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Summit Avenue History: The Story of Saint Paul’s Famous Street

Summit Avenue History: The Story of Saint Paul’s Famous Street

Did you know Summit Avenue is home to the longest stretch of Victorian-era homes in the United States? Learn more about the origin and preservation of this iconic Saint Paul street.

In a mere 4.5 miles on Summit Avenue, you’ll find an astounding 373 of the street’s original 440 homes. The historic area’s mansions represent a variety of architectural styles, including the longest preserved stretch of Victorian-era homes in the nation.

Here's more history and information behind the famous homes on Summit Avenue:

the original six houses on Summit Hill

Summit Hill's original six houses can be seen up in the background (Photo: MNHS)

Edward Duffield Neill's Home: The First on Summit Avenue

The first home on Summit was owned by Macalester College founder, Reverend Edward Duffield Neill, in 1855. Neill originally came to the Minnesota Territory from Pennsylvania in 1843 to start First Presbyterian Church and House of Hope Church. By 1859, there were six more houses on Summit—owned by William and Angelina Noble, Henry F. Masterson, Henry Mower Rice, Henry Neill Paul and David Stuart. Of the original six, the Stuart House at 312 Summit is the only one still standing today.

the oldest remaining home on Summit Avenue

312 Summit Avenue: Summit's oldest remaining home

Construction Boom & the James J. Hill House

Residential development slowed during the Civil War but gained momentum again in the late 1880s when downtown Saint Paul became more easily accessible via cable car (and later by streetcar). Summit Avenue was a fashionable choice for men who made fortunes in the merchant industries of railroads, dry goods, and lumber. This Victorian-era was the first of two massive periods of construction with houses built in the many architectural styles of the time, including Queen Anne, Romanesque and Tudor Revival. Homes were notably designed as long rows instead of compact blocks, making Summit an ideal promenade street for horse-drawn carriage rides. Rampant residential development also made the neighborhood a preferred spot for colleges and religious institutions—Macalester College, St. Paul Seminary and the College of St. Thomas were all founded on Summit in the late 19th century.

The most famous home of the first construction boom was the James J. Hill House, built in 1891 in Richardsonian Romanesque style on the site of the original Edward Duffield Neill home. Owned by James. J. Hill, a wildly successful railroad tycoon known appropriately as the “Empire Builder”, the 36,000-square-foot property at 240 Summit Avenue spans three lots and touts arguably the most desirable view of downtown Saint Paul. The 42-room mansion cost Hill $931,275 at the turn of the century (equivalent to around $22 million today). Now owned by the Minnesota Historical Society, tours of this National Historic Landmark are available to the public for $10 (Wednesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m.; Sunday, 1-3:30 p.m.).

James J. Hill House on Summit Avenue

240 Summit Avenue: The James J. Hill House

Hill’s descendants continued the family legacy on Summit with magnificent mansions of their own. Hill gifted his son, Louis, the Georgian Revival-style property at 260 Summit Avenue in 1902. Not impressed with the size, Louis built a large addition on the front in 1912. The most notable feature of the “Dove Hill” house is a white-columned portico on the front of the house, reminiscent of a Southern plantation. The last of the Hill mansions on Summit was also a Georgian Revival, built in 1928 by Hill’s daughter Rachel at 336 Summit Ave.

260 Summit Avenue: "Dove Hill"

The Roaring Twenties & the Second Housing Boom

Rachel Hill’s house was just one of many mansions constructed during the second major Summit Avenue housing boom of the Roaring Twenties. Homes of this era were built in a variety of styles, including Beaux Arts, Tudor Revival and Georgian Revival. Saint Thomas More Catholic Church (formerly the Church of St. Luke) was also completed in the 1920s, another still-existing example of Romanesque Revival architecture. By the time the Great Depression halted this second growth period, there were 440 glorious homes on Summit Avenue.

Today, 373 homes remain—a retention statistic unheard of across American architecture. Summit Avenue wasn’t unique in its time, every major city once boasted a mansion-lined promenade street. For New York City, it was Fifth Avenue. For Chicago, Prairie. Even Minneapolis had its own in Park Avenue. The difference is, while those cities tore down their iconic structures to make way for new developments, Saint Paul preserved its historic avenue and created guidelines for new construction in the area—including converting rambling mansions into multi-unit condos and apartments.

