Restoring a historic house in old St. Paul

  • Article by: KIM PALMER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 29, 2014 - 6:51 AM

One of the Twin Cities' oldest houses begins its next chapter with fresh caretakers. For them, it's a project, a “treasure hunt” and a jewel to be polished.

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Age is just a number. Unless you’re talking about real estate. Then age often means charm — and chores. A young couple knew they would get both when they went hunting for an old house.

“We started looking at fixer-uppers,” said Elyse Dornhecker. “We both love historic homes.”

On St. Paul’s Upper Landing, they finally found the house they wanted to tackle. But this was no 1920s bungalow waiting for a few cosmetic updates. This was the ultimate fixer-upper: a big Greek Revival house built in 1851 — seven years before Minnesota became a state.

Dornhecker, who first spotted the house online, couldn’t believe what she was seeing. “It was like stepping back in time,” she said. “I loved it!”

She told Heath Jensen, now her husband, “We have to get into this! We have to put in an offer!”

“I said, ‘Honey, I haven’t even seen the house yet,’ ” Jensen said.

When they did get a look, Jensen’s enthusiasm matched Dornhecker’s. The Wright-Prendergast House, which had been in the same family for more than a century, was a 19th-century time capsule, filled with ancient marble fireplaces, stained-glass windows, Waterford crystal chandeliers and a pewter statue of Don Juan mounted on the newel post.

Even the vintage furnishings and artwork looked just as they had in decades-old photos the couple saw in the Minnesota Historical Society’s online collection.

“The furniture has not moved since the 1920s,” Dornhecker said. “It was like a museum.”

The home’s setting was just as period-perfect — a half-acre lot in Irvine Park, the city’s first historic district and now a well-preserved enclave of Victorian-era homes.

They could see the house needed work: It didn’t have a driveway or garage, but the mechanicals had been updated. And they couldn’t resist its charm.

“They kept a lot of the integrity of the house,” Jensen said.

In addition to the house, they bought much of the wood furniture inside, including a dining table with claw feet the size of softballs, plus some ancient taxidermy: an enormous elk mount that presides over the front staircase, and a pair of snipes in a shadow-box frame in the dining room.

“They’ve been on that wall for who knows how long,” Dornhecker said.

The furniture they bought with the house gave them a good start on furnishing the place. But coming from a small apartment, they still needed more to fill 3,200 square feet. So before they moved in, they started scouring Craigslist for antique furniture. They brought sofas home to their apartment and had to stack them on end because that was the only way they’d fit.

While most people in their age bracket (Dornhecker is 28, Jensen is 34) crave the sleek midcentury modern pieces made popular on TV’s “Mad Men,” Dornhecker and Jensen looked for older pieces that fit their home’s era, such as carved Eastlake chairs and curved Victorian sofas. When they went to pick up one Craigslist purchase, the seller seemed surprised to see such young buyers and said, “None of these kids want this stuff.”

“We know,” Dornhecker agreed. “And we’re capitalizing on that.”

It’s not all Victoriana in their home. “We don’t want it to feel like Grandma’s house,” she said. “We want a nice mix. Some stuff is a little industrial,” such as their riveted-steel coffee table. They’ve also incorporated a few contemporary pieces, including the orange club chairs they brought with them from their apartment.

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