For more than a decade, the name Joe Landsberger has been synonymous with the West End Neighbors Garden Tour.
As founder of the fundraising tour that has drawn hundreds each year, Landsberger has been a staunch advocate of what is one of Minnesota's oldest neighborhoods. The tour, which spotlights residential gardens between downtown St. Paul and Fort Snelling, has been a way to educate others about the neighborhood.
"It was basically developed because West 7th kind of had a bad rap," Landsberger said. "In the '70s, they were going to bulldoze Irvine Park and the neighbors banded together and said no and started redoing their houses, and that has spread throughout the neighborhood.
"So we thought a garden tour is something we could do to introduce people to the beauty of the neighborhood and the river and the connection to history."
In the home and garden he shares with partner Steve Shimer, it's clear that Landsberger lives the philosophy of connection — to nature and art.
Shimer, who co-owned Gallery on Grand and Gallery on West Seventh in the early '90s, is the lead curator, while Landsberger, a retired web developer and educational/historical research writer, is the main gardener.
The two met more than 25 years ago when Landsberger was walking his dog across the High Bridge and the two crossed paths.
For more than a decade, they've lived in the St. Paul home Landsberger has owned for 40 years. Now, they're getting ready for their next chapter: moving to the house next door after just completing an extensive renovation there.
In 2010, Landsberger purchased the adjacent lot. For several years, he rented out the house. During that time, Landsberger, a self-taught gardener, worked on the yard, creating an extensive landscape worthy of a garden tour stop.
Creating a sanctuary
Known as the Leech Street Garden, the garden is Zen-inspired, with an 18-foot-wide red Japanese gate, called a torii, traditionally used to mark the entrance from the ordinary to the sacred space in a Shinto shrine.
The garden is a sanctuary of green, encompassing more than 100 trees, shrubs and ground covers, including rare varieties such as a star-shaped Armandii Snowdrift Clematis (the earliest bloom of the year), a wispy Chinese flowering chestnut and a large, magnolia-like calycanthus.
In the garden, Landsberger made room for an homage to his beloved neighborhood, including a bench made of materials salvaged from the old Schmidt Brewery. He also found material salvaged from the brewery to use as fencing.
Aging in place
In more recent years, Landsberger and Shimer have turned their attention from the garden to the rental house, a 1948 one-story rambler.
"We wanted something where we could age in place," said Landsberger, adding that in addition to accessibility, they wanted to implement sustainable, conscious design.
"It was an ambitious project and a total redesign," Landsberger said, "I kept some of the original rooflines, then built another story above it. We put in an elevator."
As with the garden, artful details are woven into the design of the house, which now boasts four bedrooms and four bathrooms. The exterior is clad in shou sugi ban siding. Inside, Shimer has curated collections of textiles, paintings and other collectibles in hallways and other gallery-like spaces. A restored antique trestle table serves as the base for the vanity in a bathroom.
A garden room features salvaged and repurposed tables using Mexican tiles as the tabletop. Other pieces include Chinese ceramics, Persian vases and paintings from Minnesota, Venice and Ukraine.
"The art is from all over the world," Shimer said.
Moving on, but never far away
These days, Landsberger and Shimer are busy settling into their new home. They also volunteer at Czech Hall, where Landsberger is the archivist and Shimer is the treasurer.
They plan to hold a garage sale in the fall, then sell their original home — a Victorian stick-style house with gables and a steeply pitched roof with overhangs.
The future of the West End Neighbors Garden Tour is uncertain. After 13 consecutive years, the tour went on hiatus in the 2020 pandemic. Landsberger has since decided to give up organizing the tours.
But he's proud of them, which introduced thousands of people to the neighborhood and raised money for the local district council. And he'd be happy to pass on the baton.
"This year nobody picked it up, but maybe next year," he said.