Andy and Whitney Blessing’s home will soon wear as many hats as they do. He co-owns a construction company. She runs a preschool. Together, they’re raising three young children: Gwyneth, 5, Weston, 3, and baby Freya, 5 months. And, come Aug. 1, they’ll be launching a new venture, the St. Paul Bed & Breakfast.
“This house just had a story, and we wanted to be part of it,” said Whitney.
The couple bought the brick Queen Anne mansion in 2011, then handed it over to a team of interior designers for this year’s Showcase Home Tour, a fundraiser for the local chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID).
The 1882 house had already lived through many chapters by the time the Blessings saw it and fell in love with it. Originally built for Frank Shepard, son of David Shepard, who built much of the Great Northern Railway for James J. Hill, the house started out grand and gorgeous, with copious woodwork, multiple fireplaces, a turret and leaded-glass windows.
But over the decades, much of the home’s beauty was lost. Rooms were carved up, windows were plastered over, sleeping porches were converted into kitchenettes. The house was expanded at least three times, including a 1950s-era addition in front that interrupted its original wrap-around porch. No longer a single-family home, it had moonlighted as many things, including a women’s shelter, boarding school and nursing home.
It sat vacant for more than two years, until the Blessings decided to rescue it and return it to its former glory.
“The house called to us,” said Whitney. “I’ve always wanted an older home, brick, on a corner in a fun neighborhood.”
The couple, who had bought, restored and sold a number of fixer-uppers, were looking for their next renovation project, but they knew this would be their biggest challenge yet.
“I’ve heard so many stories,” Andy said. “People would say, ‘We almost bought that house.’ It was a huge place, reasonably priced, but nobody knew what to do with it. We knew what to do — and how to do it.”
They could envision their kids growing up and playing in the revitalized house. Whitney could picture herself sleeping in the back room with its 1880s green-tiled fireplace and built-in secretary. They even saw potential in the front addition, described as “clunky” in a book about historic Twin Cities architecture.
Whitney, a former real estate agent, who was inspired by their daughter’s experience at Montessori school to become trained as a teacher herself, decided it was a perfect place to open a school, Cathedral Hill Montessori.
Operating a B&B was an idea they’d thought about trying someday, maybe as a retirement career. But that idea moved onto the fast track once they found themselves with a gigantic historic home. “It made sense to do it here,” Andy said. “What do you do with a house like this?”
Andy, who co-owns A-Squared Design/Build/Remodel, took on the job of general contractor, and the family moved into the 450-square-foot carriage house. But the Blessings knew they needed help. After touring last year’s showcase home on Lake of the Isles, Whitney asked Krysta Gibbons, a parent from her school and a designer, whether she thought their house had the potential to be the next showcase project. She did, so Whitney sent an e-mail to the ASID Showcase Home committee, who saw the home’s potential — just as the Blessings had.
“The minute I walked through the door, I fell in love with it, and what it could be,” said Kimberly Herrick, project chairwoman, whose Herrick Design Group ultimately designed the home’s master suite.
“I was a little surprised,” Andy admitted. “They took a huge risk. This could have gone terribly wrong. It was such a big project.”
No trust fund
Admittedly, the couple had limited funds for design. “We weren’t sitting on a trust fund or family inheritance” said Andy. “The budget was tight. And with 10,000 square feet, any little thing is exponentially expensive.”
In addition, the home’s historic status complicated the project. Three different historic preservation entities had to oversee and approve all plans.
The Blessings wanted a small addition on the back for a mudroom, but they had to make do without one because it would have altered the exterior. So the designers incorporated mudroom-type built-ins and coat hooks into one end of the family breakfast room instead. “We weren’t able to take it as far as we wanted, so the designers had to step up to the plate,” Andy said.
So did he.
Andy quickly discovered that he wasn’t just renovating his own home, he was serving 39 interior designers on a tight schedule. “When I’m the general contractor, they are the client,” he said. “I had to make the designers happy with their spaces.”
“You had me to please, too,” his wife added, with a smile.
The couple gave the designers a lot of leeway in the front of the house, where the B&B will operate out of the original grand rooms built for the Shepard family.
The Blessing family, on the other hand, will live brownstone-style, on three levels at the back of the house, their residence separated from the four B&B suites — “so guests don’t feel uncomfortable,” Andy said.
After the showcase ends June 9, the family will finally move into their new home. They’re looking forward to hosting Thanksgiving and other gatherings with Andy’s large extended family.
“We love to entertain,” Whitney said. “We’ve been without a place to do that for a couple of years.”
And they can’t wait to relax and recharge in their new owner’s suite, where every detail has been tailored just for them. “[Herrick] knows us so well, she knows which side of the bed we sleep on,” Whitney said. She’s looking forward to luxuriating in their master bathroom, which boasts a walk-in marble shower with recessed niches for shampoo and other bath products.
“We’ve never had a master suite with a walk-in closet,” Andy said. Having a personal retreat will give them “the kind of refreshing we need to get up in the morning and keep running our businesses and raising our family.”
The house is ready for its new chapter, too. “It had such an institutional feel,” said Andy, who was amazed at how many original architectural details survived the house’s many remodelings and incarnations.
When they started removing layers of “improvements,” they heard unfamiliar sounds, Whitney noted. “It sounded like the house was breathing. The house literally sighed.”