599 Summit Avenue: F. Scott Fitzgerald House a.k.a. "Summit Terrace"

Though not all were spared, Saint Paul was able to preserve an astonishing number of residences on Summit. The last architecturally significant home to be demolished, the Amherst Wilder mansion, was 60 years ago in 1959. Since then, two national historic districts have been established on Summit—the Historic Hill District and the West Summit Avenue District. It is also part of two Saint Paul Heritage Preservation Districts—Summit Hill and Ramsey Hill—and was named one of the 10 Great Streets in America by the APA.

Amherst Wilder Mansion

226 Summit: Amherst Wilder Mansion (the last Summit house to be torn down in 1959)

Summit Avenue's Fun Facts and Haunted Houses

  • Summit’s grand houses were not appreciated by all. Saint Paul’s own F. Scott Fitzgerald once described the stretch as “a mausoleum of American architectural monstrosities”, and world-famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright dubbed it “the worst collection of architecture in the world”—Wright was not fond of copying European styles and sought to create uniquely American architecture.
  • Selby-Dale became home to the Twin Cities' first cable car station in 1888. It was installed because the hill from downtown to the Cathedral of Saint Paul was too steep for horse cars. The station and surrounding area quickly became a commercial hub for Saint Paulites. By the early 1900s, the cable cars had been replaced by electric streetcars—the lower entrance to the tunnel for the Twin Cities Rapid Transit streetcar remains intact just below the Cathedral of Saint Paul. 
  • Famous architect Cass Gilbert (who also designed the Minnesota State Capitol) designed eight houses on Summit. The most famous is the Lightner House at 318 Summit, which is widely regarded widely as one of the best-constructed homes on the avenue. Gilbert was a childhood friend of one of Minnesota's most prolific architects, Clarence H. Johnston, who also designed many homes on Summit. Though not on Summit proper, you can actually stay the night in one of Johnston's homes (built in 1900) a few blocks away at the Historic District Bed & Breakfast on Ashland Avenue.
  • Of the original homes, 294 Summit is the only wood house—built by a lumberman, of course. It was owned by A Prairie Home Companion’s Garrison Keillor between 2008 and 2018.
  • Sinclair Lewis, a Nobel Prize-winning Minnesota writer, once lived in the Italian-Renaissance house located at 516 Summit. 
  • Some of the wealthiest Saint Paulites actually lived a few blocks south off Goodrich Avenue and Crocus Hill, a more secluded drive boasting the best hilltop views of the city. Frank B. Kellogg, winner of the 1929 Nobel Peace Prize, lived in this area at 633 Fairmont Avenue. 
  • You may have heard the ghost stories about the recently closed Forepaugh’s Restaurant in Saint Paul's Irvine Park, but Joseph Forepaugh’s notorious legacy also extends to Summit. After the hanging of his supposed mistress at the Irvine Park mansion, Joseph and his wife moved to 302 Summit Avenue in 1891. A year later, Joseph shot himself dead in the woods near Selby and Hamline.  
  • The Griggs mansion on 476 Summit is rumored to be one of the most haunted houses in Minnesota. The four-story Victorian mansion was built by Civil War veteran and grocery king Chauncey Griggs in 1883. The most notable ghost is said to be that of a young maid who hung herself from the fourth-floor landing in 1915, and some claim the mansion is haunted by at least six entities. 

National Historic Landmarks

  • James J. Hill House, 240 Summit Avenue
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald House, 599 Summit Avenue
  • Frank B. Kellogg House, 633 Fairmount Avenue (just south of Summit)

National Register of Historic Places

  • Cathedral of Saint Paul, 201 Summit Avenue
  • Burbank–Livingston–Griggs House, 432 Summit Avenue
  • Minnesota Governor's Residence, 1006 Summit Avenue
  • Pierce and Walter Butler House, 1345-1347 Summit Avenue
  • Dr. Ward Beebe House, 2022 Summit Avenue

How to Tour Summit Avenue

The best thing about Saint Paul’s most iconic street is it can be explored on any given day—by foot, car, bike or guided tour. For a more hands-on informative experience, the James J. Hill House is open for public tours Wednesday-Sunday ($10) and the Minnesota Historical Society hosts 90-minute Summit Avenue Walking Tours between May and September ($14). Plan your visit around the Summit Hill Association's biennial Summit House Tour for the opportunity to get inside some of these magnificent homes (next tour will occur Fall of 2020).

Whether you take a tour or go it on your own, we hope you’ll share your Summit Avenue explorations with us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter using the hashtag #MYSAINTPAUL!