Someone needs to go up the stairs of historic Walnut Street

For many years, Walnut Street Steps has been one of the places I go to bring visitors to St. Paul. Down from the side of the James J. Hill mansion to the highway below, they are by far the most interesting of the dozens of public stairs still running up and down the bluff of the city. Few of the sites in the Twin Cities reveal our history so much as a strange set of stairs is crammed between the retaining walls of two of St. Paul’s finest historic mansions.

For more than a century, the Little Staircase has connected people across the social and physical geography of St. Paul, drawing everyone from locals to tourists to joggers into the uninhabited community of Cathedral Hill. That is, they did so until about two years ago when they were suddenly closed. The city’s architects reluctantly decided that the historic stone stairs had become too damaged and dangerous.

Since then, thanks to a lack of funding, the cost of an expensive repair to the Walnut Steps has slipped the city’s long-term budget, meaning there is no future in sight for this rare link between the city’s past and present.

But a rare gem like Walnut Street Steps shouldn’t be left to rot and slowly disappear. A budget impasse means that someone with a vision and means needs to hurry up, start raising money, and plan to get it back. The steps may seem like small details in the landscape, but they are an irreplaceable part of Minnesota’s history. Given all of the region’s history, generations of wealth, and the longstanding commitment to preservation that you find at Summit Hill, there must be a solution to reclaim these steps for the next generation of hikers.

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hills on hill

The steps of Walnut Street have a strange origin that parallels the history of the city itself. Back in the late 1800s, when city streets and grounds fanned west at the edge of town, Walnut Street first appeared — on paper — stretching straight up the steep 100-foot slope of today’s Cathedral Hill. With such a steep grade, the street was always destined to remain fanciful. But when James J. Hill, the town’s famous “Empire Builder,” began building his massive stone mansion in the late 1880s, Walnut Street kept a general right along its west side, heading to the town’s most famous address.

A few years later, Hill’s son Louis Hill decided to build his own house next to his father, much of which would be located to the right of the theoretical road on Walnut Street. City leaders allowed it at the time on one condition: Hill would also have to create a public staircase along the right of Walnut Street, accessible to the public in perpetuity, connecting the heights of Summit Avenue Heights with the Seventh District West below.

Courtesy of Bill Lindick

An 1887 copy of Rice’s Best Map of St. Paul with Right Walnut Street circled in yellow.

And so the Walnut Street footsteps 115 years ago appeared. Since then, they’ve done their job well, and the traffic up and down the 156-step ride has ebbed and flowed with the times. Its status has changed slightly in recent years, when the new owners of the Louis Hill home reached a financial settlement for the expensive steps to maintain, Bequeathing them to the city in 2013.

The tangible magic of a pedestrian journey

Walking the Steps was Saint Paul’s great hidden mysteries, providing an intimate and tangible experience that was also a shortcut for those who knew where to look. From the top of the Summit Avenue entrance, they looked almost hidden: a narrow lane crammed between the imposing stone walls of historic fencing Hill homes.

At the base, they descended onto I-35E, opening up along with the massive stone retaining walls that line the grounds of JJ Hill. It was always amazing to see the imposing wall of limestone blocks, and to imagine the teams of men who laid the stones 130 years ago, or the doorways and tunnels that let in through the walls. I’ve watched visitors run their hands along the jagged yellow stones, providing an actual link to the city’s past.

Personally, as I climbed the stairs, I would have imagined what it might be like to be a servant or a deliveryman visiting Hill’s house, and climbing from the working-class neighborhood to his imposing edifice. There was no other experience like it anywhere in the city, a living piece of history that simultaneously served a practical purpose, cutting half a mile or more of a walking route through town.

missed opportunity

Even years ago, when I first stared up the stairs of Walnut Street during my tours of the city, I knew something was wrong. There has always been a sense of instability that comes with traversing oddly angled granite, with some leaning in curvy corners. Keen observers could glimpse the dark negative space under the stones, gaps that gave the journey a subtle thrill. They always seemed destined, one day, for some tender loving attention.

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In the past, as a single long-time participant in the city The capital improvement budget (CIB) process Lee explains, it was wise to invest in maintenance for the steps years ago, when their price tag was still small. But it was then, and today the steps have unfortunately reached the point of no return.

“We’ve looked at it closely,” Sean Kershaw, director of St. Paul’s Department of Public Works, told me. The mortar collapses, and the wall tilts outward. It lasted 115 years.”

Under the direction of Public Works, the staircase has been closed to the public for the past two years, and According to the city’s websiteThere is little hope that the situation will change any time soon. The page simply states: “The design for the reconstruction of the staircase and wall system must be determined and funding secured prior to completion of the project schedule.”

Thanks to a lack of funding, the cost of the expensive repair of the nut steps slipped from the city's long-term budget.

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

Thanks to a lack of funding, the cost of the expensive repair of the nut steps slipped from the city’s long-term budget.

While the Steps reforms were included in St. Paul’s Five-Year Capital Budget Plan, This has changed Such as (New and improvedThe CBI committee has stopped funding public works projects on a regular basis. A member explained to me that the city has a general fund for stair maintenance, while today’s CIB dollars are used for a variety of other public purposes.

But repairing steps today would be costly – Kershaw predicted with seven numbers – a number that is hard to justify for small staircases when many of the city’s other roads and bridges have collapsed.

So the steps are just sitting there, waiting for a savior or entropy to return it to its previous state.

Show me a hero

All is not lost, however, according to Kershaw. The bottom third of the stairs is fine, formwork dating back to a state transport ministry project. Only the older parts, those sandwiched between the two retaining walls, need rebuilding. Theoretically, they could be fixed in many different ways, perhaps using a more modern steel staircase going up existing masonry and walls.

“Nobody wants them to disappear,” Director Sean Kershaw admitted, and hoped the city would find funding in the future.

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My opinion is that the steps need a hero or someone or some organization that can raise money from a mix of public and private sources. Certainly, it is a project worthy of state government due to its central connection to JJ Hill House, one of the notable properties of the Minnesota Historical Society. You could also prove that local conservationists, people interested in ensuring the landscape of Ramsay and Cathedral Hill, should be interested in raising funds to restore the steps.

The Walnut Street steps represent living history, and are one of the few public connections between the JJ Hill home and the neighborhood. They are a relic of the ancient era of barons and general audiencea connection between the upper and lower classes, the city’s only pedestrian street that runs through both the steep St Paul’s bluff and the newest natural barrier, I-35E constructed via the Western Seventh lane after years of litigation.

Someone needs to help get these pedestrian gems back to Saint Paul, or they’ll end up The long-lost and beloved green stairs on the west sideA failure, something old people should remember wistfully. On Walnut Street, it doesn’t have to end this way. Let’s get started, and take things step by step.

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