The old house on the hill on St. Paul’s East Side joined the city’s list of worst vacant properties back in 2012, but you wouldn’t know it.
It has power and water. The property taxes and mortgage payments are current. And someone lives there.
Sure, the front door is boarded up. But the owner, Arjo Adams, comes in and out through the back.
The city of St. Paul wants to tear down the house, saying that dozens of code violations make it a threat to the safety of Adams and anyone else inside it. They had set a demolition date of Nov. 3, until Adams found a lawyer and got it postponed. Next month, the St. Paul City Council will decide whether to knock down the home where Adams has lived for more than two decades.
Nothing about the drama over 676 Wells St. is conventional. That has a lot to do with Adams, 61, an artist, tinkerer and urban scavenger with an explosive laugh and a distaste for being told what to do.
He grew up on a farm in North Dakota and moved to the Twin Cities after college. In 1989 and 1990, he ran a small theater company, Spirit of the Horse, in a warehouse in downtown St. Paul. About that time, Rebecca Rand, the legendary brothel madam, gave Adams the house on Wells, which she had acquired as a crash pad for some of her employees. James Eli Shiffer • email@example.com Asset or eyesore? Arjo Adams still lives in his boarded-up house at 676 Wells St., despite city efforts to tear it down. Over the years, he’s added sculptures, like the gyroscope in front, bowling-ball planters, and an art park that sprawled onto neighboring lots, which the city removed.
Adams had his sister put her name on the deed, because, he said, “I don’t like to own things.” Still, he made it his own.
The oldest part of the house dates to 1876, and it’s perched above the Bruce Vento Trail just east of Payne Avenue. The roof sports a barn-style metal cupola and a weather vane with a pig riding on top. The skull of a cow hangs by a chain from the siding, and a gyroscope-like sculpture sprouts from the yard. The back yard descends steeply through terraces built from field stones, old foundation blocks and other stuff.
Over the years, the sculpture garden sprawled onto neighboring lots and became so beloved among neighbors that it earned the name “People’s Park.”
City inspectors were not so enamored. In June 2012, a city inspector condemned the house, mainly because the electricity had been cut off. Power was soon restored, but subsequent inspections that year revealed 96 violations, including unsafe wiring, foundation problems and substandard plumbing.
Houses declared vacant for safety reasons are supposed to stay vacant. But that October, Adams had a meeting with the city’s top code enforcer, Steve Magner. Adams said he got permission from Magner to stay in the house. Magner denies that. Either way, the city seemed to look the other way as Adams worked on his house.
In 2013, the city bulldozed People’s Park, saying it was eliminating a safety hazard. Neighbors protested and rallied around Adams, whose house was next on the demolition list. “Don’t take him away from us, because our block without Arjo will never be the same,” wrote one of them, Nallely Castro Montoya.
A local group, Dayton’s Bluff Neighborhood Housing Services, agreed to a loan of up to $35,000 to repair the house. In March, the City Council voted to give Adams six months to get it done. He argues he’s done more than half the work, but the city contends an inspection last month found few problems had been remedied. It didn’t help that police raided the house on Oct. 1 and found a cache of drugs in an upstairs apartment where a friend of Adams was staying. Adams was not charged.
Last week, Adams gave me a tour of 676 Wells, pointing out the woodwork, the working smoke detector, the new plumbing. I saw some exposed wiring and half-finished renovations, but no evidence the place was a garbage house, structurally unsound or ready to burst into flames.
“They seem to think this is somehow dangerous to my lifestyle,” said Adams, stretched out on an armchair next to a small forest of potted plants and cactus.
Two days later, in a hearing room in City Hall, Adams sat mostly silent, his eyes closed, trying to calm the ulcer in his stomach. For two hours, his lawyer, Melvin Welch, made the best case he could for more time, while Magner read off the litany of code violations and signaled his desire to hire a vendor and “remove the structure.”
The legislative hearing officer, Marcia Moermond, sounded almost apologetic as she announced her conclusion: She would recommend no more delay in the City Council’s correction order.
Moermond wasn’t even finished before Adams stood up, turned toward the door and walked out.
He went back home and sat down in his back yard, reflecting amid the bowling ball sculptures and boilers-turned-planters. “This just ain’t fair, ain’t fair at all,” he said.
It’s understandable that the city has lost patience with Adams. Yet of the 52 properties on its list of most-troubled vacant properties, 34 of them have been there longer than 676 Wells. Five of them are owned by the city.
Demolishing Adams’ house might seem like a sensible outcome to the St. Paul Department of Safety & Inspections. For the city of St. Paul, it makes no sense at all.
Feed Loader Arjo Adams' property in St. Paul is a sculpture garden of his own creation, in this case displaying four bowling balls al fresco. The sculpture park sprawled onto a neighboring lot until the city removed it.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-673-4116. Read his blog at startribune.com/fulldisclosure.
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