This old Anoka house gets new lease on life, but others slip into history

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 18, 2012 - 11:34 AM

The oldest house currently on the market in Minnesota has been on the National Historical Register since 1979. It was nearly demolished a few years ago. It's not alone in its precarious situation.

Built in 1852 and owned by Minnesota's first senator, the historic house in Anoka was in shambles. Junk cluttered the yard. Wiring had been ripped away. Rooms were coated in dust, gutted and vandalized. Even the bathtub was missing.

The home was simultaneously listed on the National Register of Historic Places and Minnesota's Ten Most Endangered Properties list. But today, after a renovation that took three years and more than $100,000, it is the oldest home in Minnesota on the market. Historic-homes experts call it a "miracle."

With few preservation programs available, it's also a rarity. Indifference from city officials, minimal grant aid and foreclosures have placed the futures of some of Minnesota's most prized historic homes in jeopardy.

"It can take more than a century to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places and only a few minutes for that same house to be bulldozed," said Realtor Jennifer Kirby, creator of the "Historic Homes of Minnesota" blog.

Last year, the Little Falls City Council voted to demolish the 118-year-old Dewey Radke House, despite the efforts of citizens who spent three years refurbishing it. The house, owned by the city and used for meetings, was such a landmark that, after its demolition, commemorative mugs were sold at the Weyerhaeuser Museum.

"It broke my heart," said Little Falls resident Rosemary Finch, 72. She said the city paved paradise and literally put up a parking lot. "I couldn't believe anybody could do this."

Some old houses remain comfortably marketable -- the historic Davern House in St. Paul, built in 1862, sold for $1.25 million in June, for example, and the 1896 Ernest Osbeck house recently was sold in Lake Benton. In St. Cloud, the 1889 Foley-Brower house was among the state's 10 most endangered in 2009, but a new owner rescued the 8,300-square-foot structure, now for sale for $349,000.

But other historic homes, usually in rural communities, remain on footing no sounder than their creaky floors.

"The big battle right now is fighting the cities and making sure they don't demolish these properties," said Kirby. "But how do you fight a city council that doesn't care?"

Stepping up in Anoka

In Anoka, it was the city that fought initially to save the house on Fremont as a demolition date loomed in 2005, current owner Kurt Glaser said.

Glaser, 47, who serves as city attorney for Centerville and Lexington, rescued the house from foreclosure and stunningly restored it with artifacts found at antique stores and foreclosure sales. The house that was built six years before Minnesota achieved statehood is listed at $319,000.

The current model is a far cry from the crumbling frame it was seven years ago, before Glaser bought it. But he also credits the city. While banks and city councils often consider vacant houses potential eyesores, Anoka officials responded to the concerns of five neighbors who gathered 850 signatures in an effort to save a house that has been on the national historic register since 1979.

"If you recognize that a house precedes statehood, why wouldn't you act and try to save it?" asked Erin Hanafin Berg, field representative for the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, which compiles the state's endangered list of vintage houses.

Three-year project

For Glaser, restoring the home -- "and doing it green" -- became an obsession. He bought the three-bedroom home for the foreclosure price of $25,000. He then scoured sales for three years, buying more than $100,000 in materials while restoring the house. The place was such a mess that he and his wife, Dawn, couldn't live there the first year it was being redone.

But Glaser has a passion for old homes, and this one still had its original hardwood floors, doorknobs and wooden banister. Its walls were oozing with history.

Commonly called the Shaw-Hammons house, for two of the early owners, it was briefly owned by Henry Rice, Minnesota's first senator. He apparently never lived there, said Vickie Wendel, of the Anoka County Historical Society.

The story of a house

The Shaws built the house in two sections, opening a store in 1854. The store was gone by 1883, when railroad contractor Justus W. DeGraff bought the home. His daughter, Marie, 10 at the time, would stay there for 82 years. Her hybrid flowers, winners at the State Fair, continue to bloom each spring, Glaser said.

"She kept a garden journal and she'd write all these notes about how to develop plants," Wendel said. "She must have been a character. She'll write, 'I was somewhat disappointed with Norton.' Or "Hallie has been very good.' It sounded like scandalous gossip, except those were flowers. She gave them names."

It was when owner Eric Krahnke took over the house in 2002 that a home steeped in history was suddenly steeped in controversy. Krahnke, whose mother was listed as the owner, proposed a senior housing building on the land. The City Council voted against the plans. Krahnke told the council, "It has never been my intention to tear down this house."

But the house was deteriorating quickly, Wendel said. In January of 2005, Krahnke applied for a demolition permit.

"When I bought the house, there wasn't any electricity or heating system," Glaser said. "The drain pipes weren't connected."

Kirby, who now worries about a 130-year-old home on St. Paul's Selby Avenue that may face demolition, says buyers like Glaser are rare.

Glaser plans to sell the house and move to Minneapolis. He plans to refurbish another purchase, another 19th-century home. "Dawn and I love this house in Anoka, but I'm anxious to begin a new project," he said.

The buyer of this home needn't worry. There's a new electrical and heating system. The kitchen has granite counters with a six-burner stove. Glaser replaced the bathtub with a sparkling model -- circa 1906.

"He's kept everything he could, from the floors to the coffered ceiling," Kirby said. "It's miraculous what he's done.

"They say they don't build 'em like they used to," Kirby said. "They don't save them like they used to, either."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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