Justus Ramsey Stone House reports raise possibility of demolition — or relocation – Twin Cities
When St. Paul restaurateur Moe Sharif applied to the city for a demolition permit this summer, he listed the structure as a “storage shed.” The historic Justus Ramsey House, believed to be the oldest limestone house still standing in its original location in the city, is in the eyes of historic preservationists anything but.
The unusual structure sits on the West Seventh Street patio of Burger Moe’s, and its uncertain fate after a partial collapse of a side wall has drawn the interest of a wide cross-section of the city’s downtown civic leadership, including the mayor’s office.
On Monday, in front of an audience of some 50 onlookers, the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission voted 4-1 to delay a final decision over Sharif’s demolition application — as well as public testimony — until Dec. 5, giving all sides more time to negotiate an amenable solution.
“This is incredibly frustrating,” said Elyse Jensen, president of Historic St. Paul, after the vote. “This is totally unnecessary. We shouldn’t even be here. It sets a really dangerous precedent — demolition by neglect.”
Two-foot limestone walls
Sharif submitted to the city an engineering report from BKBM Engineers this summer that called the ailing structure ripe for demolition and a danger to public safety.
A dueling report from MacDonald & Mack Architects commissioned by the city’s Department of Planning and Economic Development found just the opposite: two-foot limestone walls that could yet be repaired, and a house that, if necessary, could be picked up and relocated to another part of the city.
“Due to the simplicity of the interior … returning the interior to an appropriate finish would not be difficult or costly,” reads the city-commissioned assessment.
The Justus Ramsey House condition assessment, filed on Oct. 7 by MacDonald & Mack, a Minneapolis-based architecture firm specializing in historic preservation, indicated that the work required to repair the damage is “not exotic.” The report states that stone in the rubble pile can be used for rebuilding and supplemented with additional limestone.
The report also cited evidence that roof rafters, sheathing, stud and chimney brick were removed other than through natural causes and were not found among the collapsed debris. Sharif, through his attorney, has pointed to building alterations that likely occurred in the 1940s, some 60 years before he acquired the property.
Too much deferred maintenance?
The most significant damage includes the roof, chimney and two walls of the house. The city’s report stated that the “observed deterioration does not correlate with natural deterioration mechanisms.”
“It is unusual to find holes in a roof that does not show evidence of rot through every layer of the assembly in the area of the hole,” the report states. “It is unusual to find a chimney that is not used to exhaust hot air and gasses in poor repair… Rapid deterioration and structural failure of the chimney, especially the section of masonry missing under the roof, must have been caused by another event.”
The city’s report concluded that a majority of the damage to the Justus Ramsey house appeared to have been caused by deferred maintenance and a lack of repair of the structure, and that the damage to the north wall and to the chimney was observed several months ago with “no corrective action being taken at the time.”
After the hearing Sharif released the following statement: “Moe cares deeply about the community and Saint Paul’s history. He is open to any conversation regarding the best way to preserve the legacy of the building and the history it represents.”
His attorney, Brian Alton, submitted into the public record a letter, dated Nov. 3, from Advanced Masonry Restoration indicating that the building was in dire of need of repair, but removal, storage and reconstruction elsewhere would likely cost in the vicinity of $132,000.
“It is our opinion that the current state of the building presents a life safety issue,” wrote Andrew Kromroy, a vice president with the masonry company. “The southwest gable wall has collapsed into the interior. The northwest wall was removed at some time in the past leaving the roofing joist unsupported along the northwest side.”
In a separate letter dated Oct. 31, Richard Dana, a construction consultant and former chair of the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission, informed Sharif that the original house was almost three feet wider and had been heavily modified, with an entire wall and eave overhang removed, probably in the 1940s, to make room for construction on a neighboring lot.
Additional alterations likely took place throughout the century, including the addition of two rectangular windows in the northeast wall. A plywood subfloor showed evidence that the entire floor had been removed at some point, probably to make room for plumbing, with roof openings added without evidence of a permit.
“I really don’t know how you maintain a building when everything you should do is a code violation caused by actions taken in the past,” wrote Dana, who quoted from the MacDonald & Mack report and said the building could and should be removed, relocated and rebuilt at “another site, where the work could be done safely” and thoroughly.
On the demolition permit filed this summer by Semple Excavating on behalf of property owner Moijtaba Sharifkhani (Eddy Sharif), the incorrect address was listed for the Justus Ramsey House, with the “shed” listed as 242 W. Seventh St., while the correct address is 252 W. Seventh St.
On June 29, Sharif submitted a standard demolition application to the city to tear down the structure, citing public safety concerns, according to Crystal King, a spokesperson for St. Paul Planning and Economic Development. While the house is protected due to its placement on national and state historic registers, the demolition permit process can be bypassed if a structural assessment finds imminent danger to public safety. Demolition of the structure was paused after Historic St. Paul and other preservationists filed an emergency petition with the state’s Environmental Quality Board for a mandatory environmental assessment.
On Oct. 14, Sharif asked that his demolition application be forwarded to the Heritage Preservation Commission for review.
“I haven’t talked to the property owner so I’m not completely sure what the motivations are, but it seems like the presence of that structure doesn’t seem like he feels like it’s conducive to his business,” said St. Paul Councilmember Rebecca Noecker, in a recent interview. “I’ve been hearing a great deal from the community who are very concerned because this is a designated historic structure… so it’s causing a lot of concern to consider that that could potentially be demolished.”
Noecker said that if either side does not agree with the HPC’s decision on the Justus Ramsey House on Dec. 5, they can appeal the decision to the city council.
The structure was officially condemned by the city on Sept. 21.