Historic Justus Ramsey House’s future, newly discovered past revealed

Historic Justus Ramsey House’s future, newly discovered past revealed

Historic Justus Ramsey House's future, newly discovered past revealed

The historic Justus Ramsey House in St. Paul is a step closer to being rebuilt after it was disassembled and moved to avoid demolition earlier this year.

Neighborhood activists, most of them practiced preservationists as well, released a Request For Proposal (RFP) in the last week, from which they’ll determine who will reconstruct the house and where.

Just in time for the RFP release, St. Paul archeologists also compiled findings from a pro-bono excavation of the house’s former site as it was removed, revealing decades of Black history largely left out of the story of the Justus Ramsey House until now.

“Oftentimes with historic properties, people don’t care about them or their histories until they’re going to disappear,” said archeologist Jeremy Nienow, the owner of Nienow Cultural Consultants and the lead on the excavation.

The Justus Ramsey House sat on what is now the Burger Moe’s restaurant patio on West Seventh St. from the 1850s until this year, when the City slated it for demolition.

Protestors stepped in, and in February, there was an agreement to disassemble and store the little limestone house for the time being.

That process gave Nienow a chance to unearth decades of history in what he has come to believe was the oldest structure within five historic St. Paul blocks.

“It has a more vivid, tangible history than we ever expected,” Nienow said.

The 1970s National Historic Register will tell you the house first belonged to the brother of Minnesota’s first governor, Justus Ramsey, around 1857.

Ramsey’s ownership was short-lived, and according to Nienow’s account, “he loses ownership of the building in a financial panic two years after it’s built.”

From there, it’s mostly a rental property, but there’s little additional detail in the Register until the house became an antique store more than 100 years later.

“What they don’t tell you about is the African American history of the property, which is completely ignored,” Nienow said.

Gleaned from census data and the fragments left at the house’s original foundation are roughly four decades worth of stories of families of freed African American slaves living there while working on the railroad.

“Some of the most tangible interesting things we found from that was a fragment of a ceramic dish that was only part of ceramic dish sets from the Pullman railroad company,” Nienow explained.

“This is a direct tie to the railroad industry. We found the fragments of a shoe that’s been repaired multiple times by its owner.”

A small saucer left behind from a child’s playset was another discovery, Nienow said, “So we know there were kids living in the neighborhood and in the house specifically.”

Around 1915, a Black female-owned barber shop sat right in front of the house facing West Seventh St, belonging to a woman named Lizzie Battle. An advertisement listed in African American newspaper “The Appeal” in 1919 reads, “Switches dyed for 50 cents.”

“This becomes a strong African American neighborhood, and ultimately, when they’re displaced by later immigrants, they move in and really formed the heart of the Rondo neighborhood, which we know also has a sad history with the arrival of the interstate,” Nienow continued.

“We neglected to be curious about it,” added Gibson Stanton, one of 14 neighborhood activists who, together, recently released an RFP, asking anyone interested to submit their ideas and a plan to rebuild the Justus Ramsey House.

“The top two criteria are really, around the reconstruction, its accuracy to how it originally was constructed and then that truth-telling in its history,” Stanton said.

“A lot of responsibility of telling history, of that tangible thread throughout history, ends up being condensed on the shoulders of these structures that are remaining. And so I think that’s why there was such a pivotal response to the Ramsey House being threatened.”

The authors hope to keep the house near where it was on West Seventh St, but the only location requirement is that it remains in St. Paul. That, and the amount and source for financing for its move and reconstruction, depends on what’s in those anticipated proposals, Stanton said.

The RFP and the submission process have been posted on the West Seventh Street/Fort Road Federation website.

Due first will be a Letter of Intent on July 1, Stanton said, adding the goal is to select the winning bid in October.

Nienow is scheduled to present his company’s findings at Waldmann Brewery in St. Paul Wednesday at 7 p.m.