Mice and soot
The couple soon learned that a very old house comes with baggage. “The first night we moved in, we popped Champagne with friends and laughed as we saw mice run across the floor,” Dornhecker recalled.
It was December, and the couple had volunteered to host the family Christmas celebration in less than two weeks. They got busy, ripping up shag carpet to expose hardwood floors and filling buckets with vinegar and water to clean coal soot off the oilcloth-covered walls.
Dornhecker became a pro at polishing tarnished metal. “I’m obsessed,” she said. “Andirons were meant to shine.”
They also learned that their museum-like home is full of surprises. “It’s like a treasure hunt in your own place,” Dornhecker said.
Soon after moving in, the couple discovered a 6-foot crystal-and-brass chandelier in a box in their attic. They repaired it and rehung it in its original position in the parlor. Beneath old wallpaper, they uncovered even older hand-painted murals. In the stone cellar, they found an old safe behind a loose board. (It was empty.)
They even found a glass eyeball, one that had been missing for years from the elk mount. “He [the former owner] thought it fell down a radiator hole,” Dornhecker said. But it resurfaced during cleaning. “I said, ‘Omigod, it’s the eyeball!’ We had a ceremonial re-eyeballing.”
Dornhecker and Jensen work in the financial industry, and after spending the day working with numbers, “it’s fun to come home and do something tangible, see the fruits of your labor,” said Jensen.
The couple have lots of plans for their house. First on the agenda: adding a driveway and garage, which must be clapboard-clad because the home is in a historic district.
They also hope to update the kitchen. “We’re going to try to keep it more traditional, with subway tile and marble,” she said.
And down the road, they’d love to convert the old stone cistern into a bar, with an adjacent TV room. “Eventually the basement will be our rathskeller, our hangout,” Dornhecker said.
Already, they’ve been sharing their home and its history. They started a Facebook page, “Saving Old St. Paul,” to chronicle their restoration of the house, which they opened to the public during the recent Minneapolis-St. Paul Home Tour. “The house is part of the community,” Jensen said.
During the tour, about 1,000 people visited, said Jim Sazevich, a St. Paul research historian who was on hand to answer questions. “Again and again I heard, ‘I’ve always admired this house.’ It’s something really special.”
Neighbors in Irvine Park welcome the home’s new chapter, Sazevich said. “The house needed young people with energy — and maybe a little naive. … Somebody who hasn’t done it yet, restored an old house. They’re going to learn. If you were realistic about all the work, you would run the other way.”
But Dornhecker and Jensen insist they’re in it for the long haul.
“In 50 years, we will be here,” she said. “We love this place so much.”