Organizers rally to save historic Tangletown house from demolition

Longtime+Macalester+professor+Henry+West%E2%80%99s+historic+home+at+1721+Princeton+Avenue+was+sold+recently.+The+new+owner+plans+to+demolish+the+current+building+and+build+two+new+4%2C000+square+foot+homes.+This+proposition+has+sparked+outrage+in+the+surrounding+community.+Photo+by+Maya+Rait+%E2%80%9918.

Longtime Macalester professor Henry West’s historic home at 1721 Princeton Avenue was sold recently. The new owner plans to demolish the current building and build two new 4,000 square foot homes. This proposition has sparked outrage in the surrounding community. Photo by Maya Rait ’18.

Longtime Macalester professor Henry West’s historic home at 1721 Princeton Avenue was sold recently. The new owner plans to demolish the current building and build two new 4,000 square foot homes. This proposition has sparked outrage in the surrounding community. Photo by Maya Rait ’18.
Longtime Macalester professor Henry West’s historic home at 1721 Princeton Avenue was sold recently. The new owner plans to demolish the current building and build two new 4,000 square foot homes. This proposition has sparked outrage in the surrounding community. Photo by Maya Rait ’18.

Longtime Macalester philosophy professor Henry West and his wife, Patricia, lived at 1721 Princeton Avenue for 42 years. Macalester’s High Winds fund purchased the property in the early 1970s, and in 1972, sold it to West.

Included in the sale was a right of first refusal clause, which gave the college the first right to purchase the home in the event it came up for sale.

Evidently, the clause was forgotten during the recent sale of the house to Minnesota Historical Society book conservator Sherelyn Ogden. The sale was finalized about two weeks ago, and unbeknownst to the Wests, neighbors or those interested in historical preservation, Ogden submitted plans to demolish the current house, subdivide the lot and construct two brand-new 4,000 square foot homes.

“The Wests never would have sold the house to Ogden if they knew what she planned to do with it,” Victoria McCurdy, who grew up next door to the current 2,000 square foot house, said.

Victoria McCurdy’s father, retired Macalester anthropology professor and next-door neighbor David McCurdy, is also not pleased with the situation.

“The person who bought the house put it all together without telling anyone,” David McCurdy said. “We thought she was going to move here and live in the house, but it doesn’t look like she wants to.”

“The buyer misrepresented the sale to the Wests — in selling it to a historical society employee, they thought it would be preserved,” Victoria McCurdy said. “The Wests sold it in a private sale, as they didn’t want the hassle of putting it on the open market. Even worse, the contractor has a reputation for squeezing oversize homes on small lots.”

Last Friday, on a chilly, snowy evening, the McCurdy family helped to organize a well-attended candlelight vigil to bring awareness to their efforts to preserve the 1909 home. Nearly 60 concerned citizens gathered to lend their voices to the preservation effort and increase awareness of the house’s plight.

“There is no question, in my mind — after over 40 years of experience in historic preservation — that it is a historic structure, and an important part of the Macalester Park neighborhood. You don’t need to be an expert to see its historical worth,” Jim Sazevich, local architectural historian, said. “This house is important to the historical homes around it, and they have to realize that.”

Patt Furth Colten, a former neighborhood resident who returned to her old stomping grounds to support the group of preservation-minded citizens, was also displeased.

“It is so upsetting to me — I grew up here, played ball at Groveland, and fell in love with the neighborhood at a young age. [Demolishing the house] has to be a financial thing,” Colten said of the new owner’s motivations.

After enjoying refreshments provided by the organizing group, the crowd assembled in front of the house, holding both their candles and their hopes high. Chants of ‘Save this house,’ and ‘Don’t tear it down’ broke out while a TV crew filmed the scene and camera flashes lit up the night.

This event, which was successful in increasing awareness and continuing to halt the proposed demolition, was another facet of the grassroots preservation efforts led by Victoria McCurdy and other concerned citizens and neighborhood residents. A Facebook page run by McCurdy and others has approximately 1,600 likes, and has spurred many calls and pleas to the Minnesota Historical Society, the City of St. Paul, and other entities.

When fears were highest that developer David Hovda would move to tear it down, neighbors blockaded the street in front of the house with their cars and kept the city of St. Paul from cutting off the gas line to the house and possibly freezing pipes.

Hogda and Ogden have been quoted as saying that the home needs “at least $300,000” in improvements, and declared that it is “non-functional,” a point which the Wests and others with knowledge of the house strongly dispute.

Currently, demolition is still on hold and Tom Welna, the director of Macalester’s High Winds Fund, has inquired about the fund purchasing the property. McCurdy and other are hoping that the fund will be able to buy and save the home. Welna was not able to publicly comment on the situation at this time, but said:

“It is factual that we are discussing the possibility of the High Winds Fund purchasing the property. We owned it once before, and will do what we can to preserve the historic housing stock in Tangletown.”

Although the purchase of the house is in limbo, a post on the “Save 1721” Facebook page yesterday updated the public on the potential for legal action due to a vulnerable tree. A 100-year old Dutch elm sits on the edge of David McCurdy’s property, and could be greatly harmed by the construction of the two new homes.

“The foundation of the nearest house planned could cut through the tree’s root plate, physically destabilizing it — the elm could topple. 40 percent of the elm’s roots lie in 1721’s yard, so new construction could cause it to die over time.”

With the High Winds Fund in negotiations, and demolition action temporarily halted by the City of St. Paul, it remains to be seen if historic 1721 Princeton has a future in Macalester’s neighborhood.