In 2003, Ryan Knoke and Montana Scheff went to an estate sale, searching for antiques. Instead they stumbled upon their best find of all -- an impeccably preserved 1905 Colonial Revival home on Minneapolis' Park Avenue S.
Antiques were the farthest thing from their minds as they gazed at the Art Nouveau stained-glass window in the parlor, embossed leather wallpaper in the dining room and handsome cherry millwork throughout.
The second floor held more surprises: an airy sitting room at the top of the stairs and a large master bedroom with a private bathroom. The bedroom closet was three times the size of what's typical in an old house.
"We had never seen a house like this before," said Knoke. "It had a lot of special qualities for its size."
The well-preserved architectural details revealed that "the owner had really loved the house and taken care of it," Scheff said.
They discovered that the owner was 100-year-old Wendell Erickson, who had lived there since 1932 and had recently moved to a senior care center. Best of all -- it was going on the market.
"The executor of the estate loved our vision for the house and sold it to us," Knoke said. A few months later, the pair began what became a six-year restoration project. After 100 years, the three-story home was overdue for a face-lift to restore its "simple, understated elegance," Knoke said.
The two had remodeled their previous home, an Arts and Crafts fixer-upper, and did most of the labor-intensive work on the Park Avenue house. That involved cosmetic improvements such as removing 80-year-old peeling wallpaper in the foyer, tearing up carpet and refinishing the birch floors. They hand-stripped and dyed all the gorgeous cherry woodwork in the living room, which someone had painted a dusty rose. Scheff even restored nearly every window in the house.
The dark, L-shaped kitchen, which had been updated in the 1970s, required the most extensive makeover. They demolished walls and integrated many items they found at salvage centers to give the kitchen an early-1900s feel. Today the kitchen's ceiling is clad with age-old tin and one wall is anchored by a vintage butler's pantry from the Re-Use Center.
"We wanted it to look like it had always been here," Scheff said.
Knoke kept Erickson, the former owner, informed of all the improvements right up until he died -- within a year of when they bought the house.
"I showed him photos of the restoration work we were doing," he said. "He would look up occasionally from his magnifying glass and exclaim, 'Thank you for being so nice to my house.'"
Erickson's stories about the house and neighborhood sparked the men's fascination with the history of Park Avenue and their house.
Knoke researched census records, state and local historical societies and special downtown library collections. He said the original Park Avenue was "designed to be showy like [St. Paul's] Summit Avenue," with its deep boulevards, spacious lots and feeling of grandeur. But by 1960, it had become the one-way, three-lane busy thoroughfare that it is today.
And Knoke and Scheff finally found out why "RZ" is painted on their garage.
Reinhold and Amelia Zeglin, who owned the Coney Island Hotel and Resort on Lake Waconia, were the home's second owners, living there from 1908 to 1922. Renowned architect and master builder Barclay Cooper had built the upper-bracket home in 1905 for a then-pricey $5,100.
"Our home was by a guy who had done some pretty significant residential properties in Minneapolis," Knoke said. They even unearthed "B. Cooper," the architect's signature, scrawled on a window frame.
Over time, their historical digging led them to the Zeglins' three great-granddaughters, who have since toured their home. Three years ago, Knoke and Scheff decided to share their reams of historical and architectural knowledge with other history buffs and launched the Historic Park Avenue Walking Tours.
"We want to build awareness and appreciation for the wonderful homes on this truly magnificent but underappreciated street in Minneapolis," Knoke said.
Although they have full-time jobs -- Knoke is a writer and creative marketing analyst and Scheff is an art director for an advertising agency -- they volunteer their time to organize and lead the popular tours. The next one is June 12 and ends up in their back-yard garden for refreshments and a primer on researching your home's history.
"If you know the history of an old house," said Knoke, "it enriches the experience of living there."
Lynn Underwood • 612-673-7619