May 10, 2022
Lexington-Hamline, Hamline-Midway, Frogtown, North End
The practical purpose of garages — storage — means they play a secondary role to the importance, look and care of the accompanying house. An exception of sorts is the one-time garage behind 1277 Dayton Avenue. What was most likely the original garage has been beautifully converted into what appears to be a hangout, guest area, auxiliary dwelling or office area. Elements like the hip roof and four-paneled wooden replacements for the main doors on the side maintain the original look, while the French doors facing the house tips us off at the new use.
Wedged between Central High and Concordia University, Dunning Sports Complex has been a place for neighborhood kids to play ball since at least the 1930s. On previous rides I’ve checked out most of the facilities at Dunning, including Toni Stone Field with its interesting and important backstory. Until this ride, I’d not paused to really look at the small reddish building which abuts Jim Kelly Baseball Field.
The two plaques on either side of a boarded window were worth a closer look. The more interesting one indicated the concession stand pays homage to Jimmie Owens, a dedicated volunteer with Midway Baseball.
Roaming north about 10 blocks I turned onto Edmund Avenue and went east, where a story presented itself. Attached to the retaining wall along the sidewalk at 1119 Edmund Avenue were eight chalkboards of differing shapes and sizes, each surrounded by a gold or silver frame of varying sophistication. Colorful drawings, wordplay and surveys filled the chalkboards. I knocked on the door to get the story, which homeowner Cindy Jiban amicably provided. The idea, said Cindy, came about five years ago. “It started as a need to cover holes in this ugly cinderblock wall.”
Cindy saw a similar idea online and thought, “This can’t be that hard.” So she got sheetrock and painted it black, and found frames at Goodwill. Then more painting. “Sprayed them all, put them together, and put them out with a bunch of chalk.”
Cindy and her husband started by drawing on the chalkboards but wanted more interaction from passers-by. They got it by posing questions like “What’s your favorite part of Thanksgiving meal?” on the chalkboards.
“Add a word” is another popular posting. That’s where Cindy or her husband jot part of a sentence on a chalkboard leaving room for others to add words to change the meaning of the sentence.
The Covid pandemic sparked a creative poll of sorts. “We had some humor in the beginning of pandemic about where are you going for spring break? Like the kitchen, the backyard, you know, that kind of thing.”
Other times, they’ll use the chalkboards to see how neighbors feel about a topic, which Cindy calls, “taking a pulse of the neighborhood.” Here’s what we’re somethinging [sic] right now. Like here’s what we’re using for a mask, and have people interact with ideas like that.”
Big events, said Cindy, have led to spontaneous comments on their chalkboards. “When the Philando Castile verdict came out we all kind of wondered how big that was going to explode. This was a little bit of an outlet. We don’t really lean into initiating political [comments], but some of that stuff kind of shows up.”
Even after about five years, the popularity of their chalkboards endures. Cindy told me her husband works from the house and he notices people stop to draw and write. “A lot of people pick up chalk and interact. Kids come by and just go crazy. As you can see, some of them go off the chalkboards and right onto this cement, which is great.
“The short kids, where this is a little bit at their height, they will do stuff that is just charming all the time,” added Cindy. “Sometimes people will just color in the whole thing and then someone will come along and use the negative space with their finger.”
A couple of media outlets came upon the wall of chalkboards bringing some notoriety to Cindy and her husband. “The AP came and took some pictures early on in the pandemic when we had some funny stuff about spring break. And then MPR’s webpage showed that. So we felt like we were momentarily famous and that was that is exciting.”
The impact the wall of chalkboards has had on the neighborhood became apparent when Cindy attended their precinct caucus. “Everybody’s introducing themselves and we say what block we’re on. And then we say, ‘We’re the chalkboard house.’ And people say, ‘You’re the chalkboard house!’ The people who are walking anywhere in this zone will have noticed and interacted probably.”
I continued the ride east to Milton Street where I turned north toward Frogtown Park and Farm. It was my first visit since before the 2015 opening of the former Wilder Foundation property. Back then, the hilltop was a mix of trees and a meadow and immediately south, a couple of Wilder Foundation buildings bordering a driveway and parking lot.
Before looking at the farm and park, here’s a glimpse at the layered history of this parcel of land.
For hundreds, and likely thousands of years, Native peoples, including the Dakota, undoubtedly hunted and gathered, and may have lived on the land now called Frogtown Park and Farm. After all, the Mdewakanton band of Dakota village of Kaposia, below the bluffs of today’s Indian Mounds Park, was less than four miles from here.
