This year’s designer showcase home, a Victorian in St. Paul, has been transformed into a B&B up front and a family home in back.
Andy and Whitney Blessing’s home will soon wear as many hats as they do. He co-owns a construction company. She runs a preschool. Together, they’re raising three young children: Gwyneth, 5, Weston, 3, and baby Freya, 5 months. And, come Aug. 1, they’ll be launching a new venture, the St. Paul Bed & Breakfast.
“This house just had a story, and we wanted to be part of it,” said Whitney.
The couple bought the brick Queen Anne mansion in 2011, then handed it over to a team of interior designers for this year’s Showcase Home Tour, a fundraiser for the local chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID).
The 1882 house had already lived through many chapters by the time the Blessings saw it and fell in love with it. Originally built for Frank Shepard, son of David Shepard, who built much of the Great Northern Railway for James J. Hill, the house started out grand and gorgeous, with copious woodwork, multiple fireplaces, a turret and leaded-glass windows.
But over the decades, much of the home’s beauty was lost. Rooms were carved up, windows were plastered over, sleeping porches were converted into kitchenettes. The house was expanded at least three times, including a 1950s-era addition in front that interrupted its original wrap-around porch. No longer a single-family home, it had moonlighted as many things, including a women’s shelter, boarding school and nursing home.
It sat vacant for more than two years, until the Blessings decided to rescue it and return it to its former glory.
“The house called to us,” said Whitney. “I’ve always wanted an older home, brick, on a corner in a fun neighborhood.”
The couple, who had bought, restored and sold a number of fixer-uppers, were looking for their next renovation project, but they knew this would be their biggest challenge yet.
“I’ve heard so many stories,” Andy said. “People would say, ‘We almost bought that house.’ It was a huge place, reasonably priced, but nobody knew what to do with it. We knew what to do — and how to do it.”
They could envision their kids growing up and playing in the revitalized house. Whitney could picture herself sleeping in the back room with its 1880s green-tiled fireplace and built-in secretary. They even saw potential in the front addition, described as “clunky” in a book about historic Twin Cities architecture.
Whitney, a former real estate agent, who was inspired by their daughter’s experience at Montessori school to become trained as a teacher herself, decided it was a perfect place to open a school, Cathedral Hill Montessori.
Operating a B&B was an idea they’d thought about trying someday, maybe as a retirement career. But that idea moved onto the fast track once they found themselves with a gigantic historic home. “It made sense to do it here,” Andy said. “What do you do with a house like this?”
Andy, who co-owns A-Squared Design/Build/Remodel, took on the job of general contractor, and the family moved into the 450-square-foot carriage house. But the Blessings knew they needed help. After touring last year’s showcase home on Lake of the Isles, Whitney asked Krysta Gibbons, a parent from her school and a designer, whether she thought their house had the potential to be the next showcase project. She did, so Whitney sent an e-mail to the ASID Showcase Home committee, who saw the home’s potential — just as the Blessings had.
“The minute I walked through the door, I fell in love with it, and what it could be,” said Kimberly Herrick, project chairwoman, whose Herrick Design Group ultimately designed the home’s master suite.
“I was a little surprised,” Andy admitted. “They took a huge risk. This could have gone terribly wrong. It was such a big project.”
No trust fund
Admittedly, the couple had limited funds for design. “We weren’t sitting on a trust fund or family inheritance” said Andy. “The budget was tight. And with 10,000 square feet, any little thing is exponentially expensive.”
In addition, the home’s historic status complicated the project. Three different historic preservation entities had to oversee and approve all plans.