Sarah and Neil Amundsen’s home, a century-old mansion that has seen better days, is a work in progress.
That hasn’t deterred them from hosting holiday parties and a Super Bowl gathering — not at their home, but at their sleek new studio just a couple of blocks away in downtown Chaska.
What’s it like, entertaining off-site?
“It’s awesome!” said Sarah. “You can come in days in advance and set up.”
And when the party’s over, the couple can choose to clean up right away — or go home, come back later, and not have to look at the mess in the meantime.
The Amundsens’ party spot, Hayloft Studios, is available for other people’s parties, too. The couple recently opened the space as an event center to generate income, after completing a massive makeover that transformed the former 1888 livery stable into a work studio and hangout.
What inspired the longtime urbanites to tackle two huge restorations in an outer-ring suburb?
Their passion for projects, and Chaska itself.
“It’s a town that never let go of its personality,” said Sarah.
They discovered the community several years ago when searching for a property they could use as a studio and in-town “cabin.” Designers by day, the Amundsens like to tinker on nights and weekends.
“In our free time, we’re project people,” said Sarah. She, an interior designer, likes to spread out plans, tile and paint samples, while Neil, an industrial designer, sketches and creates clay models.
But there was no room to tinker in their former home in south Minneapolis. “It was tiny,” she said. Working on a project meant covering the dining table — and having to move everything at mealtime.
One Saturday morning, they packed a cooler and their dog and drove around the Twin Cities to check out potential properties. Their last stop was an ancient brick structure in downtown Chaska. Originally built as a livery stable for a hotel next door, it had been converted into a law office.
The interior was chopped up, but they saw potential. “We were looking for a space we could re-create,” said Neil.
“You could see the bone structure,” said Sarah. “We said, ‘This is it!’ ”
The couple bought the place and began using it as their weekend getaway spot, while they plotted its restoration — and how to turn it into some kind of business.
“We thought about using it for occasional sales,” said Sarah, referring to stores that sell vintage and repurposed furniture and accessories. “Chaska is a mecca.”
But ultimately, they decided to operate the place as an event center. Passersby were peeking in the windows, curious to see what was going on inside the old building. “People want to be in here,” Neil said.
To transform the building, they turned to U + B Architecture & Design and principal Mark Burgess, with whom Sarah had worked previously. “He believed in the dream,” she said.
The U + B team went through several design iterations for the studio. In the end, they came up with a plan they describe as “ship in the bottle.” The original Chaska brick facade is the bottle. Inside is a sleek modern insert — “the ship.”
“We took out everything but the brick shell,” said lead architect Nate Golin. “There was a moment when nothing was here other than the brick walls.”
Bracing those old brick walls was a challenge, said Burgess. Working with contractor Professio, the solution was steel beams that perform the architectural equivalent of dental braces.
The old building also had lots of quirks. “Originally we weren’t going to take out the floor,” Golin said. “But we had to lower the floor to make the building accessible.” That uncovered a big rock in one corner, part of the original rubble foundation. “We had a discussion about what to do with it. We decided to leave it — and give it a name: Gordon.”
The 2,000-square-foot studio contains everything needed for a party — as well as work space. On the main floor, there’s a large bar, a butler’s pantry and a room with a table made of reclaimed pine from the original building, to accommodate a dinner party or a design project. Behind a barn door, also made of reclaimed wood, are laundry facilities. Upstairs is a lofted sitting room with a catwalk to a rooftop deck. There’s also a full bathroom on each floor.
The interior materials are clean and modern, including translucent acid-etched glass, polished concrete, weathered steel, porcelain tile and Richlite, a durable paper resin composite with a leathered texture.
“We hang out here. We’re still a little gaga,” said Sarah of the completed studio. “It’s calming and peaceful.”
Less calming, at least for now, is their current project, the historic 1911 mansion they recently bought overlooking Chaska’s downtown park.
The couple had decided it was time to leave their small Minneapolis house and look for something larger and newer. “I wanted move-in ready with a three-car garage,” said Neil.
They looked and looked — in Minneapolis and first-ring suburbs — but couldn’t find the right house. As they drove around in vain, Sarah thought about all the wasted time they could be spending at the livery. “We just invested in this beautiful building. Maybe we should look in Chaska.’”
Online, she stumbled upon the Klein Mansion, an Italian Renaissance relic with Art Deco elements, just a few blocks from the livery. “I know you’ll think I’m nuts,” she told Neil. “But I think we should look. He started laughing.”
When they first looked at the house, Neil made a beeline for the basement to inspect the mechanicals, anticipating the worst. But the house had newer plumbing and wiring. “Standing in front of the furnace, I said, ‘We can totally do this.’ ”
The mansion, vacant for several years, needed updates, but many of its original architectural features were intact, including mahogany woodwork, a grand staircase, wraparound porch and a hand-painted mural in the dining room.
And the 6,150-square-foot house was surprisingly affordable. The couple bought it for $400,000 — less than they ended up getting for their 1,800-square-foot house in Minneapolis. “We traded up — for less,” said Neil.
Again working with U + B, they have big plans for the mansion, including gutting the kitchen and converting the third-floor ballroom into an owners’ suite.
They admit they’ve had second thoughts about taking on another huge renovation project. In winter, the big old house was cold and drafty. “We had coats, hats and mittens on in the house,” said Sarah. Then they were visited by two bats. “I thought, ‘How am I going to live here? We’ll get rabies.’ ”
But they’re forging ahead, motivated by their home’s potential and its walkable downtown location.
Chaska continues to charm them with its spirit, quirky small-town events and live music in the city square park just across the street.
“There’s a party outside your door, if you want to join it,” said Neil.