New Thing: Take An Historical Tour of Summit Hill (aka the neighborhood where I live)


Each year I make a list of new things I want to try. Some of them are emotionally or physically challenging, a lot of them will make you question how I became an adult without doing them. You can read about previous adventures here.

Are you guys ready for the nerdiest hobby you’ve never heard of?

I like to call said hobby ‘house walks.’

Before she up and moved (weep!) my BFF and I loved to walk the streets of my neighborhood and make up stories about the people who lived behind the bricked, ivied facades.

“He’s a corporate lawyer and she’s a social worker. They met in college at improv, back when he was an English major and thought he was going to become a journalist who would share truths with the world. She’s really into gardening but isn’t very good at it and he’s too sweet to just tell her to hire a gardener. They have two standard poodles named Simon and Garfunkel.”

And on and on and on for hours.

The weird thing is, my neighborhood is steeped in real, actual true stories that I have made zero effort to learn. Like, people whiz by my apartment on segways (!!!) while a guide shrills about architecture and gestures to the condos across the street where gangsters sipped cocktails in the basement and Scott and Zelda lived when their daughter was born.

Do I take notice of these things? I do not. I hustle past the historical plaques on my way to CVS and wonder, devotedly, if they’ll have my favorite lipstick in stock.

But I don’t want to be that person who lives in a city for years completely unaware of its history. When people ask me about the mob and our capital city I don’t want to be all “Mu-huh?” (shrug)

Which is what I currently do.

So last weekend, I corralled two of my favorite ladies and we wandered around in the sunshine with 15 other nerdy, historical souls learning about rich people and our fair city.

Highlights:Olden day millionaires had no qualms about having favorite children, announcing to everyone who their favorite child was, giving them their company and then building them a mansion next door.

Olden day millionaires were also so rich and so concerned about their legacies, they would pull down their old mansion and reuse the bricks in their new carriage house out of fear that someone would turn their previous home into ….. an apartment building! Horrors!

You can be a totally famous radio personality, live on a fancy-ass street in a nice house, and drive an old Volvo. Which everyone will agree is The Cutest.

Want to impress your neighbors? Put the expensive, glossy bricks on the front of the house and use matte, stock-standard stuff on the rest of your house. Apparently, that’s why it was called ‘the gilded age.’

Want to not impress your neighbors? Put brightly colored plastic Adirondack chairs and a gas grill in front of your multi-million dollar historical mansion.

Things the historical society would rather you didn’t do: have a garage that faces the street. Gah-ross.

It’s possible to buy an honest-to-god, 14-bedroom, historic home (in need of many repairs) for 1.1 million dollars. Doesn’t that seem shockingly low? I have a friend in NYC whose one-bedroom cost that much.

St. Paul’s most famous citizen – F. Scott Fitzgerald – wasn’t a particularly kind or agreeable human. Apparently, when his grandmother died (from whom he got all his money before he was famous) he wrote in his diary “Grandmother died today. Her greatest gift.” Guy, come on.

What do you know about the history of your city? Which obvious, beloved local tourist attractions have you never seen?
P.S. Other new things: host a tea party, take a flight lesson, ride a segway (WHICH IS THE BEST AND YOU NEED TO DO TODAY)

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  1. Ashley of Ashley Abroad

    Really interesting post! Detroit too has so many gorgeous historic homes in need of repair… it's actually really sad to see them in shambles.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      I've actually really been wanting to visit Detroit!

  2. katielookingforward

    F. Scott Fitzgerald…..kind of an ass. The "paris wife" was historical fiction, but a good read if you haven't gotten to it yet. I also love to play the pretend house game!

  3. Haley Keller

    This is so cool. I love the idea of learning about the history of the place you live. The funny thing is my hometown is the county seat of the county that Abraham Lincoln grew up in, so everyone makes a huge deal about him here, even though he actually lived roughly half an hour north. I always regarded that as the most significant thing my town really had going for it historically. (Other than this one movie that I was filmed there before I was born that everyone also likes to talk about.)

    However, there's this nice, old historic house in my town that as kids we loved to make up ghost stories about. I was at least eighteen before I learned the truth about the house and why it was actually a historic house (which makes it rather out of place in the rest of our town). Turns out, a woman and her husband built the house and then the husband died after apparently being poisoned. Not long after, she remarried and that husband also died of an apparent poisoning. There was a whole huge trial, and for some reason it just happened to become really sensational to everyone around in the area and not just our town. It's an interesting story, and I'm happy I finally learned about it. It's so cool to know about things like that happening where you live, especially when you tend to think of the place as mostly insignificant.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      So did she do it? Did she poison them?!

  4. Lulu

    F. Scott Fitzgerald was kind of horrible in a variety of different ways, haha.

    Thanks for sharing! This post was pretty neat.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      The way he treated Zelda – horrible!

  5. Kate

    The James J. Hill house! Your neighborhood is beautiful! When I was doing a staycation alternative a few years ago (stay with friends who live 5 hours away), I dragged them all to all the local attractions. We loved the James J. Hill house (and all of the crazy stories about the ridiculous wealthy and their building politics!) and then we drank classic cocktails and played Ticket to Ride, cause we love a good theme.

    I live in Milwaukee and they have Doors Open weekends, where local historical buildings where you might not be able to go (churches and private homes and office buildings) will open their doors and give tours. It's so fun.

  6. earlynovemberlove

    I'm from Pittsburgh and have never been the the Warhol (the Andy Warhol museum)! I'm sure there are more significant touristy places I've overlooked, but that one is high on my list to visit soon. I don't know how much I *know* of Pittsburgh's history, but I've heard/learned a lot from my dad.

    Nearby there are 2 location where famous zombie films were made! Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. It even says something like "filmed in Evans City, PA" in the opening credits of Night of the Living Dead, which I thought was pretty cool 🙂 Maybe that doesn't count as historical, but it's a claim to fame anyway!

  7. nalinki

    During my studies in Vienna, I was living in the center. There, you pass by architectural highlights every day just by taking public transport to get to your favorite pub. Only when I started with photography, I started seeing the city with different eyes. I was strolling through tiny streets, walking ways I've never passed before. Then, I spent several days acting like a tourist in my own city. I was the first time in the Sisi museum, visited the under ground booking the Third man tour. Also history-wise there is much to explore that one usually misses due to the blindness of every day life.

  8. Destrehan's Daughter

    I used to be a tour guide in my home town of Destrehan and know a bunch of factoids about nearby New Orleans as well. I really want to get my professional tour guiding license when I retire.

  9. Anonymous

    Oh how fun! I live a few blocks from you and have been wanting to go on that historical homes tour! I think I will have to work it in to my schedule now!


  10. Caleb Dan

    This place looks beautiful and what i think of it is a way that helps with proper with representing it all well and this is the way how it works fort lauderdale bus routes is one of the things wich helps me completely with my traveling.

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