Sarah Kinney Sells History
Realtor Joan Johnson works out of the Crocus Hill office of Coldwell Banker Burnet on Grand Avenue in St. Paul. Not long ago, she had a client who wanted to see a condominium unit that had been carved out of one of the grand old houses in the Ramsey Hill Historic Preservation District, the neighborhood surrounding Summit Avenue as it runs west from the St. Paul Cathedral.
The listing agent was Johnson’s Crocus Hill colleague Sarah Kinney. Johnson asked Kinney to meet her and the client at the building to show them through it—perfectly commonplace. But Johnson, having worked with Kinney for more than 10 years, knew there would be nothing ordinary about it. Having Kinney show a property in Ramsey Hill is like bringing in Mark Twain to show a riverboat.
“We stood on the corner in front of the place for about an hour before we even went in to see it,” Johnson says. “Sarah knew the house before it had been converted to condos. She knew the history of the house, and the houses around it, and who a lot of the neighbors were. My client was absolutely enthralled.”
Kinney is a specialist. She is the office’s biggest producer in the Ramsey Hill district and the “go-to” agent for that area, Johnson says. Her knowledge of the properties—and their past and current residents—is unequaled.
Last year, Kinney sold a newly renovated Summit Avenue mansion to John Fallin, president of Feed Products North, Inc., of Maplewood. His agent, Krista Wolter, says that on the walk-through, Kinney was not only “extremely gracious,” but extraordinarily knowledgeable. How could Wolter’s client fail to be impressed that the house was designed in 1893 by Cass Gilbert, Minnesota’s most famous architect, for an attorney named William Lightner, and that it had just been lovingly restored by a prominent St. Paul couple who live right up the street and . . . well, there was the sale.
When Fallin and his children moved in, he wanted a priest to bless the home. He says Kinney was able to immediately arrange the ceremony with the perfect local priest. “And whenever we need to know who the neighbors are, she knows them—and their phone numbers,” Fallin says.
Kinney has lived in Ramsey Hill for more than 25 years. Johnson notes that one of her secrets is to “walk her dog through the neighborhood, which is the best way to get to know people.” But beyond that, Johnson says, Kinney “has become a keeper, in many ways, of the history of the individual houses. And she doesn’t just see them as houses.”
Kinney finds it magnificent that Ramsey Hill is the largest historic preservation district in the United States. On a slow car ride through part of it, her encyclopedic knowledge shows plainly, as does a deep affection for the history of the neighborhood and for the houses themselves.
Here on Holly Avenue, we see one of many houses in the district designed by Cass Gilbert. About 1910, Kinney thinks. Look at the size of it. Must be at least 8,000 square feet. Just beautiful.
Up here on the other side of Holly is the house where the playwright August Wilson lived in the 1980s. He used to walk around the neighborhood a lot.
Further down the block is a turn-of-the-century house that at some point before 1976, when the city’s Historic Preservation Commission was established to prevent such atrocities, got covered with aluminum siding. “People say, ‘Isn’t that a shame?’ But inside, this house has maybe the finest, most incredibly ornate woodwork in the whole area,” Kinney says. “Someday, they’ll take off that siding and it will be a stunning house.”
Now, here on Portland Avenue is where the late 3M heiress Sally Ordway Irvine lived. Yes, the Sally Ordway who founded the Ordway Center downtown. The house happens to be on the market now. The asking price is $2 million.
And here is Garrison Keillor’s big old house, the one he lived in until 2008, when he bought an even bigger one a few blocks away on Summit Avenue, St. Paul’s famous Mansion Row. In a few minutes, we’ll drive by the Summit Avenue place, a 9,000-square-foot Georgian Revival known as the Lindsay-Weyerhaeuser house. But for now, note that Keillor’s Portland Avenue house, built in about 1915, is the only known private residence in the area designed by Emmanuel Masqueray, the architect of the nearby St. Paul Cathedral. Oh, and “I just sold it,” Kinney adds, as if this were not nearly as interesting as the Masqueray angle.
She obviously could go on like this for days. Proceeding onto Summit Avenue itself near the cathedral, here, of course, is the gigantic, 32,000-square-foot, Romanesque bulk of the James J. Hill house, now a historical site open for public tours. The railroad baron’s mansion, begun in 1887, predates the cathedral’s beginnings in 1904. Legend has it, Kinney says, that the reason the cathedral was built across the street is because Hill’s wife was Catholic and he leaned on the archdiocese so she would have a short walk to church.
