In the end, it took only a few hours to demolish Southways, the massive brick-and-stone Pillsbury estate that stood for almost a century on Lake Minnetonka.
The city of Orono issued a demolition permit this month, triggering a rash of media coverage and an outpouring of public sentiment for the historic home.
A last-minute pitch to save the house and convert it into a wedding venue didn’t gain any traction. Southways, which has been seeking a buyer for more than a decade, finally found one. The property changed hands Monday and demolition began the next morning. By late afternoon, the site was a pile of rubble.
Southways’ demise is part of a larger national picture of historic homes falling to the wrecking ball, according to writer Bette Hammel, a longtime Lake Minnetonka-area resident. Unlike houses in historic districts, such as St. Paul’s Summit Avenue, Lake Minnetonka homes like Southways lack historic designation to protect them, she noted.
“It’s all gone. It’s such a tragedy,” she said of the stately house featured on the cover of her 2010 book “Legendary Homes of Lake Minnetonka,” with Karen Melvin. “It’s the end of an era of saving historic homes.”
“People are saddened,” said Orono Mayor Denny Walsh. “It’s an unusual property with a historic nature.”
Walsh said he received a small number of e-mails and phone calls from residents and also observed “hundreds and hundreds of comments” on the Lake Minnetonka Fan Club Facebook page. The city had no choice but to issue the demolition permit, city officials said last week, because the house is a private property with no historic designation.
The buyer and his or her plans for the site remain a mystery. Listing agent Meredith Howell of Coldwell Banker Burnet declined to identify the buyer, citing a confidentiality agreement. Walsh has heard rumors but doesn’t know who bought the property or what comes next.
No proposal has been submitted, according to the city. However, anything other than a single-family home would require rezoning and public hearings, Walsh said.
According to Howell, the new owner does plan to build a single-family home on the site and also purchased an adjacent lot, part of the original Pillsbury estate.
Southways’ fate has been a long time coming.
Originally built in 1919 as a summer house for John S. and Eleanor Pillsbury and their six children, the house has been on the market for at least 10 years.
It was first listed in 2007 at $53.5 million, making it the most expensive house in Minnesota. Attracting no buyers, the price was slashed to $24 million. Recently, the original 13-acre site on Brown’s Bay was subdivided into five homesites. The 32,461-square-foot house and its remaining 3.3 acres and 415 feet of prime shoreline was relisted at $7.9 million.
The house was extensively restored by its most recent owners, James and Mary Jundt of Scottsdale, Ariz. 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 an ambitious renovation that included converting the house for year-round use.
The restoration was of the highest quality, according to Hammel. “They saved what she [Eleanor Pillsbury] had envisioned.”
“Jim Jundt gave his heart and soul to that place, plus tens of millions of dollars,” said Howell.
Over the years that it’s been on the market, many ideas and proposals for Southways have been floated, including turning the property into a spa resort, a corporate retreat center or a wedding venue. But the right buyer never materialized. Finally, “He [Jundt] had to let it go,” said Howell.
Last week, after news of the pending demolition made headlines, Tim George, who operates several wedding venues in the Twin Cities, including the Van Dusen Mansion, A’bulae and Bavaria Downs, contacted several media outlets, including the Star Tribune, to express his interest in converting Southways into a wedding and event center.
George said he sent his idea to real estate agents representing the buyer and seller but did not get a response. George never submitted an actual offer, said Howell.
Most architecturally significant pieces inside the home were salvaged before demolition, Howell said.
“I do respect the house and the history of the family,” she said. “But it isn’t the way we live today. We’re in a high-tech world. It’s the end of an era.”