For years, one of my go-to spots to bring visitors to St. Paul has been the Walnut Street steps. Descending from the side of the James J. Hill mansion to the interstate below, they are by far the most interesting of the dozen public staircases that still run up and down the city’s bluffs. Few Twin Cities spots so dramatically reveal our history as the odd set of stairs wedged between the retaining walls of two of St. Paul’s finest historic mansions.
For well over a century, the small staircase connected people across St. Paul’s social and physical geography, attracting everyone from locals to tourists to joggers to Cathedral Hill’s fluctuating unhoused community. That is, they did until about two years ago when they were abruptly closed. City engineers reluctantly determined that the historic stone steps had become too damaged and dangerous.
Since then, thanks to a lack of funding, the expensive repair of the Walnut steps has fallen off the city’s long-term budget, which means there’s no future in sight for this rare link between the city’s past and present.
But a rare gem like the Walnut Street Steps should not be left to rot and slowly disappear. The budgetary impasse means that someone with vision and means needs to step up, begin fundraising, and planning for their restoration. The steps might seem like a tiny detail in the landscape, but they represent an irreplaceable piece of Minnesota history. Given all the history in the area, generations of wealth, and long-held commitment to preservation you find on Summit Hill, there must be a solution to restoring these steps for the next generation of wanderers.
Hills on the hill
The Walnut Street steps have an odd provenance that parallels the history of the city itself. Back in the late 19th century, when city streets and land plats were spreading westward at edge of town, Walnut Street first appeared — on paper — extending straight up the steep 100-foot incline of today’s Cathedral Hill. With such a steep grade, the street was always destined to remain fantasy. But when the city’s famous “Empire Builder,” James J. Hill, began building his massive stone mansion in the late 1880s, Walnut Street remained a public right-of-way along its western side, butted right up against the most famous address in town.
A few years later, Hill’s son Louis Hill decided to build a house of his own next-door to dad, much of which would sit on the city’s theoretical Walnut Street right-of-way. City leaders at the time allowed it under one condition: Hill would also have to construct a public staircase along the Walnut Street right-of-way, accessible to the public in perpetuity, connecting the heights of Summit Avenue heights with the West 7th neighborhood below.
Thus the Walnut Street steps came into existence, 115 years ago. Since then, they’ve done their job quite well, and traffic up and down the 156-step flight has ebbed and flowed along with the times. Its status changed slightly in recent years, when the new owners of the Louis Hill house worked out a financial settlement for the expensive-to-maintain steps, bequeathing them to the city in 2013.
The concrete charm of pedestrian flight
Walking the steps was a great St. Paul hidden secrets, offering an intimate and tactile experience that was also a shortcut for those who knew where to look. From atop their Summit Avenue entrance, they seemed almost hidden: a narrow passageway tucked between the imposing stone walls of dueling historic Hill homes.
At the base, they descended down to the I-35E freeway, opening out alongside massive stone retaining walls that confine the J.J. Hill grounds. It was always amazing to see the imposing wall of limestone blocks, envisioning the teams of men who laid the stones 130 years ago, or the doorways and tunnels that allowed entrance through the walls. I’ve watched visitors run their hands along the rough yellow stones, offering a literal link to the city’s past.
Personally, as I climbed the steps, I’d imagine what it might have been like to be a servant or delivery worker visiting the Hill house, climbing up from the working-class neighborhood to its imposing edifice. There wasn’t another experience like it anywhere in the city, a living piece of history that simultaneously served a practical purpose, cutting a half-mile or more off of one’s walking route through the city.
Even years ago, when I first stared climbing the Walnut Street stairs on my walks through town, I knew something was amiss. There was always a sense of precariousness that came with traversing the oddly angled granite, some treads tilting at rakish angles. Careful observers could glimpse the dark negative space beneath the stones, gaps which admittedly gave the flight a subtle thrill. They always seemed destined to, someday, need some tender loving attention.
In retrospect, as one long-time participant in the city’s Capital Improvement Budget (CIB) process explains to me, it would have been wise to invest in maintenance for the steps years ago, when the price tag remained small. But that was then, and today the steps have sadly reached a point of no return.
“We looked at it closely,” Sean Kershaw, the director of St. Paul’s Public Works Department told me. “The mortar is crumbling, the wall is tilting out. It lasted 115 years.”
Under Public Works’ direction, the stairs have been closed off to the public for the last two years, and according to the city’s website, there’s little hope of the situation changing anytime soon. The page simply states that: “The stairway and wall system reconstruction design must be determined and funding secured before a project timeline can be finalized.”
While repairs for the steps were once on the St. Paul five-year capital budget plan, that’s changed as the (new and improved) CIB committee has stopped regularly funding Public Works’ projects. One member explained to me that the City does have a public staircase maintenance fund, while today’s CIB dollars are used for a wide variety of other public purposes.
But fixing the steps today is going to be expensive — Kershaw predicted seven figures — and that’s a hard number to justify for a small staircase when so many other city roads and bridges are crumbling away.
So the steps are just sitting there, waiting for a savior or entropy to restore them to a previous state.
Show me a hero
All is not lost, though, according to Kershaw. The bottom third of the staircase is just fine, poured concrete that dates to a state Department of Transportation project. It’s only the older segments, the ones that are wedged between the two retaining walls, that need to be reconstructed. Theoretically, they could be repaired in a few different ways, perhaps with a more modern steel staircase overtop the existing stones and walls.
“Nobody wants them to disappear,” Director Sean Kershaw admitted, and held out hope that the city could find funding down the road.
My opinion is that the steps need a hero, someone or some institution that would be able to piece together money from a mix of public and private sources. Certainly, it’s a worthy project for state government given its central connection to the J.J. Hill House, one of the landmark properties of the Minnesota Historical Society. You could also make a case that local preservationists, folks interested in ensuring the integrity of the Ramsey and Cathedral Hill landscapes, should be interested in raising money to restore the steps.
The Walnut Street steps represent living history, one of the few public links between the J.J. Hill house and the neighborhood. They’re a remnant of the old era of barons and hoi polloi, a connection between the upper and lower classes, the only pedestrian street in the city that traverses both the steep St. Paul bluffs and the most recent natural barrier, the I-35E freeway that was constructed through the West 7th corridor after years of litigation.
Someone needs to help bring this pedestrian gem back to St. Paul, or they’ll wind up like the long-lost and beloved Green Steps on the West Side, a case of failure, something for old folks to wistfully remember. Over on Walnut Street, it doesn’t have to end that way. Let’s get started, and take things one step at a time.