Next door to the James J. Hill, and second only to it in giganticness among Summit Avenue mansions, is the 25,000-square-foot Louis Hill house, built for a son of James J. With Kinney as realtor, the Louis Hill was bought in 2001 and restored to a single-family home by Richard and Nancy Nicholson. (See “Restoration Fever” sidebar.) During the filming of the movie A Prairie Home Companion, the actress Virginia Madsen stayed in its carriage house.
Next door to the Louis Hill is a red-brick mansion that Kinney is offering for sale as we speak. With 10 bedrooms and 10 baths, the 1884 Driscoll-Weyerhaeuser house is a steal at $1.9 million. It is not to be confused with Keillor’s 1919 Lindsay-Weyerhaeuser manse. For several decades, Summit Avenue was up to its hips in Weyerhaeusers, as lumber baron Frederick and his offspring snapped up a number of houses. The original owner of this one, newspaperman Frederick Driscoll, built the St. Paul Pioneer Press building. Then he left town, under some kind of cloud, she thinks. She can’t quite remember the story. It’s a good one.
In a slow but steady trend that began as early as the 1960s and has accelerated in the past 15 years, Kinney says, big Ramsey Hill houses that long were divided into apartments or put to other uses have been turned back into single-family homes. She could point to maybe a half dozen such conversions within the past five years.
Fallin’s Lightner house is one. Here is another recent example on Summit, a beautiful limestone mansion that was an apartment house “for at least 60 years.” Now a family lives there. Five kids, she thinks. Observe as a daughter of the house walks her dog up the steps.
Since Ramsey Hill became a historic preservation district in the mid-1970s, it has been verboten in most cases to alter the exterior appearance of houses. That rule preserves the character of the neighborhood, but it also freezes in place some curious anachronisms. Kinney points out the 1960s-style rambler built on Summit, across the street from the University Club, a few years before the preservation edict went into effect. Perfectly nice rambler, mind you. But now it’s just as officially “historic” as any Victorian built before 1900. Interesting, yes?
You are allowed to restore a historic house to its original appearance if you can provide photos or other documentation. Kinney points to a Summit mansion opposite the College of Visual Arts. At some tragic point in its past, the house was covered with stucco, rendering it “unbelievably ugly,” she says. Now the owners have re-sided it with shakes, as per historical-society photos from the 1890s. Lovely once again, it’s on the market for $1.88 million.
Speaking of mansions for sale, here just off Summit, on Grand Hill, is a real gem with an asking price of $1.7 million. It boasts an eight-foot skylight positioned atop an atrium such that light floods both the third and second floors. Now there was a turn-of-the-century architect who showed some real creativity. Oh, and also on Grand Hill, though not for sale, is this Cass Gilbert number that belonged to childhood friends of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Say, you know what else is fascinating? Let’s go see the giant carriage houses on Maiden Lane, right by the cathedral . . . .
In Kinney’s best year, 2005, she sold more than $39 million worth of real estate. When Coldwell Banker Burnet used to have an $11 Million Club, she topped that annual goal several times. After 30 minutes with her in Ramsey Hill, it is easy to see why. She never says a word against the neighborhoods or the housing stock elsewhere in the Twin Cities. But pretty soon, the idea of buying a big new house in the suburbs comes to seem like such a staggering failure of imagination that a person would be ashamed to do it.
Born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Kinney came to Minnesota to attend St. Olaf College. “I had a roommate from St. Paul, and I thought it was the most fabulous place I’d ever seen,” she says.
She became a special education teacher. She taught for 10 years, first in St. Paul, then San Francisco, then Grand Marais, where she and her husband also raised Siberian Huskies as sled dogs. She returned to St. Paul following a divorce, and decided to go into real estate.
She had no plan to specialize in historic houses. But in 1979, as a newly minted realtor, she went to work for Clapp-Thomssen, a venerable real estate agency in downtown St. Paul, before eventually moving to Coldwell Banker Burnet in 1986. A lot of Clapp-Thomssen’s clients had old houses. So it was by happenstance that “the very first house I ever listed was a historic house on Summit Avenue,” Kinney says.
