Thomas Sinclair House, 402 North 4th Street, Stillwater, Minnesota
|Edit with form|
Thomas Sinclair House
|Address:||402 4th Street N|
|Neighborhood/s:||North Hill, Stillwater, Minnesota|
|Washington County, Minnesota|
|Primary Style:||Greek Revival|
|Historic Function:||House/single dwelling or duplex|
|Current Function:||House/single dwelling or duplex|
|Material of Exterior Wall Covering:||Wood|
|Material of Roof:||Asphalt|
|Material of Foundation:||Stone|
|First Owner:||Thomas Sinclair|
A Stone Mason at Work
This residence, with its limestone walk-out basement, is one of the most intriguing early houses in Stillwater.
In the 1850s, in Stillwater and the other cities on this western frontier, there was rampant land speculation. Everyone was aware that immigrants and settlers would be arriving here in increasing numbers, and the trick to getting rich was to buy land by the acre and sell it by the foot. At the height of this land speculation in 1856, a 24 year-old Irish stonemason, Thomas Sinclair, and his 18 year-old Maine-born wife, Elmira, purchased the 50 by 150 foot hillside lot on the northwest corner of Fourth and Linden Streets for the extravagant price of $350. The following year, they took out a $600 mortgage at a 4 percent monthly interest rate with a private party, and all the evidence indicates they built the house at 402 North Fourth Street in 1856 or 1857.
In late 1857, Stillwater’s economy collapsed as the speculative land bubble burst nationwide. Many residents left the city, and those who remained were bankrupt. Sinclair’s house on the hill went into foreclosure. Property values dropped. Yet in 1861, this property was assessed at $1,100 in the tax rolls indicating a substantial house was on the lot.
The terms of the Sinclair mortgage were renegotiated, and by 1863, the mortgage was paid off. However, it was the young wife, Elmira, who had to attend to the mortgage because Thomas was a soldier off fighting in the Civil War. By 1864, he had returned to Stillwater with the title, Captain, by which he was known for the remainder of his life.
A house swap occurred in 1864. Josiah and Lydia Staples purchased the Sinclair house and property for the then considerable sum of $1,500. At the same time, Sinclair purchased the Staples house at 414 North Fourth Street. That the two couples would trade residences makes sense because the Staples family with four children needed more space than the Sinclair family with two children.
The Staples ultimately raised seven children in their home at 402 North Fourth Street. The 1880 U.S. Census lists a substantial household in the residence. Josiah, age 52; Lydia, age 41; Albert who “works on the river”, age 25; Edward, who also “works on the river”, age 22; Llewelyn, age 20; Harry, age 14; Joe, age 11; Bla??, a daughter, age 9; Granville, age 5; Phoebe McLaughlin, age 69, Lydia’s mother; a Danish born servant, Caroline Peterson, age 15; and a Swedish-born servant, Matilda Oleson, age 23.
After Josiah’s death in 1892, and Lydia’s death in 1906, the home remained in the family’s hands until 1929.
Captain Sinclair went on to become one of the most significant stone masons in Stillwater working on the new Central School, and many of the commercial buildings downtown. In the Stillwater Messenger of January 6, 1871, he is listed as one of the house builders in Stillwater. Unfortunately, his career was cut short by his death on May 7, 1875 at the young age of 42. His wife, Elmira, died on May 27, 1881 at the age of 44.
Over the years, the house they built at 402 North Fourth Street has remained very much in its original condition. According to the insurance maps, the footprint of the house has remained unchanged since 1888, except for the underground garage which, according to a local anecdote, was added in 1941 during the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
In the early 1980s, Sherwood & Gloria Vegsund purchased the house which they described as a run down duplex. They removed the partitions and the ceiling in the kitchen, and opened up the space into one large room.
And why was the limestone basement so high? The answer is uncertain. The Vegsunds describe removing the badly deteriorated plaster from the limestone in the lower level and finding a genuine slate blackboard fastened to the wall and a photo of a woman standing on the front step looking like a school teacher. (The Vegsunds also built the stairway from the lower level to the first floor.)
Perhaps Sinclair used the space as a work shop. It was common for tradesmen to live above their shops. Or, as evidenced by the historic photograph, the grade of the street has changed over time, and perhaps what is now exposed was once at ground level. But, considering that all basements were dug by hand in the early days, there must have been some strong motivation for digging out the hillside to make the basement.
In appearance, the home is a classic Greek Revival style of the St. Croix Valley. The eaves that descend the gable, and then move toward the center of the house (“return eaves”); the six-pane-over-six-pane windows, the narrow sidelights and transom window over the door; the vertical corner boards that simulate Greek columns holding up the gable are all typical characteristics of this mid-nineteenth style. The historical integrity of this early home makes it part of a select group of fewer than 50 remaining Greek Revival houses. Fortunately, the current owners, David and Holly Ludwigson have proved to be zealous guardians of this unique home.
Sources: Valuation of the property is from the original annual tax assessors’ rolls, 1863-1870 (on microfilm in the St. Croix Collection, Stillwater Public Library). The Sinclair purchase deed was Book F Deeds, page 284. The first mortgage was in Book C Mortgages, page 643.The sellers deed from Sinclair to Staples in Book P of Deeds, page 86. There is a City of Stillwater application for a building permit, #846, which seems to pertain to a second house on the back of the lot. The 1860, 1870, and 1880 U.S. census provides information on both Sinclair and Staples. Josiah’s obituary is in the Stillwater Gazette, August 6, 1892. Email correspondence with Sherwood and Gloria Vegsund. Researched and written by Donald Empson.