965 Summit Avenue

As hinted to in previous posts, I was fortunate to live in what some friends called a mansion! There is no doubt that our home on Summit Avenue in St. Paul was huge. Most of the time, though, we had three separate families living there. My parents rented out the entire third floor and the separate carriage house above the garage. Still, we had an exceptionally large house for a family of six.

Our home was situated on a expansive lot that had more driveway and parking space than some nearby parking lots on nearby Grand Avenue. I know that well because it was my job to clear the snow with our trusty old snow blower. For the smaller snows, that meant easily over 90 minutes of work! The same was true for mowing the lawn. It was an exceptional task with our little Lawn Boy mower. So, yes, this large home taught me the value of hard work.

I had no idea that we were moving from our idyllic home in Desnoyer Park. Nor did our mother! Dad took us kids for a ride one day when Mom was out of town. We drove to the middle of St. Paul and stopped in front of this large brick house. Local realtor, Ray Jambor met us and we walked up to the front door. He rang the bell. There was a small speaker next to the door and a voice came across, saying, “Who’s at the door?” Ray responded, “Ray Jambor” to complete the rhyme. The next thing I knew, we were touring this great house.

For a kid about ten, this was quite an eye-opening experience. A maid answered the door and led us in. The first this I saw was the long, wide hallway. Halfway down was a huge, ornate wooden stairway leading to the next level. The things I remember most from that first exploration of the house were the fun features that I’d never seen before. In addition to the intercom at the front door was a large electric sign on the third level that directed which of the seven doorbells was rung. Only five of the six exterior doors had doorbells, but there were bell buttons in the dining room and master bedroom.

There were also multiple clothes chutes, all that led to the basement laundry room, various hidden compartments throughout the house, a built-in basketball hoop in the driveway, a small bricked paddock adjacent to the garage, commercial toilets, and a non-working turntable in the garage that had been used to turn around a small car or carriage. Perhaps most impressive to us, though, was a commercial milk dispenser like you’d see in the kitchen of a large restaurant. We learned that it contained large 3-gallon containers of milk. I think Jon or Jenifer coined it the “milk machine.” Overall, this house was was incredible!

Even more incredible was my dad said we were buying the house! Our mother was still away. I still don’t have any idea how my dad broke the news to her, but I can visualize her reaction. I’m sure if she had any real say in the decision, she would have put her foot down. I remember the sales price in about 1972 was $76,000. The Zillow estimate for 965 Summit Avenue today is $1.6 million! My parents sold the house many years ago for less than one-quarter of that price. The main reason for selling was that the heat bill over the winter was well over $1,000 per month and the house was just too difficult – and expensive – to maintain, even with the renters. I know my mother was relieved when they sold the home since she was the one who had to keep the darn place clean! Even so, that house was filled with so many interesting memories.

The reason I describe the house is not to brag about living in such a place. To the contrary, throughout the time I lived there, I was embarrassed to be living in such a large home. We were certainly better off than most, but I am fairly certain that my dad lived beyond his means. Yes, he worked hard as a lawyer, but in many ways he was just very lucky (or perhaps quite wise) when it came to real estate. Maybe we appeared to live like it, but I certainly never felt like we were what I’d call rich. We had average clothes, never got the newest fads, never got much of an allowance, and lived rather simply. I remember many times when my mom was afraid to buy groceries because her checks had bounced. Dad always told her not to worry, but it was an indication that we were not as well-off that we appeared to be. For me, the house meant that I had to constantly deny being “rich.”

Dad always said that in order to be a successful lawyer, he needed to look the part. For him, I think a lot also had to do with his lifetime competition with his older brother, E.C. Grayson, who made his mark in San Francisco and Washington DC. Dad was also influenced greatly by his high school chums. Dad attended the prestigious Saint Paul Academy, where the majority of his classmates were clearly upper crust of Saint Paul society. While we no doubt shared in more than average, I never really liked anything to do with this appearance of being wealthy. The problem was that most of our friends were either lower or middle class and the obvious disparity almost always made me embarrassed.

One great thing about living where we did on Summit Avenue was its central location. A main city bus route ran along Grand Avenue, which was only a block away. I know that Pam and I explored the city on that bus. Those were the days when a kid could hop on the bus and go downtown – or anywhere else – unaccompanied. We took great advantage of that. I even remember taking the bus to Minnesota Twins baseball games by myself – at night! In addition to the bus, we could walk to church at St. Luke’s Catholic Church every Sunday, walk to St. Luke’s school, and get just about anywhere pretty easily. There were some shops on Grand Avenue, but the popular, upscale Grand Avenue of today was nonexistent. Instead, there was a 7-11, a dry cleaner, a couple of gas stations, several liquor stores, Knowlans grocery store, Bober Drug Store, a bank, KFC, Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips, a couple of car dealers, The Lexington Restaurant, a bakery, some apartment buildings, and various other commercial establishments, none too interesting for kids.

Even Summit Avenue was a bit more run down at the time. In fact, in retrospect, the whole neighborhood was a little rough. One block to the North was Portland Avenue. That was home of a lot of firmly middle class Irish families, such as the McKasys, the Molitors, the McMonigals, and many others. Successive blocks North quickly brought lower middle class and true poverty. Even though we traveled freely throughout the neighborhood, it was rarely much North of our block.

Like The Timbers, 965 Summit Avenue was a house for parties. I don’t mean juvenile parties like my brother Jon would throw. There were numerous formal parties at our home. We held a several large open houses for the church and other organizations, regular gatherings for the Kappa Delta (“bridge club”) gang, formal dinners, some of which me and my siblings served as servers, and many dinners prior to high school dances. In addition, this was definitely what you would call a “drop-in” house. All kinds of friends, clients, relatives, and others would drop in, often unannounced, and would stay for hours (or in some instances for days!). This cast of characters included our German plumber, Karl Schneider, who in his youth was a member of the Hitler Youth Corps, Dick Sadler, former manager of Heavyweight Champion George Foreman, various catholic priests, former St. Paul mayor, George Latimer, numerous St. Paul and Ramsey County Judges, and many, many others. It was a fun space and my parents were apparently wonderful hosts.

Even though I always denied my Summit Avenue “richness,” I came to appreciate everything about that home and the neighborhood. I still have very fond memories of Summit Avenue.. Strangely enough, I think I have a rather unique perspective. I not only lived and played on Summit Avenue, but I went to Church there (St, Luke’s), went to grade school there (also St. Luke’s), attended college there (one year at St. Thomas College), attended law school there (William Mitchell College of Law), worked there (the AAUW College Club and the University Club), and was married there (our wedding reception was at the University Club). Later, I completed my first marathon by completing the final four miles or so along this great boulevard. All this on stately Summit Avenue!

I learned so much from this home and neighborhood. As indicated above, I learned the value of hard work. I learned from Karl Schneider and others about maintaining a home and its systems. I learned from my mother how to plant a garden and from my father how to repair windows! I learned great humility out of fear of being identified as wealthy. I learned from my many friends, some living at close to poverty level, that people are all the same no matter how much they earn, what they wear, or where they live. I learned to enjoy having people around and I learned to appreciate the value of privacy. As we lived there during an influential part of my life, I learned a LOT of life lessons.

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