She discovered a knack. “Going from teaching into real estate is kind of a natural segue,” she says. “If you like explaining things to people, then once you’re a teacher, you’re always a teacher.” This applies to real estate terms and contracts in general, but it applies in spades to historic houses.
In 1984, Kinney moved into one of five apartments in a historic house on the corner of Holly Avenue and Arundel Street in Ramsey Hill. She promptly fell in love with the house and the neighborhood. She bought the building in 1987 and still lives there today, as owner and landlord to four other tenants.
The fact that she stayed put for so long is actually pretty typical, she says: “This is a wonderful, vibrant neighborhood, and once people move into it they rarely move away. They might move to a bigger house, or they might get tired of a big house and move into a condo, but they stay around.” On a given day this June, only 14 single-family homes in the district were on the market. That is probably about average for the past decade, she says.
An official plaque outside the door identifies her own residence as the Max Toltz house, built in 1890. The plaque is wrong, Kinney says: Toltz, a civil engineer for James J. Hill’s Great Northern Railway, actually began construction in 1886.
She isn’t sure about the size of the house—maybe 6,500 square feet, she thinks—but its history is clear to her. It was divided into five apartments in 1909, which is earlier than most of the big Ramsey Hill houses underwent such conversions. In the 1960s, it was a notorious “hippie house.” She has it on good authority that the walls of her own ground-floor apartment were painted day-glo orange. Fortunately, nobody ever seems to have painted over the original oak woodwork.
Kinney bought her house in 1987 for $165,000. Today, that sounds like a steal, though at the time she was able to swing it only because the owners, knowing that she would care for and renovate it, allowed her to purchase it with a contract for deed.
But the low price also reflects a reality of these big old houses: To people who don’t love them, they look like white elephants, and have for the better part of a century. They are expensive to heat and a headache to maintain, even if they don’t require major renovations, as many do.
Kinney does not volunteer the information, but later confirms as a matter of public knowledge that the $2.15 million Garrison Keillor paid in 2008 for his Summit Avenue house still stands (as of late June) as the all-time record for a single-family dwelling in the city of St. Paul.
In places like Wayzata or Edina, $2.15 million for 9,000 square feet would be regarded as highway robbery.
So, historic mansions can be had for less than you might think. But they do hold their value. Kinney says that the Ramsey Hill market has been slow for the past two years, reflecting the general economy, but prices have held far steadier than in most areas. Historic houses recall the realtors’ clichÃ© about lakefront property, she says: “They aren’t making any more of them.”
Most Ramsey Hill houses that go on the market are publicly listed like any others. Only an occasional high-end property is sold privately, Kinney says. It seems to her that people who move to the St. Paul area from eastern states are more likely to be drawn to the Ramsey Hill area, while those from the West Coast gravitate toward newer houses in the suburbs. Beyond that, however, “I can’t pigeonhole my clients into any category except that they love old houses,” she says.
The reasons for that love are all over the map. Some are history buffs or fans of Victorian architecture. Others maybe had a relative in Chicago, say, who lived in a beautiful old house, “and they’ve always kind of wanted one like Uncle Joe’s.”
One major selling point for the neighborhood is its proximity to downtown St. Paul. “I can be in my seat at the Ordway Center 15 minutes after I leave my house,” Kinney says. “I mean actually in my seat. That means parking, walking across Rice Park, handing somebody my ticket . . . . It’s pretty amazing.”
Fallin, who moved to Ramsey Hill from the Stillwater area, says he was first attracted by that proximity rather than by any fondness for historic architecture.
“I wanted something closer to my business and to downtown, with a stronger sense of community,” he says. Then he got a load of the view across the Mississippi River valley—his is one of the dozen or so Summit Avenue mansions actually “on the bluff”—and he was sold. The fact that he gets to “live in a Cass Gilbert home, but with all of the modern amenities” is essentially gravy.
For Kinney, the Cass Gilbert stuff is meat and potatoes. Perhaps she is so good at selling Ramsey Hill houses because she, herself, is the archetypical buyer. She loves everything about them—the woodwork, the leaded glass, the ornate plaster work, the old bathtubs, the fact that she can tell how expensive a house originally was by the elaborateness of the radiators on the first floor.
The houses fascinate her. And the fascination is contagious.