Hail at the Como Park Conservatory

19On June 23, 1962, golf ball-size hail rained down on the glass dome of Como Park’s Conservatory in St. Paul. Glass panels shattered sending shards falling on the visitors below who had sought shelter from the storm. By the end the Conservatory, built in 1915, looked like a war zone. The hail had damaged rare and valuable plants and the gardens were forced to close for the first time ever.

After the storm, gardeners tending the injured plants were forced to wear protective helmets as glass pieces continued to fall. $75,000 in emergency funding had to be secured and the glass panels were replaced with fiberglass. The Conservatory re-opened four months later.

By 1974 the constant sun and weather had clouded the fiberglass panels, depriving the plants below of sunlight. While the Conservatory was placed on the National Register of Historic Places that year, it was in desperate need of repair.

It wasn’t until 1987 that major renovations to the Conservatory began, including replacing all the glass. Those renovations weren’t finished until 1992, 30 years after that hailstorm riddled holes in one of St. Paul’s greatest attractions.

[You can learn more about the history of Como Park and the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory in the book The Jewel of Como.]

Como Park’s East & West Gates

Como Park East GateThe gates at the east and west entrances to St. Paul’s Como Park are real live examples of recycling and second chances.

East Gates
The east gates are located at East Como Blvd. and Gateway Dr., southeast of the lake. The gates were erected in 1933 using Kasota limestone reclaimed from the second Ramsey County Courthouse, which was built in 1895 and replaced in the 1930s by the current courthouse building. The reused stone included the courthouse’s cornerstone.

Edward Bassford designed the 1885 courthouse and his son, Charles Bassford, designed the gates. As city architect, Charles Bassford also designed the Como Zoological building.

Midway GateWest Gates
The west gates at Hamline Avenue and Midway originally came from the sprawling estate of wealthy businessman Oliver Crosby. He built a mansion, greenhouses and elaborate gardens—all known as Stonebridge—that overlooked the Mississippi River in St. Paul. After Crosby died in 1922 his will was contested and the estate eventually had to be sold off piece by piece.

In 1936, E. E. Englebert bought two lots of the former estate on Mississippi River Boulevard which included the original massive brick and ornamental iron entrance gate to the mansion. He donated the gate to Como Park and in 1937 the Works Progress Administration had it reinstalled as the west gate to Como Park at the intersection of Hamline Avenue and Midway.

Another survivor of Stonebridge also relocated to Como Park, the namesake of the Frog Pond, the sculpture of a granite bullfrog.

Horton & Hamline Gate
There’s another potential gate to Como Park, a lone stone pillar standing at the corner of Horton and Hamline Avenues. Unfortunately, I haven’t come across anything about the history or origins of this pillar.

Gates Ajar at Como Park

Gates AjarI love Como Park. That’s why I tried to write a novel about it. One of it’s most captivating qualities is its sense of history. One of the park’s earliest features, the floral sculpture Gates Ajar, goes back to 1894 and is still around today.

At the time it was a new form of display heavy on flowers and bordering on kitsch.  The gated stairway was sculpted from wood and wire frames, covered in carpet bedding and then packed with moss and mud. Flowers were then planted, resulting in eye-popping blooms of intricate designs. The actual iron gates were added during the 1930s. Como Park’s Gardener Blog has details and pictures showing how the Gates Ajar are planted today.

Originally located 150 feet east of the Schiller Monument, today the Gates Ajar can be found off Lexington Avenue to the west of the Lakeside Pavilion. The gates were also temporarily located near the Conservatory for a brief period. In 1951 the gates were rebuilt to four times their original size and moved to the current location.

Historic photo of Gates AjarGates Ajar was the first floral sculpture experiment from park superintendent Frederick Nussbaumer. Those floral sculptures continued in 1895 with a life-size elephant perched on an island in the former Cozy Lake (drained in the 1920s and site of the current golf course), a floral fort complete with cannons and an eagle in 1896 and a standard globe sometime later.

But the Gates Ajar outlasted them all and is one of the earliest features of Como Park that still exists today. The Minnesota Historical Society has a few pictures of Gates Ajar from over the years. Refurbished in 2007, the Gates Ajar continue to be a popular location for pictures.

Remembering My Grandpa

Last night Yeshumnesh asked if I cried when my grandpa died. Actually, she asked if I would cry if Milo kept eating and eating until his stomach exploded and then he died. I tend to ignore those bizarre ‘what if’ scenarios and then she asked more seriously if I cried whey my grandpa died.

I didn’t cry.

He died in 2002 and I tried to explain that it was his time. I was sad to see him go, but he was barely hanging on. He’d grown so frail and skinny at the end. Medical complications were getting ridiculous and while I don’t remember it all, I think amputation had been discussed. That’s not something an 80-year-old man needs to go through. His death wasn’t unexpected, it was a mercy.

Then I showed Yeshumnesh some pictures.

This is how I remember my grandpa. That and the fact that he called me ‘turd.’ If I had more time I would have explained to Yeshumnesh what I wrote for my grandpa’s funeral. I don’t think I’ve ever written anything else that so perfectly captures a person. That was Grandpa, making people laugh.

While talking about him I realized none of my kids ever met him and even Abby barely got to know him. By the time she was in the picture my grandpa was already frail in body and mind. They all would have loved laughing in his kitchen. And that’s actually one of my greatest treasures—standing around in my grandpa’s kitchen with my brother and cousins and Abby, telling stories and laughing so hard.

A line I wrote nine years ago sums it up: He grew too old before I grew up, and I miss him.

This picture captures him so perfectly, I can almost smell the Old Spice.

Classic Les

A Sunday in Ethiopia

Meeting Milo's Nanny
Meeting Milo's nanny.

I wrote a piece for The High Calling about adoption. Specifically I wrote about the day we met our son’s family in Southern Ethiopia and the roller coaster of emotions that day held.

We woke up early on our third day in Ethiopia. Today was the day we would meet our son’s family.

In March of 2009 my wife and I traveled to Ethiopia to adopt our son. We looked into his eyes for the first time on Friday. We spent Saturday morning holding his tiny body in our arms as he slept. On Sunday we wouldn’t see him at all, but we would meet his birth family.

We crowded into a van and drove three and a half hours to the Hosanna region in Southern Ethiopia. We were told to expect a harrowing journey—bumpy roads, no seat belts, crazy drivers. This trip is the reason we purchased emergency medical evacuation insurance. But the newly paved road was smooth and offered beautiful glimpses of life in rural Ethiopia. We saw cows and goats crowding the road. We stopped to tour a traditional thatched roof hut. I saw women gathered around a muddy stream with yellow jerry cans, collecting their daily water.

Read the full story.

If you want more on our adoption experience, you can always check out my book Addition by Adoption: Kids, Causes & 140 Characters.