Renovation rookies tackle fixer-upper

  • Article by: LYNN UNDERWOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 8, 2011 - 4:46 PM

Inspired by HGTV shows, novice remodelers tackle a massive Mediterranean home makeover. They spent more than a year on a whole-house renovation, ultimately rebuilding a modern interior within an Old World concrete and stucco shell.

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Family members tried to talk Natalie and Bryce Quinn out of buying their early 1920s Mediterranean-style fixer-upper in Minneapolis.

"My dad said, 'You don't know how much work this will be,'" said Natalie.

And Dad was right, Bryce conceded. "But we bought it anyway."

The Quinns, who had never remodeled a home before, thought it would take just a few months to repair and update the neglected Kenwood Parkway home. Instead, they spent more than a year on a whole-house renovation, ultimately rebuilding a modern interior within the Old World concrete and stucco shell.

They were living in the Washburn Lofts in Minneapolis and had hunted for months for a fixer-upper near downtown. When Bryce first stepped inside the multi-level Mediterranean, he dismissed it as another DIY special they would be fools to take on.

"It was rundown, the windows were nailed shut and it hadn't been touched in 50 years," he said. Still, Natalie was seduced by its Mediterranean charm, especially the curved archways, vaulted-ceiling sunroom and three graceful Juliet balconies across the front. She discovered hardwood floors under green shag carpet. Upstairs, she envisioned a luxe master suite in an empty bonus room.

"It had a good energy," said Natalie. "And I felt like it really had potential."

Bryce got on board because of the home's great location in the Lowry Hill neighborhood -- plus it was in their price range. In the fall of 2009, the Quinns bought the 2,800-square-foot house "as is."

"After we closed on the house, we were handed the keys, and none of them worked," recalled Bryce. "Not a good sign."

They had planned on making typical cosmetic improvements -- new lighting and paint and rehabbing the outdated bathrooms before they moved in. Their biggest project was remodeling the tiny servants' kitchen, which was on another level off the living room. "If people on HGTV can do it, why couldn't we?" said Natalie.

But when Bryce tore down plaster walls to move a bathroom, he discovered rusted leaky pipes. When they pulled up carpet, they unearthed uneven floors. Rotting windows would have to be replaced. The red metal roof had been improperly installed, and water was dripping into an upstairs room.

"We got in way over our heads," said Bryce. "We had bought a house that needed 100 times [more] work than we wanted to do."

The couple reassessed the home's condition and decided to demolish all three levels of the interior, retain the concrete block and stucco shell and start from square one.

Bryce took time off from his job at his family's business, Cafe Latte in St. Paul, to serve as general contractor. He hired experts to hang drywall, do plumbing and tilework. He did the demolition himself, with the help of friends and a sledgehammer, filling 13 huge Dumpsters.

"After I got hit in the head by a 2-by-4, I was ready to throw in the towel -- at least that day," said Bryce.

'Highs and lows'

Natalie, meanwhile, launched a blog, Quinn + Co Urban Design (www.quinnandcompany.blog spot.com), to document their progress and vent about the "highs and lows of construction."

When every last wall was down, "it opened up all these possibilities," said Natalie. "That's when we started to have fun. We got out a ruler and drew a new floor plan."

But after six months, the Quinns had run out of renovation money. With just the framing and floorboards completed, they had to re-evaluate whether it was worth it to continue or whether they should sell. After consulting with real estate agents, they were assured that finishing the home would be a good investment and took out another loan.

The Quinns finally moved into their nearly finished home 13 months after the closing. "It's exceeded our expectations," said Bryce.

The open and airy spaces reflect their love for modern, clean-lined design as well as providing plenty of wall space for their eclectic art collection.

"We go to art crawls and MCAD [Minnesota College of Art and Design] sales, and like to support local emerging artists," said Natalie. The first piece of art they bought together, an oil painting by St. Paul artist Hiromi, fills one living-room wall. Across the room, the three Juliet balconies boast new French doors to let in summer breezes.

Instead of a kitchen center island, Natalie chose a long granite-topped Parsons table that doesn't obstruct the elevated view from the dining room. "It's a community table where you can pull up a stool on both sides," she said.

Many of the home's sleek streamlined furnishings, from the modular sectionals to the platform beds, are from Room and Board, where Natalie works as an upholstery merchant manager.

The Quinns decided to salvage the original staircase, and refinished the dark oak steps as an homage to the home's history. But they added a modern touch -- a wall made of glass to let in more light. "It looks like something you'd see at a car dealership," said Bryce.

The upstairs level holds two bathrooms, a guest bedroom, office and a master suite with a walk-in closet the size of a luxe dressing room. The couple meticulously chose every material and finish, from the chunky bar-style faucets to the quartz-topped walnut cabinets, which are duplicated in other rooms.

"Repeat elements," advised Natalie, who did the home's interior design. "It gives a home continuity and unifies the spaces."

In the end, they spent about $350,000 to essentially build a brand new house, which includes new stucco exterior and landscaping. They couldn't have done it without help from friends -- and relatives who thought they were crazy. The couple's only regret is that they didn't hire a remodeling expert to give them a realistic picture of the extent of work the home would need.

"In hindsight, it would have been easier to tear it down," said Bryce. "But we were naive and wanted a challenge. Now we're glad we saved it."

They're even considering saving another deserving house in the future.

"But next time, Natalie will be the general contractor," said Bryce.

Lynn Underwood • 612-673-7619

  • related content

  • Bryce and Natalie Quinn's 1925 Mediterranean-style home was gutted and remodeled in an edgy, contemporary style. The couple did a most of the work themselves with friends. It's furnished by room and board where Natalie works and lots of local artwork the couple has collected over the years.

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