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On the site of the Minnesota Judicial Center just across Cedar Street from the State Capitol, there once stood a great ramble of a house that started out small before being transformed into one of St. Paul's most eye-catching Victorian spectacles.

It was also a house with intriguing connections to a famous brand of shovels, a stock farm on what is now St. Paul's East Side, a wildlife refuge near Forest Lake and the 2019 hit movie "Knives Out." (OK, that last one is a bit of stretch, but bear with me and I'll explain.)

The house was built in the early 1850s for a transplanted Yankee named William L. Ames, who did not arrive in St. Paul as a poor man. He was the second-youngest son of Oliver Ames Sr., founder of the enormous Ames Shovel Works in North Easton, Mass.

The company was a 19th-century colossus, its sturdy shovels used by everyone from Union soldiers during the Civil War to the laborers who built the Union Pacific Railroad (a project in which Ames' two older brothers, Oakes and Oliver Jr., played crucial roles).

William Ames, meanwhile, operated an iron works in New Jersey before heading west in pursuit of new opportunities. He was in his late 30s when he landed in St. Paul around 1850. The young city had only a thousand residents then, but Ames obviously liked what he saw because he decided to settle in St. Paul and build a house for himself and his growing family, which would eventually include eight children.

I've found no photographs of the house in its original form, but it must have been a fairly simple Greek Revival affair, judging from what can be seen of it in pictures taken after it was remodeled and greatly enlarged by a new owner in the 1880s.

The Ames-Lamprey house, pictured in 1917.
The Ames-Lamprey house, pictured in 1917.

Minnesota Historical Society, Star Tribune

Ames himself had quite a career in St. Paul. He became involved in insurance, manufacturing, railroading and other enterprises and also served a stint in the state's legislature. But he was best known as the owner of a stock farm where he raised short-horned cattle in what is now the Hazel Park neighborhood of St. Paul. Much of the farm, which ultimately encompassed 1,200 acres, was later redeveloped as a residential neighborhood by Ames' oldest son (also named William).

In a chatty history called "Pen Pictures of St. Paul" published in 1886, Thomas Newson described Ames as a "good-sized man," who, as he grew older, "became corpulent. He was a person of considerable force of character; very affable; an excellent entertainer."

Ames died in 1873 and his house was acquired around 1880 by a prominent lawyer named "Uri" (short for Uriah) Lamprey. Born in New Hampshire, Lamprey had arrived in St. Paul in the 1860s, married a daughter of pioneer settler Louis Robert (after whom Robert Street is named) and quickly built a highly successful legal practice.

I suspect that Lamprey bought the Ames property because of its marvelous site overlooking downtown and the Mississippi River Valley. The house itself, however, probably held little appeal for Lamprey, since its chaste Greek Revival style was considered passé by the 1880s. And so, like people today who acquire small houses on prime lots only to tear them down to build something far larger, Lamprey decided he wasn't interested in keeping the Ames house as it was. But instead of demolishing it, he built up and around it.

By the time Lamprey finished his mighty makeover in 1883 (at a cost of about $12,000 according to one newspaper account), the house had been transformed into the very definition of a Victorian "pile." It sported a three-tiered porch, a tower rising to five stories and a merry profusion of gables, dormers and balconies adorned with plenty of gingerbread. The spacious interior included a 25-by-34-foot dining room as well as an attic ballroom.

The remodeled house acquired a new setting in 1884, when Lamprey and wealthy homeowners nearby donated land for the creation of Central Park (where the Centennial Office Building and its parking ramp now stand). Their motives weren't entirely altruistic, however, since their primary goal was to replace a jumble of unsightly buildings that clogged their views with a more attractive green space.

The park became the site of the first Winter Carnival Ice Palace in 1886, and Lamprey and his family would have had front-row seats to watch its construction.

Like Ames, Lamprey was an outdoorsman, and in about 1881 he purchased a large property between Howard and Mud lakes near the city of Forest Lake. There he established a club for waterfowl hunters. Later, Lamprey helped write and pass many of the early Minnesota laws governing hunting and fishing.

As befitting Lamprey's role as pioneer conservationist, his old lakeside property is today the Lamprey Pass Wildlife Management Area, a state-owned refuge.

Lamprey died in 1906 and his house came down nine years later to make way for a new building for the Minnesota Historical Society. Like the Ames-Lamprey House, the society's building was later remodeled and enlarged, and it's now the Minnesota Judicial Center.

A scene from “Knives Out” with Jamie Lee Curis, Christopher Plummer, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon and Jaeden Martell.
A scene from “Knives Out” with Jamie Lee Curis, Christopher Plummer, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon and Jaeden Martell.

Claire Folger, Lionsgate Films, Star Tribune

Oh, and about "Knives Out." Some scenes for the movie were filmed in the library of the Blanche and Oakes Ames Mansion in Massachusetts, built in 1910 by William Ames' great-nephew and his wife. I'm guessing the Ames-Lamprey mansion in St. Paul would have made an equally fine setting for a mystery movie had it somehow managed to survive to this day.

Larry Millett is an architecture critic and author. He can be reached at