The 1837 treaty between the U.S. and Dakota ceded land east of the Mississippi River, effectively ending Native control and use of this land. The first recorded ownership of the hill and surrounding land by a European-American came in early in 1851, according to a history of the farm and park by Bluestem Heritage Group.
The Sisters of the Good Shepherd purchased the hilly rural property in 1882 and began construction of a building for girls and young women who were orphaned, homeless or “incorrigible.” That building, The House of the Good Shepherd, opened the next year. The building was expanded in 1887-88, and as more girls came to The House of the Good Shepherd in the 1890s and 1900s, dormitories, a laundry, school and a couple of houses were built.
By the 1950s, the Sisters primarily served girls with emotional problems rather than prostitutes. As with the rest of society in the late ‘60s, the Sisters relaxed rules the under which the girls lived, allowing off-campus field trips and attending prom. In 1967, after more than 80 years of living on the Frogtown hill, The Sisters of the Good Shepherd and about 80 teen-age girls moved to a new campus in North Oaks. The imposing Gothic structure was demolished and the 13-acre property sold to the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation. Wilder owns a couple of buildings along Lafond Avenue, just south of the park and farm but moved the headquarters to Lexington Avenue, just south of University, in 2007.
The name makes it obvious there’s a farm here. What isn’t as evident is the extent and variety of farming techniques demonstrated, and the mission of what is among the largest urban farms in the country.
Other than the name, some benches and picnic tables, the acreage atop the hill is primarily farm-related. The east end of Frogtown Park and Farm is where you’ll find most of the traditional park amenities — the playground, open space and a winter sledding hill.
I glanced back up the hill for another look at Frogtown Park and Farm from Victoria Street and Blair Avenue and then road east along Blair.
The arrangement of some houses in the 400 block of Blair is unusual, possibly the result of teardowns in the 1970s. On the north side, all but two of the homes date to the early to mid-1970s, while across the street, nine of 12 are from that time span. The other three were built between 1887 and 1900, according to Ramsey County records.
Blair Avenue dead-ends five blocks east, where it meets Galtier Street and the diagonal Como Avenue. The 653 Artist Lofts, named for its address, 653 Galtier, is a building that has served several purposes since its 1910 construction.
Constructed for Guiterman Brothers men’s apparel company and expanded in 1917, the crash of the stock market forced a retrenchment.
In 1929, apparel manufacturing was replaced by printing press fabrication. Brandtjen & Kluge built presses and printing press accessories here for 50 years. Six-fifty-three Galtier was used for storage for several years after Brandtjen & Kluge moved out. A group of nonprofits led by Artspace converted the decaying former factory into Frogtown Family Lofts, 36 ‘affordable’ two- and three-bedroom apartments, in 1992. Residents of what is now named the 653 Artist Lofts have an art gallery, community gardens and a children’s play area.
Just down the block, the 1886 Victorian beauty at 285 Lafond Avenue (below) jumped out at me. I can imagine the hours of fun playing hide-and-seek with all the great hiding spots, particularly on the third floor.
Elfelt Street is named after brothers Abram and Charles Elfelt, who in 1849 opened Saint Paul’s first dry goods store, according to The Street Where You Live by Don Empson.
The section of the North End I rode includes some of the city’s oldest working-class homes. Many were built in the1870s and ‘80s and housed German, Austrian, Swedish, and later, Eastern European immigrants working for nearby railroads and supporting businesses. Two examples are the significantly changed 110 and 112 Atwater Street, which were constructed in 1889.
Hardenburgh Place is a one-block long street between Atwater on the north and Lyton Place on the south. Before this ride, not only had I never set foot (or bike) on it, I’d never heard of it. The Street Where You Live says It is likely named after Peter R. Hardenburgh, an early developer in Saint Paul.
Subsequently, the ride continued on Sycamore, immediately west of Rice Street. This long block — the equivalent of four average blocks — is a bit weary, underused and ready for redevelopment. The semi-industrial space featuring warehouses is surrounded by large asphalt lots. Most notable is two separate lots dotted with school buses.
Back in Frogtown, I made a second, and much quicker stop at the Frogtown Park and Farm. This was really a pause, primarily to take a shot from the northern entrance along Minnehaha Avenue.
My last stop of the ride proved to be the most delightful of the day and one of the best ever. The astonishing gardens of 1322 Sherburne Avenue and the incredible woman behind them are nearly beyond words.
Dynamic, bubbly, spirited, enthusiastic, fascinating, kind, gregarious, artistic, creative. Pick your favorites and they describe Iris Logan, who is fondly known around her neighborhood as “Miss Iris.” I quickly learned that Miss Iris is an engaging storyteller who punctuates her compelling stories with genuine laughter.
