What’s it like living with two active little boys and a puppy in an ancient formal house?
“Lovely!” said Heidi Smith, who does exactly that with her husband, Mike Smith, and their young sons.
“People say you can’t live in a fancy antique-filled home with children. But there’s a lot of room for the kids to play around,” including an all-season porch/playroom off their bedroom, an upstairs TV room, a spacious attic and an oversized yard.
The Smiths’ sons are only 5 and 6, but “appreciators of beauty,” Heidi said, and careful of their historic home and its treasures.
That juxtaposition between 21st-century lifestyles and 19th-century architecture is the theme of this year’s Ramsey Hill House Tour, “Contemporary Living in the Homes of St. Paul’s Gilded Past.”
The biennial event alternates years with the Summit Hill House Tour, also in St. Paul. The two adjacent neighborhoods are among the oldest in the Twin Cities, although Ramsey Hill is slightly older, with much of its housing stock built before 1900.
The Smiths’ 1889 house, a “classic painted lady Victorian” designed by renowned Minnesota architect Clarence Johnston, is one of 12 private homes and six public spaces that will be open during this year’s Sept. 19 tour.
‘The Smiths, both 41, are relative newcomers to Ramsey Hill. They bought their five-bedroom, 4,500-square-foot house two years ago after going to look at it “just for fun.”
“We’re old house nerds,” said Heidi. “We were not in the market for a home.” In fact, they’d just finished redoing “every inch” of their previous home. But they were smitten with the gracious old house and the owners’ careful restoration.
“We were bowled over — the color schemes, the choices,” Heidi said. “It had amazing wallpaper, Bradbury & Bradbury, tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of wallpaper.”
They couldn’t stop thinking about the old house. “It just got its hooks in us. We couldn’t escape it,” she said.
Since buying the place, the Smiths, who co-own the Hi-Lo Diner in Minneapolis, have put their own spin on it, filling it with antiques.
“I’ve been collecting old furniture my whole life,” Heidi said. “We stick to period-appropriate furniture but not 100 percent. I love Art Deco, too. There’s barely anything here newer than 1950.”
When it came to furnishings, “we let the house speak to us,” said Heidi.
On the evening of the home tour, the Smiths will be present to talk with guests, but only for half the tour. “We want to see the other houses,” she said. They’re especially interested in kitchen restorations because they plan to remodel their own in a “simpler, more industrial, more turn-of-the-century look,” she said. “No digital display anywhere.”
Their home’s previous owner, Althea Sell, who lived in the house for 36 years and oversaw the restoration that captured the Smiths’ fancy, still lives nearby.
“We see her, and she says, ‘How’s our house?’ ” Heidi said. “We feel so honored to be the current stewards.”
A restless spirit
Stan Berger, whose home also will be open during the tour, has deep roots in Ramsey Hill. He bought his 1886 house 25 years ago, and has lived in the neighborhood since 1976.
“I’ve seen a lot of change, from a rugged neighborhood to a restored one,” he said. “It’s more refined now. It was more exciting back in the day when things were being restored. Now the hard work has been done. It’s a very close neighborhood.”
While many of the big houses were “carved up” into rooming houses or apartments during the 1960s and ’70s, Berger’s “eclectic” 6,500-square-foot house was not.
It’s had many occupants over the years, including Maud Hill, wife of Louis Hill, son of railroad baron James J. Hill. The couple separated, and Maud lived in the house from 1933 to 1963. She undertook extensive home improvement projects, even tearing down the house next door to gain land for her gardens. She also installed an elevator, and added a three-story addition, which extended her living room so that it could accommodate chamber music concerts.
Maud’s spirit continues to revisit her longtime home, according to Berger. “She comes back for parties,” he said.
The previous owner reported several instances of a strange ghostly woman who appeared at social gatherings and was later recognized to be Maud from a portrait at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Berger’s daughter and several of her friends said they saw the mysterious figure during the daughter’s 18th birthday party.
“They started singing Christmas carols, and for five minutes, all of them saw a woman playing the piano, turning the pages,” Berger said. “They could see through her. But they couldn’t hear any music.”
These days, Berger uses the third-floor ballroom for storage and rents out five of his seven bedrooms on Airbnb. “There have been some very interesting foreign guests, including brothers from Chile who came just for Super Bowl weekend,” he said.
Highlights of his home for tour-goers include the library and living room, both with fireplaces. “They have a grandeur to them,” he said.
“A lot of people see the exteriors, but to have the opportunity to get in is not an everyday occurrence,” said Berger of the tour. “To see so many at one time is a real treat.”
While most home tours are held on weekends, the popular Ramsey Hill tour is held on a weeknight. “Seeing them in evening light is extra nice,” said Berger. “We’ll light up the house.”