If its pioneer past isn't enough to save St. Paul's Justus Ramsey House from demolition, local preservationists are hoping the cottage's recently discovered role in the history of the city's Black community will be.
For about 40 years, from the 1890s to 1933, the 170-year-old limestone cottage on W. 7th Street was home to railroad porters and hair stylists, shopkeepers and domestic servants, according to research compiled by local historian Jim Sazevich and preservation champion Tom Schroeder. The area was the center of Black life in St. Paul before the ascent of the Rondo neighborhood.
"St. Paul's history can't really afford to lose another piece that was a part of Black history," said Frank White, who grew up in Rondo and has spent years collecting information about St. Paul's early Black residents. "Early on, this area was where Black people got off the trains or off the river boats and asked, 'Where can I live? Where would I feel welcome?'"
Built in 1852, the cottage now on the patio of Burger Moe's restaurant is the oldest and one of only a handful of surviving limestone structures in St. Paul. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as well as state and local registries.
But recent damage prompted Burger Moe's owner Mojtaba Sharifkhani — who uses the name Moe Sharif — to apply for a demolition permit in June. Neighbors and preservationists scrambled to save the cottage and have requested an environmental assessment. They say they hope a deal can be reached with Sharifkhani, who has previously declined to comment.
Mike Zipko, a spokesman for Sharifkhani, said in an email Thursday night, "We are unaware of this information, but Moe is committed to working through the process to resolve concerns related to the building and to look at the best way to address its future."
Because the Justus Ramsey House is a local Heritage Preservation site — on the state and national historic registers — demolition permits must go to the Heritage Preservation Commission for review and approval. A hearing has been scheduled for Nov. 7.
New history uncovered
Built by Justus C. Ramsey, brother to former territorial governor Alexander Ramsey, the cottage was never actually home to the less-famous brother.
But census records, city directories and property records show that for nearly 40 years, "almost all the residents of the house were Black men, women and children," Schroeder wrote in a recent email to neighbors and fellow preservationists.
From 1900 to 1908, the cottage was the home of George and Maria Perkins, former slaves from Kentucky and South Carolina. George Perkins worked as a porter for the Pullman Co., headquartered in Chicago. Later, the small two-room home served as a multi-tenant boarding house.
In 1919, Lizzie Battles operated a hairdresser's and millinery shop in a wooden building in front of the cottage while also calling the cottage home.
"In 1920, John and Daisy Hall lived there with Hattie Key, her daughter Lucy, and Hattie's sister Alice Dean, all from Alabama, together with a lodger from Tennessee named Charles Alexander," Schroeder wrote. "Hattie and her daughter both worked as maids, Charles as a construction worker, and John Hall as a butcher for Armour Packing Co."
He continued: "But by far the most common occupation of residents of the Justus Ramsey House was that of porter — specifically, railway porters," listing the names of nearly a dozen other Black men who lived in the cottage at some point.
At the center of St. Paul's Seven Corners area, the tiny stone house helped attract other Black families and businesses to the neighborhood, White said. The family of local baseball star Billy Williams lived at 160 W. 9th St., half a mile from the Justus Ramsey House. Philip Reid, who founded the St. Paul Colored Gophers baseball team, owned a saloon in the area at 3rd and Cedar.
In 1933, the city vacated the south 20 feet of W. 7th Street, obliterating many of the homes and businesses on that side — including the shop that once supported Lizzie Battles, Schroeder wrote. "But for decades before that time the Justus Ramsey House's residents were a vibrant part of a larger Black community that flourished around the 'Uptown' neighborhood centered near Seven Corners, just prior to the boom of the Rondo neighborhood to the west."
Searching for compromise
White said he hopes a compromise can be found and "that Moe gets what he needs, and history gets what it needs."
Mary Cutrufello, executive director of the W. 7th Street/Fort Road Federation, said she and her board want to see the house preserved — on its original site if possible, disassembled and moved elsewhere if not.
"We understand it's complicated," she said, adding that saving the house is critical to preserving a richer and more complete history of St. Paul.
Cutrufello said she also hopes some kind of agreement can be forged that saves the cottage.
"Those are stories that don't often get told," she said of the cottage's Black history. "I hadn't heard about that. I didn't know that. But it makes the building even more worth saving."