Historic St. Paul house, facing demolition, wins reprieve

A stone building sits on a property.
The Justus Ramsey House on West Seventh Street in St. Paul has caution tape around it early Tuesday. A judge agreed to temporarily stop the demolition of the building, which dates back to the 1850s.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Updated: Jan. 25, 8:06 a.m. | Posted: Jan. 24, 2:12 p.m.

A historic St. Paul home that appeared headed for demolition early Tuesday has won at least a temporary reprieve.

The Justus Ramsey House on West Seventh Street dates back to the 1850s, before Minnesota was a state. It has connections to Minnesota’s first territorial governor as well as the city’s early Black community. It now sits on the patio of Burger Moe’s restaurant at 242 W. Seventh.

The owner of Burger Moe’s, Moe Sharifkhani, wants to tear it down, citing concerns about the structure’s condition and safety. That’s sparked a lengthy battle with neighborhood residents and preservation advocates who want to save it.

Late Monday, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter stepped into the monthslong fray, issuing an administrative order designating the stone house as “a dangerous structure subject to emergency demolition.”

Carter’s order — overruling a vote by the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission in December to deny the demolition request — said the Justus Ramsey House had a “partial collapse” and that “additional collapse is imminent,” endangering people and other property.

In response, four neighborhood groups filed a lawsuit against the city and Sharifkhani, to block the demolition — including a request for a temporary halt to any demolition work.

The temporary restraining order issued Tuesday by Ramsey County District Court Judge Laura E. Nelson bars destruction of the building until a full court hearing can take place.

The order “stops the clock, preserves the status quo, and allows the parties to sit down and rationally resolve this matter. And that is our only objective,” said Tom Schroeder, an attorney for the neighborhood groups, said Tuesday.

Schroeder also owns the Waldmann Brewery, located in another 1850s-era limestone building on Smith Avenue, a few blocks from the Justus Ramsey House.

Advocates for preserving the building stood vigil along West Seventh Street near the home late Monday and early Tuesday, until the temporary restraining order was in hand.

A man stands in front of a fence while holding two papers
Richard A. Duncan stands along West Seventh Street in St. Paul early Tuesday, with the Justus Ramsey House visible in the background at left, after neighborhood groups filed a lawsuit to prevent the demolition of the building.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

House history

Built of limestone blocks, the house dates back to about 1852 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was built by the brother of Alexander Ramsey, who served as governor of the Minnesota Territory and the state of Minnesota, and was a U.S. senator.

Justus Ramsey apparently never lived there. Historian and preservation advocate Jim Sazevich said the first known resident of the home was Robert A. Smith, who later was a longtime St. Paul mayor. The building also has ties to the city’s early Black community — Sazevich said from the mid-1890s to 1933, a succession of Black families and business owners lived in the house.

From the 1930s on, Sazevich said, it served as a commercial building.

In their lawsuit, the neighborhood groups argued that the city and state would lose an irreplaceable part of its history if the Justus Ramsey House was torn down. They dispute that the building presents an imminent public safety threat, and say the owner and city haven't exhausted other feasible options beyond demolition.

People hold signs in front of a fence. A stone house sits behind the fence.
Meg Duhr, right, and John Yust of Fort Road Federation stand outside the Justus Ramsey House property Tuesday.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Schroeder said Tuesday that there is a plan being discussed that could move to the house to an empty lot nearby on West Seventh.

But an attorney for Sharifkhani, Brian D. Alton, wrote in a December filing with the city that his client “has in the past offered to basically give the structure away if anyone could find a use for it in another location, but no one has come forth with a proposal. The owner has had to suspend business on the patio and has lost income as a result.”

Alton — who was appealing the Heritage Preservation Commission’s vote to block demolition — wrote that the prospective razing of the building “regrettable” but said the house was “a hazard and presents an issue of public safety.”

Signs sit on the table
Signs sit Tuesday on a table left by activists outside the Justus Ramsey House. A lawsuit was filed to prevent the demolition of the historic building.
Kerem Yucel | MPR News

“It is not in compliance with building code, and has no heat or plumbing. The structure had been badly altered over the course of decades. It does not appear that any owner after 1975 did anything to restore the building,” Alton wrote, saying there “is no viable adaptive reuse.”

A court hearing on the temporary restraining order is set for Thursday.

Correction (Jan. 25, 2023): A caption in an earlier version of this story misstated the name of the Fort Road Federation. The caption has been updated.

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