Pillsbury mansion reborn, repurposed

  • Article by: KIM PALMER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 21, 2008 - 1:37 PM

The restored limestone mansion built by Alfred Pillsbury, who left more than 900 pieces of ancient Asian works to the Art Institute, is continuing his legacy.

Somewhere, the late Alfred Pillsbury must be smiling. His century-old limestone mansion is not only looking better, it's also continuing his legacy.

Pillsbury, the only son of Pillsbury Co. founder John S. Pillsbury, never cared much for the family flour-milling business, according to local historians. His passion was art, particularly ancient Asian art. During his life, he amassed a huge collection of Chinese bronzes, jade and porcelain. When he died in 1950, he left more than 900 pieces to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

His English Gothic house didn't fare quite as well. It was converted into a series of offices and later a boarding house. Now completely renovated, it has a new life -- as a private home that moonlights as an arts venue.

Current owners Uri and Melissa Camarena open their home about once a month to host fundraisers for nonprofit arts organizations. They've also converted the former maids' quarters into a gallery to promote emerging artists.

"I'm kind of a frustrated artist," said Uri, a business consultant who enjoys painting and drawing. Both he and Melissa grew up in artistic families, his in Mexico and hers in Richfield.

"People tend to view art as a luxury, but it feeds your soul," he said. "Artists don't have enough support to make their art accessible, especially in these economic times ... The only way to justify this [big house] is to share it with the community, put the house to work."

An unexpected upsizing

The Camarenas were new empty-nesters, intending to downsize to a condo, when they saw the Pillsbury mansion and fell in love with its Tudor architecture and Old World charm -- especially its wood-paneled library. Originally part of an English manor house, the library had been disassembled, shipped to Minnesota -- walls, windows and all -- then reassembled during the home's construction in 1903.

"That was common at the turn of the century," Melissa said. "It's our own little period room."

When they bought the house in 2002, the original mahogany woodwork was intact, but the structure itself needed major repairs. The roof leaked, the plaster ceilings were damaged and the antiquated electrical system was due for an update. The Camarenas, who have restored several older houses, decided to tackle this one.

"It's our hobby," Melissa said. "Some people go boating and have cabins. We renovate houses."

"We loved the building and felt we had to rescue it," Uri said. "We could see its potential and historic value."

Another buyer beat them to a purchase agreement, but the Camarenas didn't give up on the house. "We kept driving by and thinking, 'It's still going to be ours,' " Melissa recalled. They were right. The earlier deal fell through, and the Camarenas made their move.

Party-friendly kitchen

Once the house was theirs, the biggest design challenge was creating a functional kitchen. The original one, small and tucked in a corner, was "landlocked ... a dead end," said Melissa, an interior designer who served as general contractor for their renovation project. "There was no flow."

So they made a bold decision: to convert the long porte-cochere, which ran along the back of the house, into a kitchen. "It was definitely underutilized," Melissa said. "It was basically being used as a storage porch."

The distinctive space still has its original limestone-arched walls, but is now equipped with yards of countertop to accommodate food preparation for large parties. The new kitchen also has a Mexican accent, thanks to the limestone columns and custom iron chandeliers that the Camarenas had shipped from Mexico, where they met and own a vacation home.

Another big challenge in bringing the house into the 21st century was adding a garage. When the Camarenas bought the property, the only place for vehicles was a carriage house a half block away, shared by two other Pillsbury mansions. Because the home is on the National Register of Historic Places, the Camarenas had to make their case to the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission. "What turned the corner was that we were going to turn it back into a family home, which it hadn't been for many years," Uri said.

They also had to find suitable materials. The Platteville limestone used for the house's exterior is no longer quarried and becomes available only when existing buildings are demolished. When an old church made of the same stone began to collapse, Uri quickly made a call. "The guy said, 'You're an hour late. I sold it all,' " he recalled. "Luckily, it turned out that our stonemason was the one who bought it, for us."

There was enough stone to construct a new garage and rebuild their front veranda, Melissa said. "So we have a very holy garage."

Eclectic interior

Inside, they've filled the house with an eclectic mix of furniture and artifacts from around the world. A door section from India is now their coffee table; lamps from Beijing have been converted into end tables, and Thai puppets hang as accents on walls and in windows.

"We just travel and fall in love with pieces and find a way to work them in," Melissa said. "This house is so strong, with all the wainscoting, that it doesn't need a lot [of decor]."

The grand-scale rooms lend themselves to large events, but the house still feels cozy when it's just the two of them, Uri said. "In spite of its size, it works really well as a home. We never feel like we're lost in it."

Their two adult daughters visit often, and sometimes the Camarenas have company even when they think they're alone.

"There are ghosts," Melissa said. She's occasionally been "brushed" by a ghostly presence, and one of their daughters once experienced a nocturnal visitor. The activity seems concentrated in the lower-level library, the room shipped from England. "There's a picture in there -- two times we've seen a glow above the shoulder," Melissa said.

But the encounters have been intriguing rather than scary. "Any experiences we've had have been good," Uri said. "This ghost likes us."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784

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