic.
Nearly all the myriad tastefully displayed keepsakes are meaningful to Nancy and Vic.
When we left the basement and went back to the patio I realized we talked and toured for two hours! It surprised me that the time had passed so quickly.
In writing this post I revisited Vic and Nancy’s interview and the photos I took. It reminded me how much I enjoyed meeting and laughing with them, hearing their interesting stories and getting to view their fascinating keepsakes. Now I’m trying to come up with a way to move them and their garage to the block on which I live.
Click on the map below to see the route of this ride.