Karen Hartje used to be one of the people queuing up to gaze inside the Victorian-era mansions on the Summit Hill House Tour.
This year, for the first time, Hartje will have a different role: opening her own home so visitors can take a peek inside at her ornate arched foyer, crystal chandeliers and elegant music room. Some might be reluctant to invite strangers to trudge through their home, but Hartje considers it an honor. “I was delighted to have been asked.”September is house-gawking season, with home tours of all types coming up in the weeks ahead. But the Summit Hill House Tour is the grand dame. It offers an entree into the well-preserved historic houses located along Summit Avenue and the surrounding neighborhood, most of them built a century or more ago for St. Paul notables.
The houses in Summit Hill also represent a diverse array of architectural styles, including Queen Anne, Tudor, Italianate, Georgian, Gothic and Colonial Revival. Many were designed by renowned architects such as Cass Gilbert and Clarence Johnston. And most of the homes boast Old World features like stained- and leaded-glass windows and intricate carved woodwork, plus relics of a bygone age such as maids’ quarters and servants’ stairways.
Hartje and her husband, Dave, bought their Summit Avenue house two years ago and are opening it for the tour for the first time. Neighbors Shari and Roger Wilsey are sharing their home for the last time. They’ve lived on Summit Avenue for 17 years, in a 1904 landmark that sits within sight of the governor’s residence. Over the years, the Wilseys have restored every inch of their own 10,000-square-foot mansion and its original carriage house. Their home was on the tour one year, their carriage house another. This year, both will be open for visiting.
The Wilseys, soon to become empty nesters, are “ready to move on,” said Shari, probably to a smaller house closer to their grown children and grandchildren. “I’d love to turn it over to somebody who’d love it as much as we did,” she said. “We still love the place.”
Here's a look at two homes on this year’s tour:
Designer transforms her Summit Avenue home and carriage house
The house: A 1904 Jacobean mansion on Summit Avenue, designed by architect Clarence Johnston for real estate titan Carlos Boynton. Later the house was home to the Harry and Adelaide McNeely family for more than 40 years. The McNeelys donated the house to the Catholic Church, which used it as a home for priests, then sold it to a buyer who turned it into a boardinghouse in the late ’70s.
Current owners: Shari and Roger Wilsey have lived in the house for 17 years. “I grew up in this neighborhood, two blocks away,” Shari said. “We were living in Mendota Heights, and I wanted to move back. My husband likes the suburbs. But my heart has always belonged to St. Paul.” After looking at many houses that needed work, they fell in love with this one. “The decor was very sad and grim, and there were renters in the basement,” Shari recalled. “But the bones were so good.” At just under 10,000 square feet, “the outside looks big, but the inside feels like a family home.”
Horsey history: Boynton, a fan of horse racing, built a large carriage house on the alley where he kept horses, parked his carriage and stored hay. The Wilseys have converted it into a quaint guesthouse.
Home highlights: The Wilseys’ entry hall, big enough to accommodate a grand piano, is highlighted by woodwork of carved Honduran mahogany. The formal living room has an anaglypta ceiling (covered in heavy embossed paper) and a tile fireplace surrounded by built-in bookcases with leaded-glass doors. The dining room features an ornate built-in buffet, a window seat and an original hand-painted mural. The home’s abundance of carved woodwork is the result of railroad magnate James J. Hill building his nearby mansion at the same time. “German woodworkers were here to work on the Hill house,” Shari said, and picked up other carving jobs in the neighborhood.
Decor du jour: Shari, an interior designer, is “constantly redecorating,” she said. Finding a bird-printed fabric in cream and blue was all it took to inspire a makeover of their “map room,” which is decorated with her collection of framed antique plats of the neighborhood.
Garden paradise: The Wilseys’ front walk, flanked by elaborately planted urns, offers a stately welcome to their home, and their backyard contains a romantic European-style garden with an arbor, trellis, fountain, stone benches, classical statues and a tiny courtyard tucked behind an antique gate; it’s been the setting for several weddings.
Don’t miss: The lower level. In addition to a lavishly decorated family room and full second kitchen, there’s also a guest bedroom with a stone accent wall that Shari stripped and exposed to its original state. “The boy who grew up here, Harry McNeely [now over 90], said it was the coal room.”
Historic St. Paul home's history includes romantic literary footnote
The house: A stately stone-clad structure, designed by architect Cass Gilbert, and built in 1895 for James D. Armstrong, an attorney for James J. Hill’s Great Northern Railroad. The front exterior remains largely unchanged, but the interior has had several updates. A small addition in 1905 was overseen by well-known architect Thomas Holyoke, who worked on a number of Gilbert’s houses. “He [Holyoke] redid the staircase,” said owner Karen Hartje. “You can look all the way down” from the third floor. A major addition in 1935, done in Colonial Revival style, added a large dining room and a master suite above it at the rear of the house.
Current owners: Karen and her husband, Dave Hartje, have owned the house for two years. Karen, a fan of old houses, had lived in the nearby Mac-Groveland area in a 1904 house. When she married Dave, she moved to his home in Minnetrista. But she missed St. Paul. “It was a compromise for him to come back here,” she said. “When we walked in here, I said, ‘This is the one.’ It was the layout and the character.” The Cass Gilbert pedigree and its historical significance were another selling point.
Antiques and chandeliers: Karen has long been enamored of elegant traditional interiors. The antique furniture and crystal chandeliers that fill the 4,800-square-foot, 19th-century house came with her from their former house in Minnetrista. “It was ’80s contemporary, and I still furnished it with antiques and things I like,” she said. “I’ve been collecting for quite some time.”
Favorite room: The entry boasts distinctive millwork with decorative trim, picture rails and wainscoting, and elliptical arches framing the entrances to several other rooms. “The level of detail is just beautiful,” she said.
Repurposed rooms: The original library is now Karen’s office, while the original dining room is now a living room. On the third floor, a maid’s room, complete with “calling tube” (an early form of intercom), is now a guest room, while another servant’s room is now an office for Dave.
Family ties: Karen’s mother, Nancy Baxter, lives with the Hartjes and helps tend the formal courtyard garden in the backyard. “I like having my own quarters up here,” she said of her second-floor suite.
Fun fact: As a youth, author F. Scott Fitzgerald lived nearby in the Summit Avenue row houses and was a friend to the five Armstrong offspring. Fitzgerald’s fondness for one of the Armstrong girls is documented in his boyhood journal. “I am just crazy about Margaret Armstrong, and I have the most awful crush on her that ever was,” he wrote. She is believed to be the inspiration for the character Imogene Bissell in his story “The Scandal Detectives.”