Homegazing: Inside Irwin Jacobs' retreat on Lake Minnetonka

  • Article by: LYNN UNDERWOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 22, 2014 - 3:21 PM

The financier made his fortune dealing in the fast lane. But after business hours, he liked to retreat to his traditional family home on the shores of Lake Minnetonka. You can have it for $22 million.

A 32-acre estate with an iron-gated entrance is the kind of place you’d expect Twin Cities business titan Irwin Jacobs to live.

His white brick Georgian Colonial-style mansion, perched at the top of a hill, boasts views of Lake Minnetonka in front and Tanager Lake in back. A swimming pool, tennis courts and two-story guesthouse dot the rolling landscape.

When it comes to business, the fast-talking financier has taken many risks, buying and selling companies while amassing a fortune. Jacobs made his name years ago as a corporate raider who bought and liquidated failing companies at a profit.

But when it comes to home and family life, Jacobs has embraced traditionalism. He and his artist wife of 52 years, Alexandra, raised five children within the gracious Colonial, its French doors opening to a long terrace facing Smith’s Bay.

Although they’ve put on four additions — two on each end of the sprawling home — the Jacobses have preserved the warm, genteel feeling of Tanager Hill, the home built in 1939 by Charles Bell, the son of James Ford Bell, founder of General Mills.

“People think I’m a jet-setter and I’m always going to parties,” said Jacobs, 72. “I just like to come home, cook dinner and eat on the terrace.” The couple’s family, which has grown to eight grandchildren, is their top priority, he said.

But after living along Shoreline Drive for 42 years, the Jacobses have decided to downsize; they put the 13,000-square-foot home and lakeside property on the market last month. They’re looking for a place on Lake Minnetonka that’s smaller, quainter — and quieter. They have a staff to maintain the house and grounds — there’s 20 acres of lawn to mow — and it’s often bustling with activity.

“There’s too much property, and the kids are concerned,” said Jacobs. “I really thought I’d die here — but I didn’t want to burden my wife if something happened to me.”

Since their grown children have moved out, the only time the couple use parts of the house is when they host holiday family get-togethers. “We just can’t keep the place for holidays,” said Jacobs.

‘Biggest business deal’

When the couple were house-hunting more than four decades ago, Alexandra couldn’t persuade Jacobs to even tour the Orono estate, which had been featured in a few scenes of the 1972 movie “The Heartbreak Kid” shortly before then.

“I’d seen so many older homes that needed work, so I went to a Vikings game instead,” he said. But after the game, he drove up the long driveway on a beautiful fall day. “It took my breath away,” he said, “I knew I was going to buy it.”

For $340,000, the Jacobses became only the third owners, after Joe and Betty Winslow. “It was the biggest business deal I’d done,” said Jacobs, who grew up in north Minneapolis. “I was 30 years old with five children.”

The house was far from perfect inside. Faded wallpaper had to be removed; bathrooms and the kitchen were overdue for updating. Over the years, the Jacobses transformed the house into a home that mirrors their traditional taste, love for eclectic artwork and Jacobs’ instinct for sniffing out deals.

As Jacobs added more companies to his portfolio, he added more rooms to his Lake Minnetonka retreat. The first addition was a sunlit family room with floors of marble reclaimed from the demolished Federal Reserve Bank building. Jacobs had just closed down the Grain Belt Brewery, was auctioning everything off, and an elderly gentleman had bought more than he could afford. “We bartered for the marble walls,” Jacobs recalled. “I had 30 truckloads and stored it for years because I didn’t know what to do with it.” The marble now covers the floors of a long hallway and the remodeled kitchen and breakfast room addition.

Jacobs also lucked into a vast African ivory art collection, which he displays in a striking see-through glass case between the family room and new mahogany-clad media room. “I bought 350 pieces from a trader’s collection about 30 years ago,” he said. “They’re all hand carved, and no two are alike.”

At the other end of the home, the Jacobses converted a greenhouse that housed Alexandra’s orchids into a glass-ceilinged solarium. “I love the open feeling,” he said. “In the spring, it’s unbelievable.”

In the winter, the original oak-paneled den warmed by a fire is a quiet getaway. “Eddie Albert sat in a desk in that corner and asked Charles Grodin how much it would cost to leave his daughter alone,” said Jacobs, referring to a scene from “The Heartbreak Kid.”

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  • Irwin Jacobs, in the mahogany-paneled office of his Lake Minnetonka mansion, plans to downsize from the 32-acre estate in Orono.

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