The rehabber: Robert Hengelfelt of Hengelfelt Restorations has been reviving turn-of-the-century houses, especially rebuilding front porches, since the mid-1990s. He studied art at Hamline University and has always had an appreciation for a variety of architectural styles. Moving into St. Paul’s historic Ramsey Hill neighborhood “really opened my eyes,” he said. “It was a stark contrast to the 1960s tract house I grew up in, in Roseville.” His first rehab was a trash house in Crocus Hill, designed by Cass Gilbert, that was slated to be demolished. “I was naive and ambitious — and learned on the job.”
The house: An 1885 Queen Anne Victorian in Ramsey Hill, with a classic turret and surrounded by a black wrought-iron fence. Hengelfelt was drawn to its big windows, spacious 3,400-square-foot floor plan and potentially terrific curb appeal, once he’d restored the spindle-railinged porch. “There was enough of the original character to make it worth salvaging, and I could re-create the rest,” he said.
Back in time: Hengelfelt, who researches every house he restores, discovered that this one was designed by architect John Coxhead. “You can pick out his homes, because he designed rectangular turrets with rounded corners,” he said. An early owner was John F. Stevens, the chief engineer of the Panama Canal and the Great Northern Railway. Hengelfelt unearthed an 1890s photo of the home’s exterior from the Minnesota Historical Society, and it became an invaluable blueprint for restoration work.
The starting point: Over the years, the three-story home had been chopped up into separate apartments. Previous owners had torn down walls and tackled some restoration projects. “They were trying to do the right thing,” said Hengelfelt. “But they didn’t have the knowledge and experience.” Most of the woodwork had been stripped off the walls, and the fireplace chimney was crumbling. One bonus: The kitchen had recently been updated with custom cabinets and upscale appliances.
Top-to-bottom refresh: Hengelfelt painted or refinished just about every surface, including the inlaid wood floors. And he built new oak doorway casings, matching the original woodwork and hand-carved rosettes.
Old-house surprises: The second floor’s sagging floors required major and costly structural work, from the basement to the attic. Such surprises are why most rehabbers don’t want to take on very old, rundown houses. “It’s a huge financial risk,” Hengelfelt said. “It’s hard to know what you will find when you peel back the layers.” In a previous house, he pulled off the siding and ended up with rotten wood lath — adding two weeks of work.
A better bathroom: Upstairs, Hengelfelt replaced a 1980s “Menards bathroom” with a bigger one, by knocking down a wall, and installing travertine tile, a pedestal sink, claw-foot tub and white subway tile. “This is a 130-year-old home — I want it to last and be timeless,” he said. The final touch is a heated floor.
Design philosophy: “Part of preservation is making it functional for today, but respecting the time it was built,” said Hengelfelt. “If you follow the latest trends, you are doing a disservice to the house.”
Attic suite: Hengelfelt reversed and rebuilt the staircase to the third floor, and turned the raw, unfinished space into a spacious bedroom with bamboo-covered floors. The new picture window features a Victorian geometric grille that matches original parts of the house. The attic bathroom was a feat of design accomplished by tucking the shower inside a dormer.
Floorboard treasures: During the attic restoration, Hengelfelt unearthed antique toys such as dolls and cast-iron horses that had fallen under the floorboards. “Apparently the attic was a playroom for Victorian children,” he said.
Fireplace fixes: In the parlor, Hengelfelt refinished the wood mantel and cast-iron insert. The floor was leveled from below, and many of the green glazed tiles had to be reset. Other fireplace surrounds and hearths had to be completely retiled. “I experiment with glazes to match the original colors,” he said.
Stained-glass beauty: The only original stained-glass window that was still intact is above the staircase; Hengelfelt enlisted stained-glass artisan David Marshall to replace and restore missing pieces.
DIY guy: Hengelfelt did all the carpentry and floor repair, laid tile, designed the bathrooms, and was the general contractor for the renovation. He spent the entire summer on a ladder, using his carpentry skills to replace rotting siding, doing decorative shingle work and re-creating the Victorian ornamental horseshoe arches on the second-floor porch.
What’s next? Hengelfelt just put the refurbished J.F. Stevens House up for sale, for $575,000, on Craigslist. He’s ready for his next challenge, and has his eye on a couple of homes in the same neighborhood. “I get excited when I find a house, because I really enjoy the process of fixing it up,” he said.