Experimental Minnetrista house awaits fate

  • Article by: ALYSSA FORD , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 28, 2010 - 4:36 PM

The 1969 house is made almost entirely of polyurethane foam, burlap, fiberglass and nylon cables.

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You can move into the Ensculptic House, on 8.4 acres of property in Minnetrista, for $237,000. About $30,000 more is needed to make the place habitable.

Photo: John Walsh, Special to the Star Tribune

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In the 1970s, streams of curious onlookers toured the "Ensculptic House" in Minnetrista, a Keebler Elf-like experimental house made almost entirely of polyurethane foam, burlap, fiberglass and nylon cables.

Now the house -- a 1969 vintage that is so 1969 -- waits on the open market for an open-minded (and self-financed) home buyer. The pricetag is $237,000, including 8.4 acres of property.

"It needs someone with the soul of an artist," says Jayme Littlejohn, who inherited the bone-white, mushroom-shaped abode after her parents, who built the home, died. She's selling it because she's happy living in the Jalisco state of Mexico, where she works as a theater producer and actor.

At a recent open house, more than 100 people streamed through the structure, including Herman Quaas, 87, who was Minnetrista's sole building inspector in 1969. He charged James and Letabeth Littlejohn $25 for his inspections and wrote up a permit that stated the city was taking no responsibility for the structure.

"Bus loads and bus loads of people would come out for a peek, and I think they charged a dollar to get in," said Quaas, who lives three-quarters of a mile away in the house where he was born.

"Far Out"

The home was built in the summer of 1969, when experimental architect Winslow Wedin road-tripped up to Minnesota from Auburn University with seven architecture students. They camped out all summer, stringing three-quarter-inch nylon cables into a spiderweb pattern and fitting custom-made burlap into the open spaces. Then they sprayed polyurethane foam which turned rock-hard in about 30 seconds over the entire structure.

"I tried to get a grant from the experimental housing division of the U.S. government, but they rejected me on the grounds that it was too experimental," said architect Wedin, who now lives in Boca Raton, Florida.

Jayme Littlejohn, who was 15 in 1969, clearly remembers that summer. Little flecks of the polyurethane foam would fall on her skin and harden, necessitating the periodic steel wool bath. "It was totally far out," said Littlejohn.

Her parents, who had to get private financing from a friend to build Ensculptic, chose Minnetrista specifically for its liberal building codes. But that didn't stop the neighbors from clucking a bit.

"The roof was the last thing to go on, so periodically the shell would fill with rain while we were building," Littlejohn remembers. Apparently a rumor spread that "a bunch of hippies were up in a field building a communal bathhouse."

The house was finished in December 1969, and the first person to spend the night was a reporter from Life magazine, who called it "an Olympic souffle or a giant mushroom with portholes" and declared the sensation of living in a non-square space "mildly intoxicating."

Living free of right angles necessitated a few adjustments, though. For instance, the Littlejohns had custom sloping frames made for their artwork.

"$9,000 to bulldoze"

While structurally sound, the Ensculptic has had a rough decade. There is no running water, the septic system is shot, and all the copper piping has been stripped out. About $30,000 is needed to get make the place habitable, and more to make it feel like home. And if that's not enough, bank financing is pretty much out of the question.

"I've had people who are interested in using it as an art studio or a guesthouse, but the financing really holds people up," said listing agent Dayna Murray. "It would take $9,000 to bulldoze it and take it away."

Jayme Littlejohn said she's emotionally prepared for the fact that someone might tear down the idealist Ensculptic and build fresh on the acreage.

"I know it's a possibility, but I really would be happy to find someone who sees it for the artwork that it is."

Alyssa Ford is a Minneapolis freelance writer.

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