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Discover The Author of “The Great Gatsby” in St. Paul

A snow-covered statue of a young F. Scott Fitzgerald at a building at 25 North Dale in St. Paul. Photo Brian E. Clark.

By Brian E. Clark

It’s not difficult to find traces of the famed writer F. Scott Fitzgerald in St. Paul, Minnesota. They are seemingly around every corner.

If you scratch the surface of neighborhoods off Summit Avenue, you’re likely to find a passel of places where Fitzgerald – author of “The Great Gatsby” and other Jazz Age tales – lived, studied and played as a youth.

Historic District Bed & Breakfast. Photo Brian E. Clark.

On a recent snowy visit to Minnesota’s capital city, my friend and I stayed at the Historic District Bed & Breakfast at 483 Ashland Ave. (hdbbsaintpaul.com).  The attractive, red brick house was designed by the prolific architect Clarence H. Johnston for the Gregg family, who moved into the then-new, 5,500-square-foot home in 1896.

Fitzgerald, St. Paul’s most-famous native son, never lived there, but you can stay in a room named after the writer, get a taste of what it was like to dwell in an upper class, turn-of-the-20th Century home and dine on a delicious breakfast, beautifully presented by owner/chef Kevin Greenlee.

Though the Greggs were but a family of four, Greenlee said they may have had an equal number of servants attending them. Such was the life of a wealthy St. Paul industrialist, he mused.

Kevin Greenlee, owner and chef at the Historic District B&B. Photo Brian E. Clark.

Fitzgerald was born the same year the Greggs’ home was built, less than 100 yards away in the upscale San Mateo Flats apartment building. That red-brick Colonial Revival-style structure is just one street to the north at 481 Laurel Ave. in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood.

The late 1800s were boom times for St. Paul, said Cynthia Schreiner Smith, our Fitzgerald neighborhood guide. The city had quadrupled in size in the 20 years before Fitzgerald’s birth.

“At the time, it was the Wild West,” said Smith, who leads historical, ghost and other tours in her hometown (cyncitytours.com)

St. Paul guide Cynthia Shreiner Smith stands in front of the F. Scott Fitzgerald House, a National Historic Landmark. Fitzgerald rewrote “This Side of Paradise” at 599 Summit Ave. in the summer of 1919 when he was 22. That novel made him famous and launched his career.  The New York-style row house is known as “Summit Terrace.” Photo Brian E. Clark.

Huge fortunes were being made, including millions by James J. Hill, a railroad baron who built a massive, 36,000-square-foot home in St. Paul. The Gilded Age mansion, completed in 1891 at 240 Summit Ave., is now a museum and belongs to the Minnesota Historical Society.

It sits at the eastern end of Summit, a five-mile long boulevard that has the longest stretch of preserved Victorian homes in the U.S. and is considered one of the most beautiful streets in the country, Smith told us.

Fitzgerald’s father, Edward, came from the gentry class in Maryland and named his son after distant cousin Francis Scott Key, who penned the lyrics to the “Star Spangled Banner” in 1814. His mother, Molly McQuillan Fitzgerald, came from a family that found success in real estate.

And while the Fitzgeralds rubbed shoulders with the upper crust in St. Paul, Edward was not wealthy.  In fact, his wicker-furniture business failed  a year after his son’s birth and the family moved to Buffalo, New York where Edward worked as a salesman for Procter & Gamble.

Edward was fired from his job in 1908 and the family returned to St. Paul, where they were still able to live a middle-class life, thanks to the generosity of his wife’s family.  Less than a block away from Fitzgerald’s birthplace is McQuillan Park, named for cousin Arthur McQuillan, who was also born in 1896 and became a successful businessman.

“Even though F. Scott was in New York for a decade as a boy, he always considered St. Paul his home,” said Smith. “And many of the characters in his stories and books were based on people he met and knew here.”

Guide Cynthia Schreiner Smith gestures toward the second-floor apartment where F. Scott Fitzgerald was born in 1896. Photo Brian E. Clark.

Next up on our tour was the former home of the St. Paul Academy at 25 North Dale – just a block off Summit Avenue – where Fitzgerald was a student from 1908 to 1911. A statue of the writer, with his school books on his lap, sits to the side of the steps leading to the entrance of the building, now home to a law firm and other offices.

“He wrote his first stories there that were published in the school newspaper,” she said.

The young author also attended Professor Baker’s Dancing School with friends in Ramaley Hall at 664 Grand Avenue. Alas, the building was demolished long ago and is now the site of a liquor store.

