An architect restores her own century-old house, consulting vintage photos to see the way it was before modern “improvements.”
When Leah Ryan first encountered her future home, she could see it had fallen victim to a series of well-intentioned but unfortunate makeovers.
The 1906 foursquare was wrapped in beige vinyl siding. Heavy maroon awnings and black shutters buried the windows. The original porch had been torn off years ago, replaced with a stoop. A rickety carport clung to the side of the house.
But Ryan, an architect who specializes in restoring historic homes, could see the house’s potential. Peel back all those “improvements,” and many of the house’s original features had been preserved.
“They were all things that were easy to remove without damaging the house,” she said. Better still, the woman selling the house had lived there for 47 years. She happily shared old photos and stories that served as a road map for Ryan’s renovation.
Ryan meticulously restored the house’s best original features, including ornate woodwork and Palladian windows, to create a space that captures the grace and elegance of times past. But she didn’t want to live in a stodgy time capsule. So she also tore down walls and reworked the closed-in kitchen and tight bedrooms so the home feels comfortable for modern living.
“Obviously in these older homes, the rooms were more segmented. They probably had maids or servants,” Ryan said. “But creating an open floor plan is just more in keeping with how people live today.”
The right neighborhood
Ryan and her husband, Mike, also an architect, moved from New York City to Minneapolis in 2010. They combed Minneapolis’ historic neighborhoods for more than a year looking for their first house.
“I wanted a walking neighborhood … that felt like a community and had a sense of place, of character,” Ryan explained.
They finally selected the foursquare ripe for renovation in the Lynnhurst neighborhood of southwest Minneapolis. The house had 2,200 square feet on three levels, plus an unfinished basement.
They closed on the house in August, moved to Minnesota in September and began construction just a few weeks later — “as quickly as we could get drawings together,” she said.
Ryan pored over old photographs of the house, reveling in the historical detective aspects of her project. One photo, taken shortly after the house was built, shows it surrounded by pasture.
“You can see there are cows in the picture,” she said. One great discovery was the house’s original cedar siding, underneath the vinyl, which Ryan restored.
She also rebuilt the front porch, complete with a swing, relying on the old photos for reference.
Finally, she added a two-stall garage at the rear of the house, using modern materials, including fiber-cement siding, but making sure the overall look was compatible with the home’s vintage character.
Inside, modern conveniences are disguised throughout the house.
The first surprise is in the living room. A vintage map over the fireplace slides back to reveal a flat-screen TV. The fireplace hearth and mantel look original to the house but were added by Ryan to provide a warming focal point. Ryan also matched all the carved details in the mantel to woodwork along the stairway.
To help define space and add a bit of sophistication to the newly opened floor plan, Ryan installed two salvaged columns between kitchen and dining room. The house originally had decorative columns between the living and dining rooms, Ryan learned.
“That was nice to know because adding them here was keeping in character with the house,” she said. Ryan, who loves to cook, splurged on top-of-the-line appliances in her kitchen, yet used cabinetwork to camouflage all of them except for the gas range. The kitchen also has a large center island that adds work space and storage. Ryan chose black soapstone for the countertops and added new French doors that lead to a back-yard patio, making the kitchen feel bright and open.
Off the kitchen, Ryan added a mud room and first-floor powder room.
Upstairs, she tore down walls to create a large master suite with a walk-in closet and room for a future master bath. There are also two additional bedrooms, a main bath and a laundry room.
While most of the renovation is complete, Ryan is still obsessing over details. She continues to search for the perfect dining-room light fixture. Meanwhile, a simple brushed-nickel schoolhouse fixture that matches the kitchen lighting acts as a placeholder. Her third-floor office is a work in progress.
Being her own client
Ryan discovered that she enjoyed having herself and her husband as a client. His background is in commercial and industrial design, so he left most of the decisions up to her. “It was more my project than his,” she said. “Anytime I wanted a second opinion, he chimed in.” With a shared architectural background, both understood the importance of staying true to the house’s original style, she said. It meant some sacrifices: Ryan would have enjoyed a raised hearth so she could sit by the fire, but that would have looked out of place in a 1906 living room.
“You have to stick with that style and not put everything in the blender and have each room a little different,” she said.
Ryan’s attention to detail paid off in a home that feels completely their own. She hand-beveled every plank of the new hardwood floor, laid the mosaic tile herself, and prowled scrap yards for the perfect woodwork and trim.
“I love living in the project I designed,” she said. “It has everything I want in a house.”