Well tread: St. Paul's public stairs link topography and history

Joe Alton stands in the front yard of his home (top center) in St. Paul.
Joe Alton stands in the front yard of his home (top center) in St. Paul on Wednesday. He doesn't have a street -- his address is actually 70 Lawson Steps, an acknowledgment of the unique place his home holds in St. Paul geography.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

St. Paul is a city of many hills and, though you may not know it, a city of many stairs.

There are more than 60 public stairways scattered across the city, most of them relics from a time when getting around was as common by foot as it was by horse, streetcar or automobile.

From his house, perched on a slope overlooking busy Interstate 35E, Joe Alton looks out at his only path to the world around him: a concrete stairway with 77 steps and green steel railings.

This staircase is his address.

"I am at 70 Lawton Steps," said Alton. "My driver's license says 'Steps.'"

A former editor at St. Paul-based Growler Magazine, Alton lives beside what could have been one of the most improbable streets in the city if engineers hadn't given up on it, leaving the narrow passage to just foot traffic.

Great conversation starter

Joe Alton's kitchen looks out over the only access to his hillside home.
Joe Alton's kitchen looks out over the only access to his hillside St. Paul home, a set of stairs between Grand Avenue and Summit Court, just off Summit Avenue.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

He said the hardest part about living in this spot is finding a good way to describe it to other people.

"When they ask me where I live, I say I live on a set of public stairs," said Alton. "There's about four or five minutes of dialogue that follows."

He has a nice view, but his location is inconvenient.

Everything and everyone that goes in or out of his home must travel by foot meaning only able-bodied people can get to his home. The property is also inaccessible to ambulances and fire trucks.

Once vital shortcuts, now maintenance headache

But in the 19th century, when most of St. Paul's public staircases were built, they were clearly about making life more convenient for residents. The stairs were vital shortcuts between neighborhoods and the downtown district. People also used the stairs to connect to river recreation.

There are 65 public stairways left in the city and they take a lot of work to maintain. St. Paul's Public Works Department is in charge of shoveling, painting and repairing them, all by hand at considerable expense.

But there are benefits to keeping the stairs open to the public, said Lisa Hiebert, a public works spokesperson.

"You know St. Paul's a great city to get your step workout in, because overall, there's 2,199 public steps in those public staircases," she said.

Free tour of staircases scheduled

Minneapolis, with fewer hills, has some public stairways including monumental Works Progress Administration examples. But most are located on parkland rather than threading through residential areas.

Urban geographer Bill Lindeke stands on the J.J. Hill steps.
Urban geographer Bill Lindeke stands on the J.J. Hill or Walnut Street steps below Summit Avenue in St. Paul on Wednesday. He's leading a walking tour of some of the city's most strenuous landmarks.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

There's nothing there like St. Paul's longest staircase near the James J. Hill House, according to Bill Lindeke, a writer on urban geography who is leading a free tour of some of the city's public stairs this weekend.

That includes a stop at what's called the Walnut Street staircase. Lindeke said it was built around 1905.

"This was originally going to be a street, named Walnut Street," said Lindeke on a recent tour. "But it's a very steep grade, and at some point, James J. Hill's son decided he wanted to build a house in the right-of-way, and they negotiated an easement with the city, to get rid of this street, build this public staircase and build the house right next to it."

And it's still here, a distinct transition from public to private, high terrain to low, and from richly appointed homes to not-so-rich neighborhoods, even tents on the slope below nearby Summit Avenue.

A perch to view city's history and skyline

Some of the original stone stair treads are still in place, sloping awkwardly underfoot. But Lindeke said they're a key part of the fabric of the city.

"If you go to the top of this staircase, which has 170 steps, you will have a wonderful view that's unlike anything you'll see anywhere else in St. Paul, of the downtown, of the river," said Lindeke.

His four-mile walking tour starts at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Cathedral of St. Paul.

It's free.

But it won't be easy.

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