It was not love at first sight when Ray Peterson got his first look at the 19th-century house that would become his longtime home.

“Birds were flying in and out of the roof,” he recalled. “The windows in the basement were gone, and the ceiling had fallen in the kitchen. It was in sad, sad shape.” But his wife, Terri, was smitten. “She liked it. I said, ‘What do you like about this? It’s falling down.’ She said, ‘I’ve always wanted a house like this.’ ” 

“This” was a classic Eastlake Victorian, set on an oversized lot in St. Anthony Park, a coveted enclave on St. Paul’s western edge. The Petersons had been looking for a home in the popular neighborhood, but houses there were hard to come by, often changing hands without ever being listed.

Despite Ray’s hesitation, the Petersons were up for the challenge. They’d already tackled one old fixer-upper, a “dollar house,” sold by the city for $1 in the 1970s to encourage urban renewal near Selby-Dale. “I like to do a little carpentry,” Ray said. Here was another DIY opportunity — on a larger scale.

The rundown Victorian was big: 4,200 square feet, plus an 1,100-square-foot carriage-house apartment with two bedrooms and a kitchen, which they could rent out for extra income.

The main house’s exterior — and most of its original character — had been covered up with gray stucco, but “the interior held promise,” Ray said. “It had beautiful woodwork.” Previous owners had divided it into rental apartments, but “they hadn’t destroyed any of the architectural detail. They just threw up partitions. It had real restoration potential.”

So the Petersons bought the house in 1981 and began to restore it, guided by vintage photos from the Minnesota Historical Society. Their house, one of the oldest in St. Anthony Park, had once been a showplace.

It was built in 1887 for Anson Blake, secretary of the St. Anthony Land Co., which was, at that time, developing the community as a summer retreat for city dwellers. “He lived there with his wife and servants, and it became the model for the development,” Peterson said.

The Petersons’ goal was to update the house while preserving the spirit of its original era. “My wife is a stickler for detail,” Peterson said. “She didn’t want to remodel it, but to restore it.” With that in mind, they incorporated elements that were true to the period. “We went room by room.”

Stamped-tin ceiling

For the kitchen, for example, Terri found a company in Pennsylvania that was still stamping tin ceilings the old-fashioned way, on an old press. The couple ordered one and installed the ceiling themselves.

The fireplace in the parlor had been altered, but after the Petersons removed old paint and wallpaper, they could see the outline of the original mantel. So they hired a woodcarver to re-create it. The same woodcarver also created a pocket door to fit an old pocket and to match another pocket door that had been converted to a swinging door. “It was original. You could tell from the hardware,” Ray said. They also added built-in maple bookcases to give the old parlor the feel of a classic library.

Outside, they removed the gray stucco and replaced it with redwood shingles to replicate the look in the old photos. “They’re all hand-cut,” Ray said. “I know, because I cut them.”

He even replicated the original balconies and porches that had been removed earlier in attempts to “modernize” the house. “With the old photos, we could see where they were,” he said.

Some of the home’s original architectural elements were languishing in their attic. “We found a lot of detail, like the big applique over the front porch,” Ray said. “They’d torn it off and stuck it in the attic.” So the couple stripped and refinished it and restored it to its original spot.

There were bumps along the way. While working on one of their bathrooms, the tub’s legs fell through some old floorboards and into the kitchen ceiling.

“Remember that movie ‘The Money Pit’?” Ray asked of the 1986 comedy in which Tom Hanks and Shelley Long attempt to repair an ancient house. “When we saw ‘The Money Pit,’ and the tub fell through, Terri said, ‘That’s just like us!’ ”

Gradually, over the years, the couple transformed their own personal “Money Pit” into their dream home. They raised their four children in the five-bedroom, three-bath house, which became the neighborhood hangout, after they converted the third-floor attic into a family room and kitchenette.

“It became a huge gathering place, not only for our kids but for all their friends,” Ray said. “If people were looking for their kids, they’d call our house. They were usually there.”

Now the kids are grown, the big house is quiet, and the Petersons are ready for a smaller home — although they hope to remain in St. Anthony Park. “We’d like to stay,” Ray said.


Jacqueline Day of Edina Realty has the listing, 763-522-9000.