It's not perfect, but once grand Hewson House gets 2nd chance

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 3, 2011 - 12:19 AM
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Samuel J. Hewson residence, 2008 Pillsbury Avenue, Minneapolis. // Photograph Collection ca. 1914

Photo: MINNESOTA HISTORICAL SOCIETY PHOTO, Photographer: Charles P. Gibson,

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They came by the hundreds to the old Hewson House in south Minneapolis over the weekend, marveling at the dark chocolate woodwork, the beveled glass entry and the ornate fireplaces. Monie Tillman even stopped by to see the house where her grandparents, Mary and Anton Tillman, raised an army of kids and foster kids in the warren of rooms scattered on the second and third floors.

"I remember my grandma calling me over to this window," said Tillman. "She said, 'Look, Monie, it's snowing.'"

"If these walls could talk," someone said.

Indeed.

If you've followed this story here, you know the background of the Hewson House drama. The short version: The house was designed by the firm Kees & Colburn with contractor T.P. Healy, the "master builder of the Queen Anne" style in Minneapolis. Famous designer John Bradstreet did the interior.

But in 2009, neighbors noticed an unusual estate sale. The owners, who were about to go into foreclosure on the house, began to gut the residence and sell off original lights, fixtures, stained-glass windows and even woodwork. Alert preservationists Bob Glancy, Diane Montgomery and Madeline Douglas called me and the mortgage holder, TCF, which stopped the ransacking of their property. The former owners fled.

Then began the fight to keep yet another elegant structure from becoming a victim of what my friend likes to call "Teardownapolis," a city that often seems keen to rid itself of its history in favor of an IKEA skyline.

The saga came to a close on Friday, when the Minneapolis City Council voted to designate parts of the home as historic, saving the exterior and first floor from further destruction. It was the culmination of a widespread grassroots rally by preservationists, neighborhood activists and finally a real estate president with childhood ties to the neighborhood to save a gracious home.

But it is bittersweet, because many of the home's classic elements were sold or wrecked before it was too late, and the upstairs floors look war-torn, with visible bandages. And, a unique Bradstreet painting on tiles above one fireplace worth six figures was stolen during the past year.

Despite the damage, Bell Mortgage has already received two offers on the house from buyers who want to restore it, according to Gary Kirt, president. Bell's Paul Prenevost found someone to do a replica of the painting to at least give a feel for the original. "Antiques Roadshow" plans to feature the stolen gem on its show in hopes of eventually getting it back.

"The neighborhood helped stop [the destruction] on time, and new owners will be able to take it forward," said Kirt. "Both [potential buyers] have a strong commitment to improve the house."

Kirt also stepped in a couple of years ago and saved the Big Fish, a muskie-shaped restaurant in Bena, Minn. Kirt had a personal connection to both projects. He grew up in Bena, and hated the see the fish deteriorate. Kirt also was a regular, and later a board member, at the Boys Club a couple of blocks from the Hewson House. (Kirt also reminded me that he coached my elementary pee wee football team, but I won't hold that against him.)

Kirt was lured in to the story by the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, which along with the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission labored to get the home listed as historical. Through Boys Club, Kirt knew several of the foster kids taken in by the Tillmans, and fondly remembers the house.

Kirt bought the home from TCF, which was fighting preservation status, for $200,000 (it had been for sale for more than $600,000 at one point), then put $100,000 into updating the heating and electrical systems. He then put the house up for $295,000, slightly below his cost.

Marian Biehn, executive director at the Whittier Alliance, also fought to save the house. While she's happy with the historic designation on the first floor, she's "disappointed" that Bell Mortgage solved the heating problems with exposed ventilation on the second floor.

"I think doing mechanicals was necessary," said Biehn. "But the way it was done was not the most refined."

Kirt faced the old-house dilemma: how to bring it up to code and still keep the price low enough that someone would buy it in a down economy.

As someone who grew up dreaming of owning one of those beautiful Whittier homes, I'm thankful for the preservationists, and for Kirt for stepping up. I hope the next owners treat her with an appreciation of Bradstreet, who filled it with beauty, and of people like the Tillmans, who filled it with children and love.

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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