As the developer of his neighborhood, George Kassan could have built any kind of home he wanted.
Instead, he bought an ancient farmhouse that was slated for the wrecking ball, moved it 6 miles into a new suburban subdivision, and restored it himself using woodwork and light fixtures salvaged from an old meatpacking plant.
“I like a nice historic home, and I wanted the old look,” said Kassan, a commercial real estate broker.
This was in 1990, long before it became green and trendy to re-use salvaged building materials. To Kassan, it was just practical — and a way to add some interesting texture to the new subdivision. “We don’t want all the same houses in our development,” he told the Eagan Chronicle at the time.
Kassan had already chosen his lot, a wooded half-acre in ForestHaven, the Inver Grove Heights community he was developing, when he noticed the old farmhouse “sitting in the middle of a field,” he recalled. The field was in Eagan, and the land was being turned into a residential housing development.
Kassan remembered touring the large, New England-style farmhouse years earlier with his father, also a developer. Now the 3,600-square-foot structure was not looking its best. It had been partially remodeled by a medical company that intended to use it as a home-away-from-home for out-of-town employees. But the company went bankrupt, and a mortgage company had taken title.
The gutted three-story house had been vacant for several years, but Kassan thought it still had potential.
“I liked the look of it, and the layout,” he said. “It fit our lifestyle. It was a neat house with a lot of nice features.”
So he called the developer, and was told that the house was soon to be torn down. “What if I moved it?” Kassan replied.
Kassan got the house for $300, but spent thousands moving it to his lot in ForestHaven, where he updated it to accommodate modern suburban living.
Mixing old and new
The medical company had already outfitted the house with new windows, siding and a roof. Most of the interior had been stripped of its vintage character, with the exception of oak floors and one intact period room — a large room on the main floor that had cross-cut redwood ceiling beams, a pegged wood floor, a fireplace and a built-in bookshelf niche.
Kassan left that room as it was, but made many other modern updates. He reconfigured the staircase to create space for a big, new eat-in kitchen with adjoining family room. He also added a bathroom, laundry room and three-car garage, increasing the four-bedroom home’s size to just under 4,000 square feet.
To retrofit the home with Old World charm, Kassan installed a doubled-sided, carved oak fireplace that looks like it could be original — except that the wood is in pristine condition. He also incorporated salvaged woodwork from the old Armour meatpacking plant in South St. Paul, and added some new but vintage-looking decorative touches, including brackets and gargoyles.
Kassan knew the house was old. (Dakota County lists it as being built in 1910.) But as he worked on the house, he discovered clues indicating that parts of it might be much older.
Some of the stout beams and joists, still visible in the basement ceiling, appeared hand-hewn, as though they’d been cut with an ax. Nails he found in the attic were square iron ones, of the type commonly used in the 19th century.
Kassan also found a handwritten message, penned on the wood between the studs in what is now his sunroom; it reads: “Van Dyke Farm rebuilt in 1938 by Wm. F. Heuer, Rosemount, MN — This house is now 100 years old.”
If that’s true, and the house was already a century old in 1938, it would be one of the oldest houses in Minnesota. (The Henry Sibley House in Mendota, considered the oldest private residence in the state, was completed in 1836.)
Hiding its age
Kassan has no way of knowing if the message is authentic. But he does know that 19th-century craftsmen made a practice of “autographing” their work.
“It was customary in those days for a contractor [who worked on a home] to write his name in the stud walls,” Kassan said. Intrigued, he started delving into his home’s history, and invited experts from the state and county historical societies to come inspect it.
They confirmed that the balloon-frame construction included relics dating back to the mid-1800s, including the type of saw cuts visible on some of the wood, the square homemade nails and the hand-cut beams and supports, according to Kassan. (The historians visited more than 20 years ago, and apparently left no records relating to the property.) Kassan said he was told that the house was not a candidate for historic status because it had been remodeled so extensively.
Don Chapdelaine, a longtime Eagan resident and former Dakota County commissioner, also believes the house was built long before 1910 — and that it was moved once before, by his ancestors.
“What I know is, it was in Mendota and it was a hotel,” said Chapdelaine, who, with his wife, Gerry, has researched his family history. The Chapdelaines, early Minnesota settlers from Quebec, bought the building and moved it onto their farmland in Eagan, where it replaced a log cabin.
“It was moved during the winter, by horses, on skids, onto the farm of my great-uncle [Desire “Jerry” Chapdelaine],” Don said.
The Chapdelaines don’t know what year the move occurred, but some records indicate the house was on the Eagan site by 1879.
And the “Van Dyke Farm,” referenced in the writing between the studs, did exist. The Chapdelaines sold the house in 1928 to Arthur Van Dyke, a dentist and dairy farmer, who also served as St. Paul’s postmaster during the 1930s and ’40s.
Today, with its spacious modern rooms and updates, the house doesn’t show its age, except for the vintage room where Kassan keeps his office — and the time capsule he created in the sunroom.
Kassan wanted to preserve what he could of his home’s history, so he built a lit display box into the sunroom wall to frame the handwritten message, along with some of the antique nails and an old horseshoe that once hung above the home’s front door, a 19th-century custom thought to bring good luck.
Now that Kassan and his wife, Carole, are empty-nesters, with nine grandchildren, they’re ready to downsize and possibly spend part of each year in Florida. “We don’t need a big house anymore,” he said. “Our family is grown now, and we would love to pass this home on to a family that will enjoy the history, enjoined with luxury.”
Curtis Burckhardt of Counselor Realty has the listing, 952-921-0913.