Biking Through St. Paul History

Posted on: October 5th, 2007 by Margaret Foster 1 Comment

St. Paul CathedralIt was a typical Foster moment. The bike tour was going well until my National Trust tote bag got stuck in my front tire. Wedged, really, so that the wheel wouldn’t budge. These things happen, and mostly they happen to me.

Our three-hour tour had started off innocuously enough: A bunch of us gathered in front of the clanging Cathedral of St. Paul, chose our rental bikes (somehow I ended up with a lavender Schwinn), and began cruising down Summit Avenue. Our tour guide, Mike Koop of the state historic preservation office, led the peloton, and, I’m sorry to admit, I frequently brought up the rear. Yes, in a group of thirty- to sixty-somethings, I was back there with our “sag wagon,” a white pickup poised to sweep up the wimps.

Our first stop was a Cass Gilbert-designed mansion, and, as our group was staring at it, a friendly Midwesterner (so redundant) came out and shouted, “Do you want to come in?” But we rode on, stopping at a park with a fountain designed by the sculptor who did the Rockefeller Center Prometheus, a church-turned-theater that the city had snatched from the jaws of demolition, and two colleges, where impossibly young kids flopped in the grass, studying in the October sun.

Fall leaves crunched under our tires as we whizzed toward the Mississippi River to St. Paul’s mid-century-modern mecca. Impossibly, 1950s Colonials line one side of Stonebridge Boulevard, while the other is a bold row of mid-century-modern houses. Imagine the neighborhood gossip. With such a difference in taste, I doubt one side of the street ever spoke to the other.

But we didn’t just learn about history and architects on our ride. Mike pointed out a couple of new blips in the avenue’s stately chain, including a house under construction on Summit—an infill project on the large lot. If Frank Lloyd Wright called Summit Avenue “the worst collection of architecture in the country,” I wonder what he’d say about the new additions.

Although our pace was less Lance Armstrong than Grandma Moses, I was ready for a water break by the time we zoomed across the river to Minnehaha Park and Falls in Minneapolis for some Dasani. Starting our route back, we lost a team member on the way to a flat tire. At least the sag wagon gave him an easy ride home.

I only wish I had had a flat tire. Instead, with only five minutes to go, I somehow embedded my bag into my tire and skidded to a stop in the middle of the street. You know how when you trip, you immediately look around and feel relief that no one saw you? Yeah, that didn’t happen to me. Three people came to my aid, picking up all the spilled contents of my bag and tsk-tsking until I freed my tire. Those friendly Midwesterners, they get you every time.

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One Response

  1. Madeline Douglass

    October 5, 2007

    Note to Maggie…if anyone from a Summit Avenue mansion
    asks “Do you want to come in?” the answer is YES!!!!!!!

    Lots of wonderful houses on Summit Ave in St. Paul.
    Railroad baron James J. Hill’s rambling redstone manse
    on the bluff is owned by the MN historical society and
    open to the public.

    My fave is the Italianate (some say haunted) Burbank Livingston
    Griggs House…the small portion of the house is open once and
    awhile to the public it is breathtaking!

    Conference sponsors Richard and Nancy Nicholson have restored
    TWO Summit Ave mansions…