A tale of two rehabs

  • Article by: LYNN UNDERWOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 31, 2014 - 7:19 AM

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Robert Hengelfelt stepped inside the vacant Victorian home, and spied the crackled glazed tile still intact on the original 1880s fireplace surround. The three-story property, at the corner of Dayton and Dale in St. Paul, was in foreclosure, and the maintenance list was endless. But Hengelfelt could see the home’s potential so he bought it for $222,000.

Robin O’Brien was greeted by the smell of garbage and mildew when she first entered a dilapidated two-bedroom home in north Minneapolis, built in 1889 for workers at the local mill. The current owner had been renting it out, but was overwhelmed by the necessary repairs. So O’Brien bought the house for $1.

These are two very different homes, but their new owners had the same mission: to rescue, rehab and revive the old structures, making them functional — and beautiful — for the next generation.

Most people don’t want to be saddled with a century-old house, full of water damage, sloped floors, crumbling chimneys and a multitude of other old-house headaches. But resourceful DIYers Hengelfelt and O’Brien have worked endless hours on each home, doing tasks ranging from demolishing walls to retiling a fireplace. Both are driven by their passion for re-using old houses and keeping them out of landfills. And both are going far beyond just slapping on fresh paint to sell the residences.

“I care about the craftsmanship,” said O’Brien, who has been building homes for Habitat for Humanity for 10 years. So does Hengelfelt, who uses computer-generated drawings to replicate hand-carved rosettes in interior trim and classic Victorian ornamentation on the exterior.

“These homes take you back in time. You can see the craftsmanship, from the tilework to the leaded-glass windows,” said Hengelfelt, who has won awards from the St. Paul Heritage Preservation Commission. “It’s fulfilling, because I’m doing what I can to preserve the beauty for the future.”

Here’s how Hengelfelt and O’Brien breathed new life into two neglected old homes, relying on a combination of hands-on and hired-out work:


Lynn Underwood • 612-673-7619


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