St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter signs demolition order for Justus Ramsey House, angering preservationists

Outside downtown St. Paul, the historic Justus Ramsey House — believed to be the oldest home still standing in its original location within the city — faces increasingly long odds following a decision by St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter on Monday that it be torn down.

Sign-up sheet in hand, Kristina Cummings toiled nearly until midnight Monday night, encouraging preservation-minded residents to sign up for shifts guarding the 1850s-era limestone structure. She then walked home, determined to return to St. Paul’s West Seventh Street by 5 a.m. Tuesday armed with espresso for her growing cadre of volunteers.

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Since at least June, restaurant proprietor Mojtaba Sharifkhani — the “Moe” in Burger Moe’s — has sought to demolish the Justus Ramsey House, which sits on the outdoor patio of his restaurant along the business corridor.  The small stone house, a relic of Minnesota’s pioneer era, has survived more than 150 years of real estate development around it, only to suffer a partial wall collapse last year that city officials call a growing danger to public safety.

On Monday evening, the mayor signed an administrative order declaring the Justus Ramsey House “a dangerous structure subject to emergency demolition,” effectively overriding the objections of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, which had denied the restaurant owner a demolition permit on Dec. 5.

The city’s building inspector “has found that the building continues to show signs of excessive movement, deterioration and failure,” reads the mayor’s administrative order. “(It) is presently in a state of disrepair where additional collapse is imminent.”

Historic preservationists have vowed to keep fighting. Tom Schroeder, an attorney working with neighborhood preservationists, filed a temporary restraining order against the demolition with Ramsey County District Court on Monday evening, but the proposed order had yet to be signed by a judge by midnight, leaving open the likelihood that demolition crews could arrive at any moment.

Determined to picket, if not block demolition outright through civil disobedience, some two dozen residents gathered Monday night next door to Burger Moe’s in a backroom at Tom Reid’s Hockey City Pub to draw up protest signs and better organize.

Neighborhood groups unite

Joining Schroeder there was former St. Paul City Council Member Dave Thune and members of the Fort Road Federation/District 9 Council, the Historic Irvine Park Association, the Little Bohemia Neighborhood Association and Historic St. Paul, as well as a former Public Works Director from Richfield.

The house was constructed for Justus Ramsey, brother to first Minnesota territorial governor Alexander Ramsey, though there’s no evidence that either man lived there. Still, amateur historians believe the house was occupied over the years by the city’s earliest Black residents, including freed slaves and Pullman railroad porters.

“I’m sad that we’re not respectful of the history that’s been lived through this house,” said Cummings, president of the Historic Irvine Park Association.

At bar close, Historic St. Paul treasurer Elyse Jensen and Minnesota Alliance of Local History Museums coordinator Gibson Stanton were among those who had signed up for volunteer shifts and pledged to monitor the Justus Ramsey House into the wee hours of the morning.

Moe Sharif

Sharifkhani — also known as Moe Sharif — has maintained that the damaged house at 242 W. Seventh St. — which is condemned by the city — could collapse at any moment and presents a danger to his customers following the partial collapse of a side wall. He has declined repeated interview requests.

A structural review by BKBM Engineers, completed last summer on Sharifkhani’s behalf, called for immediate demolition, though a separate review by MacDonald & Mack Architects, commissioned by the city, found that the Justus Ramsey House could potentially be relocated and saved. Carter, in his administrative order, said the city has requested more information about how to shore up the property, without success,

Sharifkhani’s attorney, Brian Alton, submitted to the city a letter, dated Nov. 3, from Advanced Masonry Restoration indicating that removal, storage and reconstruction elsewhere would likely cost in the vicinity of $132,000.

Jensen and others have repeatedly alleged demolition by neglect, if not foul play, and said they’ve found a private property owner along West Seventh Street willing to host the structure if the city helps pay to relocate it there.

“Moe would not have to pay a dollar,” Jensen said. “He has not met with us once.”

Legal questions around potential real estate development

The Justus Ramsey House, St. Paul's oldest private residence, was built in 1852 for the brother of territorial governor Alexander Ramsey, though there's no evidence either man ever lived there. The small limestone home, seen on Oct. 10, 2022, sits within the private patio of a Burger Moe's restaurant on West Seventh Street near Walnut Street. (Frederick Melo / Pioneer Press)

A wall of the Justus Ramsey House, believed to be St. Paul's oldest private limestone residence still standing in its original location, shows signs of serious deterioration on Monday, Oct. 10, 2022. Built in 1852 for the brother of territorial governor Alexander Ramsey — though there is no evidence either man ever lived there — the small limestone home was rented out by Justus Ramsey to fellow pioneers. The building sits within the private patio of a Burger Moe's restaurant on West Seventh Street near Walnut Street. Preservationists with Historic Saint Paul filed a petition that month with the state's Environmental Quality Board in hopes of stopping or stalling potential demolition. (Frederick Melo / Pioneer Press)

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Demolition raises a hornet’s nest of legal questions, some of which may be off the table as a result of the mayor’s intervention.

Jensen noted that the structure sits on the National Register of Historic Places, and demolition of the Justus Ramsey House without the city’s emergency declaration would likely imperil any chances to obtain federal funding for future real estate development on the lot. By labeling the structure a threat to public safety, a potential development project could still move forward with HUD funding.

The mayor’s office confirmed last year that Carter joined Sharifkhani at Burger Moe’s to inspect the site in early October, but they did not release further details about the visit.

“We’re all for a development,” said Jensen, who called the goals of preservation and housing construction not incompatible. “You go anywhere in Europe, they build around stuff, they incorporate stuff. It’s a highly desirable block. Why wouldn’t he want to sell it to a developer? It’s fantastic.”Related Articles

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