Irvine Park is a charming, quiet historic neighborhood that sits in the shadow of the Cathedral just west of busy downtown Saint Paul – and its notable homes are the jewels in its crown. The Wright-Prendergast home is now home to Elyse Jensen’s young family, including an imposing Great Dane/Lab mix named Alexander Ramsey after Minnesota’s first territorial governor whose home was across the park.
Jensen has lived in the historic house for six years. “We’re only the third family owners – it hadn’t been sold since 1905,” she explains. It’s one of the oldest houses in Saint Paul and has avoided the fate of many other historic properties that have been moved from their original locations. Built in 1851, the home was “originally a cottage or country home because this was the country back then,” Jensen says, as the hum of the buzzing West 7th Neighborhood and nearby stadium waft in the background.
Redesigned in 1906, the house is filled with fixtures that were brought from the Norman Kittson Mansion, which sat in the current location of the Cathedral of Saint Paul. “The mercury mirror, Georgian marble fireplaces, the light fixture was in a box in the attic when we moved in,” Jensen says, describing the items that she believes were originally from the other mansion.
Elyse’s love of history extends to chairing the Historic Saint Paul Board on top of restoring this important home. They’ve done a lot of the work themselves along the way. “This has been my pet for the last couple of years, evenings spent on a ladder with a lot of paint. We have completely restored it ourselves, along with recasting our plaster. We’ll see how long it lasts!” She adds that she and her husband had to become DIYers because they couldn’t afford to hire someone to restore the large home.
One of the most ornate and valuable rooms is home to her young kids’ Lego collection. It has an incredible stained glass window with special protection. “She has tempered glass over her, so she’s safe from indoor ball games,” Jensen explains. “[The woman depicted in the window] is an allegory for industry and she once hung over the staircase at the Norman Kittson Mansion.”
The art likely has a connection to the most important artist to work on the State Capitol: John LaFarge, who created the vibrant restored murals in the historic Supreme Court Chamber. “We’ve been told by many academic sources that she’s a LaFarge, very early. He was likely working on side projects while he was working on the Capitol. The style is very consistent with LaFarge’s work,” Jensen says. The window is worth about half of what they originally spent on the entire home, which was a bargain of around $400,000 due to the rough condition of the aging beauty.
But what lies beneath these old buildings is often even more interesting and unexpected. “We like to fantasize about this being our Prohibition-era hang-out someday,” Jensen says as we descend into a fascinating stone basement that characterizes much of the historic neighborhood. “It feels like you’re in a castle down here,” she whispers as we reach room after room full of surprises. On one wall, there were rotten shelves and behind that they were shocked to find an old safe nestled into the stone. When they first made the discovery, “We had our phones rolling, but there was nothing in it – we did not find the family jewels.”
There’s more to see winding through the stone passageways underground. “So the front of the house goes up and you’re actually looking at the road right now, this is the oldest part of the house and there’s another sunken area. There’s another foundation up there that has stumped all the local historians, we’re not sure. We like to speculate that it was an underground railroad. I mean who knows?” Jensen recounts.
In addition to reporting on Minnesota politics and policy, Mary Lahammer has also uncovered a slew of stories about historic properties, including the State Capitol as it underwent a $300 million top-to-bottom renovation. Step inside the sweeping project in the documentary Restoring the People’s House.
A stone’s throw away from the Wright-Prendergast home sits the Waldmann Brewery, the oldest surviving commercial building in the Twin Cities. Discover more about the historic building’s amazing restoration.