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.

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.

Opening doors

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.”

 

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784

















 

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