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Spencer House

This year we celebrate 150 years of the Spencer House, the home I share with my partner in life, my kids and far too many animals in the West End of Saint Paul. It is one of the oldest houses in our city and listed on the National Register of Historic places.

We aren’t exactly sure when it was built, only that the census of 1857 did not have it listed and the census of 1860 did. Minnesota required a census prior to admission to the Union in 1858, which is why we have so much information on the surroundings if not the house itself. Celebrating the Spencer House’s anniversary along with our state seems like a reasonable estimate.

There is some evidence that it was indeed built in 1858. It is identical to a home known to have been built by Henry Knox, and he was also known to have lost a home built on spec to foreclosure as the effects of the Panic of 1857 closed in on him. History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes wonderfully. We also know that the previous home on this site burned down in 1857 from fire records, and part of its foundation are still in the basement. 1858 is as good of a guess as any.

When this house was built, Saint Paul was a tiny capitol on the frontier, about 20,000 people who huddled by the Mississippi and hoped that it would not be iced over more than about 4 months a year so they could have contact with the outside world. They made nearly everything themselves, and were quick to set up sawmills, plate glass manufacturers, and blacksmiths that could turn out nails. This was a growing city that needed material to feed its growing self, something like a gangly and voracious teenager.

The house itself is in the Greek Revival style, which is to say the simple wooden box without an elaborate portico that resembles a Greek temple only in its square proportion, but is otherwise a continuation of the Federal Style. It was built with the cheaper “Balloon Frame” construction common on the frontier, but each stud is individually mortised into the rim beam, suggesting an older master carpenter led construction. Like the Knox House around the park, it has tall windows in the front that stretch from the floor to ten feet high, a style I have only seen otherwise in Galena, Illinois. The mind that laid all of these out is unknown to us except by these details, and in them he mysteriously lives on.

The Spencers were the first residents of the house, as far as we know. William Austin Spencer and Marie Antoinette Langford Spencer came from Utica, New York to settle here with relatives. The world they came from was Greek in name and architecture, this being the only model that was known for a young Democracy like the USofA. They were likely very comfortable in a Greek Revival house that, like the land they left, rendered the values of Democracy in architecture.

We know a lot about the Spencers because of their many connections. They were active abolitionists and founders of the Republican Party of Minnesota. In return for this service, President Lincoln appointed William to be Clerk of the US District Court, a post he served until his death, and gave the family a photograph of Lincoln with his Cabinet that the family still has. They raised their children in this house, Charlie, Edward, and William Jr. In the attic they carved their initials boldly in railing:

Charles L. Spencer Apr. 14, ’69

This was their playroom, and they had a day of mourning without school for many years on the anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination. Young Charles, 13 years old on that day, would grown up to help Shepard through our legislature a bill authorizing a “Non-Profit Corporation” in 1896 at the request of his Aunt, Fanny Spencer Wilder. They set up the Wilder Foundation, which Charlie ran until his death in 1941.

Time was not kind to the Spencer House, and when the family moved two doors down it became an apartment – first two units, later four. It was on the “Extremely Deferred Maintenance Plan” as a run down apartment for nearly a century, a status that had both good and bad. The windows were painted shut most of this time, meaning the original hand-rolled and wavy glass from the Pioneer Days is still intact, but the interior walls settled as much as 3 1/4 inches (a measurement I use often) causing the plaster to fail throughout.

When my ex-wife and I restored it, we had to pull it apart and start over. We were careful to use as many old things as we could, especially the rare finds like the hand-turned screws that held the massive doors in place. We also updated where we could, but carefully. This house has a life all its own, and renovation has to be approached like a surgery. First, do no harm. We had to learn how to hang doors from scratch, glaze windows, install trim, and many other things. Between missed nails and carelessness with saws, there is enough of my blood in the Spencer House to make it a member of my family.

There are many more stories of the Spencer House, but space precludes them for now. Please join me in wishing this wonderful monument to the Pioneer Spirit a happy 150 years and many more to come.

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