Miss Iris came to the Twin Cities from little Coffeeville, MS (about 90 miles south of Memphis, TN) in 1971, following her uncles and many of her siblings, who all followed her grandmother. “So when each one of us kids graduated from high school, we came up here because down there in our small hometown, there was no jobs.”
The 10th of 16 children, Miss Iris facetiously described her place among her siblings. “I’m 10. I’m not the Bo Derek 10 but I’m 10.” She told me, laughing earnestly.
Miss Iris started her stylish garden and sculpture gallery innocently in 1974, about a year after moving into her Frogtown home. “I started small and then my daughters wasn’t into mowing and I couldn’t do it all because I worked full-time and part-time. So then my gardens got bigger and then I did my boulevard.” Years later, at the request of a couple of neighbors, she expanded the garden into their yards.
She has dozens of plants, including daylilies, tulips, peonies, daffodils, Solomon’s Seal, and several hosta varieties in her yard. But to my eyes, all were eclipsed by the vibrant tile mosaics and other works of art.
Miss Iris got very animated when we talked about the abundance of rocks in her garden. “I hand-hauled each one of my rocks in here! All these rocks — except that big boulder there,” she said, pointing to her right. “When they was building that apartment building, that actually came out of the sand.”
Miss Iris has collected hundreds of sizable, weighty rocks as she’s grown her garden. These rocks decorate the garden borders, surround her sculptures and other art, and a few of the larger ones became canvases for her intricate tile creations.
I asked Miss Iris to explain how in the heck she managed to gather so many cumbersome boulders. “If you’re driving and you’re a rock person, always have you a pair of gloves and a two-by-four. ‘Cause you just be amazed at how you can roll it up on that two-by-four.”
Cost is one reason Miss Iris started gathering rocks. “That’s ‘cause I couldn’t afford to have those fancy retaining walls and stuff. So I used the natural rocks from the earth.”
Along the Mississippi River, Miss Iris told me, is her absolute favorite place to collect rocks, but not the only spot. “If they was digging up a highway, I’d always ask the guys if I could get the rocks and they said, ‘Sure!’ And if they was doing any street diggin’. I like to go into the different composts [sites] and walk in the woods and I find a rock. I just have to have the rocks!” And she laughed about her intense commitment to rock collecting.
The most challenging item she procured was a massive concrete parking lot bollard. It took one friend, one stranger and one neighbor to help her get the unwieldy pillar from an empty lot into her car and onto the boulevard in front of her house. Where it landed that day many years ago is where it sits today.
While not as prolific a rock gatherer as she was, Miss Iris still collects. “Sometimes I do, but my body makes me pay for it. I see one, I go grab my neighbor.
“‘Want to go for a ride today?’
‘Oh Iris, what are we haulin’ today?’
‘Shut up, come on!’
That’s what I do,” she explained and laughed enthusiastically.
Miss Iris also has a nice display of driftwood she picked up along the Mississippi. Getting the large pieces home took some planning, she said. “Got to figure out the back roads. Cause half of it sticks out of my truck. I don’t want the police to stop. So I try to keep some red in the car to tie it on the end.”
When the weather is warm, chances are good you’ll see Miss Iris working on her gardens. “In the summertime, I get up usually like 5:30. I’m out at the crack of dawn. My dad got up early too, and I never got away from it and I can be out here all day and not realize what time it is.
“I’m only in the house in the evening when the sun go down. I’m in and I work on my mosaic as I’m watching TV.”
Art, according to Miss Iris, came naturally to her. “I’ve always been crafty with my hands so I learned how to do mosaics by the books and self-taught, and I created all my mosaic objects in my garden.” Miss Iris pointed out that she hand-cuts each tile for the mosaics.
Over the hour or so we talked, the conversation strayed from gardening and art to our formative years. I learned Miss Iris is the daughter of Mississippi sharecroppers, that as a young girl, she picked cotton, and she clearly recalls racially segregated drinking fountains and laundromats. Miss Iris expressed great dismay over me not knowing how a branch of my family got to Milwaukee.
Returning to the gardens, Miss Iris mentioned they draw many visitors who often take photos. Children like to look around for turtles, birds and other animal decorations in the garden.
“One couple told me this is better than going to Como park. I said, ‘Get out of Dodge! Get out of here!’ She says, ‘Everything is so beautiful!'”
If you visit just one place, make it 1322 Sherburne Avenue to gaze at Miss Iris’s superb garden and maybe you’ll have the good fortune to meet Miss Iris too.