More than 100 years ago, a wealthy lumber baron built a party palace next door to his Stillwater home. He included an ornate ballroom, a bowling alley and an indoor pool. And he patterned it after a real palace, the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, considered the pinnacle of Moorish architecture.

The first gala held in William Sauntry's exotic "Gymnasium" in 1902 was a social event of such magnitude that it was covered by the Stillwater Gazette. The headline read: "In Fairyland."

But after Sauntry committed suicide a dozen years later, the skyway connecting his house to his gymnasium was taken down, and his exotic fairyland became a boarding house, and later, a triplex.

It was in rough shape when Judi and Marty Nora bought it about eight years ago. "The house just said, 'Help!' " Judi recalled. "But I saw potential."

At that point, the "house" wasn't a house at all. Its 5,000 square feet were still carved into apartments, with tenants living in them, and many of its original architectural elements, including columns and stained-glass windows, were stored in a makeshift attic.

The Noras resolved to bring it back to its former glory, while also turning it into a comfortable family home. Their three children soon found uses for the 30-by-42-foot ballroom.

"They were disappointed when the mirrors went up and they couldn't play volleyball in the ballroom," said Ed Hawkesford, the designer who worked with the Noras on the project.

After eight years of painstaking renovation, the grand high-ceilinged ballroom with gilded medallions, carved plaster and a ceiling mural is now the Noras' living room/dining room. It's filled with exotic furniture, global artifacts -- and their son's drum kit. The kids' bedrooms occupy what used to be the bowling alley, and the family watches TV in a theater room upstairs.

And Sauntry's palace is once again a party house. The Noras entertain at least once a month, hosting everything from fundraisers to concerts. "We don't rent it out; it has to be someone we know and like," Marty said. "It's fun watching people's expressions when they walk into the ballroom."

"The house really comes alive when it's full of people," Hawkesford said.

Judi never tires of their one-of-a-kind home. "I absolutely love being in here," she said. "And at night, driving up with the lights on, it looks like a jewelry box. I find myself peeking in my own windows."

Keepers of 'the Castle'

When Linda Svitak and her husband, David Feroe, were house-hunting in 1990, they knew one thing: "We wanted an architecturally unique home," Svitak recalled.

Then they saw an open house sign in front of one of the most strikingly unusual homes in southwest Minneapolis.

It was an exotic Moorish-style dwelling with arches, an onion dome and 72 stained-glass windows. Feroe, who grew up in the neighborhood, remembered kids referring to it as "the Castle." "I always thought it was intriguing," he said.

Once Svitak saw the sunken living room with prayer balcony, she knew it was the house for her. "I walked in and it was like somebody built this house for me," she said.

The house was built in 1927 for a couple who honeymooned in Spain and returned to Minnesota determined to create a small-scale replica of the Alhambra, the famed palace/fortress in Granada. Every detail -- from the scalloped arches to the brass light fixtures -- pays homage to that inspiration.

Svitak and Feroe, who visited the Alhambra last summer, felt right at home. "You could see all the architectural motifs and what they pulled into the house," Svitak said.

She and Feroe are grateful that previous owners retained the home's essential character, while updating it for modern living. The couple, who have raised two children, now young teens, in the house, have done extensive remodeling over the years, including the addition of Moorish-inspired decorative elements, such as two floor mosaics and a ceiling mural.

"We've looked at tons of books on Moorish architecture," Svitak said. "We wanted to stay true to the house without turning it into a museum. Trisha [Farrell, the artist who painted their murals] has been an inspiration for the house. She's given us lots of ideas."

They've thought about moving, to get more room, Svitak said. "But where would you move after this? A modern suburban home?"

Besides, their one-of-a-kind house is extremely livable, Feroe said. "It's very practical and homey, despite its exotic appearance."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784