A home where F. Scott Fitzgerald lived at 626 Summit Ave. in St. Paul, Minn. Photo Brian E. Clark.

After 1911, Fitzgerald was sent to a boarding school in Hackensack, New Jersey to continue his education, Smith said.

“He was not  disciplined student, so he may have been asked to leave,” she said.

But he was popular with fellow students at the St. Paul Academy and he founded several clubs.  One was called “The Scandal Detectives” and its members performed Fitzgerald-penned plays at the home of life-long friend Cecil Reed. He lived at 499 Portland St., just two blocks from St. Paul Academy.

Smith also showed us the locations where the Fitzgerald family lived at 514 Holly St. after they first moved back to St. Paul from New York, and then 509 Holly in 1910 before living at 499 Holly Street (now razed) from 1911 to 1914.

“They didn’t stay long in one place,” she added.

Fitzgerald came home from school for holidays and summers before heading off to college at Princeton University. He left college before graduation to join the Army during WWI and never completed his degree.

During one of those trips back to St. Paul, the handsome – but insecure – Fitzgerald met Ginerva King at 475 Summit Ave., the home of his close friend Marie Hersey. He reportedly got his first kiss there from the pretty and rich King, whom he used as a model for the “flapper girls” in his novels.

Smith also took us inside the University Club, 513 Summit Ave., where Fitzgerald attended many parties and danced in an elegant ballroom that appeared in some of his books.

And we also strolled by the St. John the Evangelist Episcopalian Church, 60 North Kent St., where a drunken Fitzgerald reportedly interrupted a service in 1922 by marching up to the pulpit and playing his trumpet.

We also saw Mrs. Porterfield’s boarding house on 513 Summit, where Fitzgerald met with aspiring writer Donald Ogden Stewart in 1921 and 22 and discussed literature on the front porch.

Fitzgerald introduced Stewart to prominent New York magazine editors, which helped his career immensely, Smith said. Stewart went on to win an Academy Award for “The Philadelphia Story” in 1940.

Smith said Fitzgerald only lived in St. Paul off and on for about 16 years, but it had a huge influence on his life.

“He certainly socialized with the upper class, but wasn’t really part of it because his family wasn’t wealthy,” she said. “So he was a bit of an outsider, but the friendships he made there lasted a lifetime.”

Smith also said that Fitzgerald had something of a ‘love-hate’ relationship with his hometown.  And a character in one of his books did describe Summit Avenue as ‘a mausoleum of American architectural monstrosities’” she acknowledged.

“But I think it was more love than hate,” she said. “And the neighborhoods where he walked haven’t changed that much since he lived here.

“So you really can walk in his steps and get a feel for what life might have been like for him back then. And many of the homes have been renovated since the 1970s, when the neighborhood was in a rather sad condition.”

Smith said Fitzgerald was a non-practicing Catholic, so he may not have attended services at the massive Cathedral of St. Paul, which was finished in 1915.

The Beaux-Arts style building, which is more than 300 feet tall and has a dome that is 120 feet in diameter, can hold 3,000 people. It is located at the corner of Selby and Summit avenues, overlooks downtown St. Paul and is open to the public for tours.  (https://www.cathedralsaintpaul.org/visit-us)

W.A. Frost and Co. Photo courtesy W.A. Frost and Co.

And if you get hungry, a favorite Cathedral Hill dining spot is the W.A. Frost and Company Restaurant  (wafrost.com) at 374 Selby Avenue in the Dacotah Building, which was built a few years before Fitzgerald’s birth and has been restored.

Once home to Frost Pharmacy, the attractive, Richardson Romanesque-style structure has arched doorways and windows, copper cornices, and walls of sandstone and brick.

It has been home to the W.A. Frost restaurant since 1975 and is known for serving contemporary American food with a patio for outdoor dining in warmer weather.

My guest and I stopped in for a meal and sat by a crackling fireplace. She enjoyed a delicious seared-fish salad, while I had baked chicken breast, black bean puree, sherry pepperonata and crispy cilantro.  For dessert, we split a peppermint lava cake.

We had lunch another day across the street at Nina’s Coffee Cafe, 165 Western Ave. (ninascoffeecafe.com) in an equally old structure. Named for a famous madame, Nina’s serves tasty baked goods and sandwiches. We dined on banana bread, scones and coffee before walking around the historic neighborhood.

I know I’ll back, but next time it’ll be during the spring, summer or fall, with better weather for strolling, cycling and dining outdoors.


Brian E. Clark

Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis.  A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.

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