St. Paul City Council approves $84,000 to disassemble, store historic Justus Ramsey House

With the fate of the historic Justus Ramsey House hanging in the balance, the St. Paul City Council approved $84,000 in emergency business assistance to an attorney who said he’s willing to move the condemned cottage to an empty lot elsewhere on West Seventh Street.

The funds would be structured as a forgivable loan, and not have to be paid back as long the owner maintains the 170-year-old property as spelled out in a future loan agreement.

“It’s a historic site,” said Donald Kohler, proprietor of Kohler Law, addressing the St. Paul City Council on Wednesday alongside partner Rita Dalbec. “We’re here to help the city and other entities preserve the historical properties. … I had thought to move my law practice from White Bear and have a home office there.”

Kohler said he purchased the empty lot a year ago and intends to live in the structure, though his proposal — presented without written materials — drew a series of questions from council members.

Order to demolish the structure

Situated on the patio of Burger Moe’s restaurant on West Seventh Street, the cottage-like house has suffered heavy damage to a side wall, leading St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter to sign an emergency administrative order Monday ordering it demolished. Historic preservationists and members of the Fort Road Federation and other neighborhood groups quickly rallied to the site, some pledging civil disobedience to block demolition if necessary while they sought a legal solution.

On Tuesday morning, a Ramsey County District Court judge signed a temporary restraining order and urged the city, restaurant owner Mojtaba Sharifkhani and the neighborhood associations to meet together and then schedule a court hearing.

City officials noted time was not on anyone’s side.

“There’s a real risk that this could just collapse,” said Planning and Economic Development Director Nicolle Goodman, addressing the council Wednesday. “It needs to be taken down, so the urgency is in that timing.”

After a protracted discussion, the council voted 6-0 to approve a resolution in support of issuing the funding, with Council Member Mitra Jalali absent.

In an email, Jalali said she was occupied at another event at the time, but would have likely voted against the spending “due to concerns about the process behind it, as well as the subjective nature of the structure’s historic relevance that I needed more information on at the time of the vote.”

Hesitancy, and an amendment

Council Member Rebecca Noecker initially requested $115,000 toward what’s estimated to be a $400,000 project, but several members of the city council expressed unease with the sum, noting they had little in the way of written materials in front of them. The surprise resolution, which was not listed on the city’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority agenda, was introduced at the end of Wednesday’s HRA meeting under a suspension of the rules.

The proposal is “coming to us … at a lower price than many of the other decisions we’ve made at this table,” Noecker said. “It is really critical that we approve funding today. If we don’t do that, this building will not be saved.”

Still sensing hesitancy, Noecker then amended the $115,000 request down to $84,000 toward disassembly and storage of the Justus Ramsey House. She noted that the city could potentially dip into other funds to make up the difference.

“That’s much more palatable,” said Council Member Chris Tolbert, who chairs the HRA. “Passing it all just doesn’t pass the smell test for me today. I’d like to see some of these numbers written down, rather than my chicken scratch.”

Council President Amy Brendmoen agreed, noting that the city council recently amended guidelines for issuing business assistance loans, with the goal of creating greater transparency in how the money will be used. Goodman said the fund has some $600,000 in it, prior to the new loan to Kohler.

“This is coming to us without a whole lot of notice,” Brendmoen said. “This doesn’t feel transparent to me.”

Preserving historic structures

Council Member Jane Prince noted that the city’s comprehensive plan spells out preserving historic structures as an explicit priority, and that proponents had described building owner Sharifkhani — also known as Moe Sharif — as being in favor of the arrangement.

Constructed in the 1850s for the brother of territorial governor Alexander Ramsey, the small limestone house is believed to have housed freed slaves, Pullman railroad porters and other members of the city’s earliest Black community.

Prince said U.S. Census records from the 1940s found evidence of a likely same-sex domestic partnership.

“This is not a wealthy person’s house on Summit Avenue,” Prince said. “This is a working people’s history. … This is early history of our GLBTQ community.”Related Articles

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