Summit Avenue has long been St. Paul's most famous street, a gathering of money and mansions that forms the great central spine of the city.
But Summit isn't quite the avenue it used to be. Before urban renewal and freeway building upended great swaths of St. Paul, Summit was actually about seven blocks longer than it is now.
Today, Summit ends at Kellogg Blvd. as a one-block stub of street near the Cathedral of St. Paul.However, it once extended all the way to Robert Street in downtown St. Paul.
Starting at Kellogg, the lost stretch of Summit followed a northeasterly course through the site of the Minnesota History Center, past the I-94 corridor and then along the southern edge of the Minnesota State Capitol Mall near 12th Street. After a northward jog at Wabasha Street, it continued along what is now Columbus Avenue before finally ending at Robert.
Because it was home to only a few mansions or other buildings of architectural note, this portion of Summit is barely remembered today, and only a few photographs document its existence.
Even so, it was an interesting street, densely built up with three- to six-story apartment buildings, fourplexes, duplexes, boarding houses, a handful of mansions and several small commercial buildings. As such, it was a typical mixed-use street of the kind once common on the periphery of downtown St. Paul.
A memorable hotel
One of the lost avenue's most prominent landmarks was the six-story Marlborough Hotel, built in 1894 where the History Center now stands. Designed by St. Paul architect Hermann Kretz, the Marlborough was among the large residential hotels that formerly clustered around the western and northern edges of downtown St. Paul.
These six- to eight-story hotels, equipped with elevators, first appeared in the Twin Cities in the late 1880s. Before then, most multiple dwelling units took the form of two- or three-story row houses.
Cut through by central light shafts that gave it an hourglass shape, the Marlborough (demolished in 1972) featured a deep-set arched entrance and numerous bay windows. Inside, there were mosaic floors and hallways lined with marble wainscoting, but the apartments don't seem to have been especially large or fancy.
Kretz, incidentally, enjoyed a long and lucrative career in St. Paul. His firm designed numerous other buildings, including the Angus Hotel (now Blair House condominiums, built in 1887) at Selby and Western avenues.
Mansions and mixed-use
The only real mansion district on the lost portion of Summit was between St. Peter and Wabasha streets. There, along the north side of the avenue, a row of four big houses stood behind low retaining walls.
By far the largest and most splendid of these homes was built at 11 Summit in 1891 by Peter Pfeifer, who died just a year later, leaving him little time to enjoy his new mansion.
According to a recent study of the mansion prepared by house historian Kathleen Kullberg, Pfeifer was one of many German immigrants who found success in St. Paul in the 19th century. He arrived in the city in 1857, launched a dizzying variety of business enterprises, and eventually constructed a substantial stone building called the Pfeifer Block (long gone) at 8th and Wabasha streets, just a few blocks from his future residence.
Unfortunately, good images of Pfeifer's brownstone mansion (razed in about 1952) are hard to come by. But a photograph taken around 1900 shows that the home was Romanesque Revival in style with a hint of Germanic flavoring.
The high-roofed mansion, which in 1925 became the offices of the Minnesota Public Health Association, included round towers at the front and rear, an ornate central dormer and a broad front porch. It was quite the house, one that wouldn't have been out of place on today's Summit Avenue.
Past Wabasha Street, Summit Avenue East (as it was designated) skirted the south edge of long-gone Central Park, now the site of a parking ramp behind the Centennial Office Building. Among the distinctive buildings on this part of Summit was another work by Kretz, the three-story Elsinore Apartments, built in 1893 and demolished in 1960.
Nearby was a real rarity — the only industrial building to ever overlook Summit. Built in 1913 for the St. Paul Bread Co. (later known as the Taystee Bakery, among other names), the four-story structure was on Minnesota Street between 12th and Summit. Long an olfactory attraction in the Capitol area, it was razed in 1990.
What happened to the lost section of Summit is in many ways the modern-era story of downtown St. Paul, which saw virtually all of the old semi-residential districts on the edge of downtown destroyed beginning in the 1950s.
The State Capitol Mall started this great urban reorganization and scores of old buildings were swept away to make room for the mall and new government structures around it.
The construction of I-94 and I-35E, beginning in the 1960s, led to even more destruction as well as the moving, renaming or elimination of many historic streets.
By the early 1970s, the old downtown stretch of Summit was gone, a reminder that not even St. Paul's most renowned thoroughfare is immune to the roiling forces of urban change.
Larry Millett is an architecture critic and author. He can be reached at larrymillett.com.