A landmark historic mansion on Lake Minnetonka, grand relic of a bygone era, could fall to the wrecking ball very soon.

The city of Orono issued a demolition permit this month for Southways, the massive brick and stone Pillsbury estate that has been seeking a buyer for more than a decade.

“It could be tomorrow,” Orono Mayor Denny Walsh said of the demolition. “It’s unfortunate, no question about it.”

The city consulted with its attorney and the Heritage Preservation Commission but could find no grounds for denying the permit request, Walsh said.

“I am just horrified — absolutely sick,” said Bette Hammel, an architectural writer and longtime resident of the Lake Minnetonka area, who wrote extensively about Southways in her 2010 book “Legendary Homes of Lake Minnetonka.”

Too many of the lake’s gracious older houses have already been torn down and replaced, she said. “It’s appalling to see some of these horrendous McMansions.”

Architectural historian Larry Millett also said he was saddened to hear of the estate’s pending demise. He devoted 14 pages to Southways in his 2014 book “Minnesota’s Own: Preserving Our Grand Homes.”

“It’s a lovely house — one of the last of the classic old mansions on the lake. It’s a big loss for Minnetonka,” he said.

The estate, originally built as a summer house for John S. and Eleanor Pillsbury and their six children, has seen its price slashed several times in recent years. When listed in 2007 at $53.5 million, it was the most expensive house in Minnesota. After it failed to attract a buyer, the price was reduced to $24 million. Still no takers.

Recently, the original 13-acre site was subdivided into five homesites. The 32,461-square-foot house and its remaining 3.3 acres and 415 feet of prime shoreline on Brown’s Bay was relisted at $7.9 million.

The mansion was extensively renovated by owners James and Mary Jundt, who now live in Scottsdale, Ariz., according to Hennepin County property records. James Jundt, a former hedge fund manager and onetime Minnesota Vikings co-owner, bought the mansion in 1992 after Eleanor Pillsbury died at age 104. Jundt then invested years in a multimillion-dollar renovation that included converting the house for year-round use.

“Jim lovingly restored Southways,” Coldwell Banker Burnet real estate agent Meredith Howell told the Star Tribune earlier this year. “He put a lot of his heart in it.” Jundt could not be reached for comment.

“An enormous amount of money and time was spent bringing it up to date,” agreed Walsh, the mayor. “It’s unfortunate that someone doesn’t want to buy it and continue that legacy.”

The English-inspired house, with its Georgian Revival and Tudor Revival features, was designed by prominent East Coast architect Harrie T. Lindeberg. “He designed for a lot of wealthy old-line families all around the country,” Millett said.

The house he created for the Pillsburys, completed in 1919, is “beautifully detailed,” including work by master blacksmith and metal artisan Samuel Yellin. Southways’ wrought-iron front door featuring a graceful peacock is “world-class,” according to Millett.

“The architectural details are irreplaceable,” said Karen Melvin, the photographer who collaborated with Hammel on her book. “Southways is a monument.”

In addition to the home’s link to the Pillsbury family and Minnesota’s milling history, the house also has the distinction of having hosted a U.S. president, George W. Bush, who visited in 2006 to attend a fundraiser for congresswoman Michele Bachmann.

As for what comes next, the city does not yet have information about what is planned for the site, said city administrator Dustin Rief. “No proposal or building permit has been submitted.” Further subdivision of the lot could not be done without seeking a variance, he said, because of zoning requirements on that part of the lake.

Before issuing the demolition permit, “We went through a process,” said Rief. Because the house is not registered as a historic protected property at the state or national level, “we are bound by our obligation to issue the permit.”

“Does it deserve to be on the National Register [of Historic Places]? That’s a no-brainer,” said Millett of the house he called “the grandest of its period, or darn close. ... I understand you have to find that once-in-a-lifetime [buyer],” said Millett. “It’s hard to find anybody who wants that grand old-time lifestyle. The people with money want the tech palace.”

 

Staff writer Lynn Underwood contributed to this report.