Elyse Jensen grew up in Baudette, Minn., near Lake of the Woods, attended the University of Minnesota-Duluth, playing rugby and studying International Business. But it wasn't until moving from a mid-century rambler in Roseville to the historic Wright-Prendergast House in St. Paul's Irvine Park neighborhood a decade ago that a love of historic homes and a passion for preservation took root.
Eye On St. Paul recently sat down with Jensen, a board member for Historic St. Paul and one of a cadre of preservationists who helped save the historic Justus Ramsey House from demolition, to talk about how that passion has grown.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Q: Tell me about your house.
A: We bought it in 2013 and we were just in awe of the place. We were very naive. It was built in 1851. Nothing had been updated since 1905. We had no idea that in 10 years, we still wouldn't have painted one side of the house.
Q: Immediately after you moved into this house, what did you learn?
A: I work full-time in wealth management. I learned that this is hard. We learned that it is really hard to bring these old houses up to code compliance when you're working with original materials.
Light fixtures are a prime example. None of them are UL compliant. I can update them with modern sockets and modern wiring and proper gauges, but because we don't have that manufacturer's UL stamp on it, it can be hard to meet code.
We have tapped the knowledge of a lot of neighbors, a lot of preservationist professionals. There's kind of a collection of people willing to help me out.
Q: You don't have any professional historic preservation background?
A: Absolutely none. I have to give a shoutout to my mom and dad, but specifically to my mom. We stopped at every historic home in every community we visited as a kid. They've bought a house in Irvine Park too, just down from us. And they're restoring it. We always talk that maybe in 100 years, people will maybe realize this mom and daughter were restoring homes at the same time in the park.
Q: You were involved in the Justus Ramsey House drama. Why was saving it so important?
A: First and foremost, I am very grateful and excited to be raising kids in a generation where there is more attention being paid to what came before us, the wrongs of the past and how to use restorative justice in economic policy. A lot of that is exploring the history of these places, not just from the lens of the ruins of white men, but frankly from the people who supported the community, who put their backs into it.
Q: What have you learned from the fight?
A: We have a mayor who is incredibly outspoken ... who was intervening and circumventing a lot of what national Department of the Interior standards require, that the [State Historic Preservation Office] requires. And it's very frustrating. Why do people want [to save] the unique properties? Because there are so few of them.
Q: Why do people find it so easy to toss aside that history?
A: Frankly, a lot of our systems are broken. Everything from our banking system to our appraisal system. Every bank reinforces our throwaway society. Things are on 20-year iterations. And you don't see a lot of these old buildings turn over as often. So you don't have as many comps as you do with open greenspace in Woodbury.
And that's fine if people want to live there. We just love old places. I would rather save something that was built by a craftsman 100 years ago, keep it out of the landfill. I don't know, we're just wired like that.
Q: Is this neighborhood so preservation-minded because it has so many old homes, or does it have so many old homes because it's preservation-minded?
A: Ah, chicken or egg. I don't know the answer to that. A lot of people just assume, especially contractors, we're all wealthy. But a lot of the neighbors bought their houses for near nothing. They were teachers, nurses, everyday people who just put in sweat equity on their homes and were rewarded because it was an historic district and rose in value.
Q: After 10 years, what do you have left to do?
A: Oh my gosh. It's never-ending.
We still have one of the sides of our house to paint. Unfortunately, the people who live on the riverfront in the condos have to look at our scary old haunted house still. [She details other do-it-yourself projects, from painting to refinishing floors to rewiring light fixtures.]
Q: Do you ever have moments where you say, "Ah, I'm buying that condo in Mears Park?"
A: Oh yeah. Maybe not the condo in Mears Park, but definitely have had many moments. At one point, we ended up getting pre-qualified and shopping for something else. I had just had enough. And all we kept finding were bigger versions of our same problem.
Q: Do you feel responsibility to preserve your home's history? Pressure, too?
A: Yeah, sometimes. We try to be an example because we are transparent about the things we are doing. And part of the reason we have our social media page is because I want a record in 100 years of our family doing the work. I think it would be kind of cool to look back and see our kids playing with the tools.
Q: How long do you see yourself staying in it and what do you hope the next owners do?
A: I hope they have to carry me out of that thing.