House hunting in 2004, Dave Sours learned that the last octagonal home in Ramsey County was on the market. He'd married Marilee Olson two years earlier and she remembers calling the befuddled listing agent, who said: "Are you sure you want to look at it?"
They liked that they saw, plunking down $340,000, and got to work on the eight-sided house built in 1887 at 2609 E. 18th Av. in North St. Paul.
"It needed help," Olson said. "And we paid too much, but it's become our passion."
One of their first projects was tearing out the water-stained acoustic tile ceiling covering the older plaster in a west bedroom on the second floor.
"We found some stuff in the corner that appeared to be stashed by rodents," said Sours, 58, who sifted through the debris and extracted an old photograph of four well-dressed children. They appear to be the four oldest kids of original owners Joseph and Anna Osborn, photographed around 1887.
The discovery of that fading image kindled a 15-year plunge into the history of a house originally christened "Woodbine" after the vines snaking over a porch roof.
Here are eight sides to the story behind the octagonal house:
1. Osborn, a personal friend of Abraham Lincoln, paid $800 for the lot. Born "Esbyorn" in Sweden in 1843, he emigrated to Illinois, fought with black troops in the Civil War, Americanized his name and became an early Swedish newspaper publisher. He moved to Minnesota in 1883, dabbling in real estate and serving as a chief clerk in the secretary of state's office. By the time he died at 89, his fortunes had dried up and he defaulted on his mortgage.
2. The next owners, German-born Ernst and Dorothea Reiff, moved in from North Dakota after he purchased the belly-up St. Paul Casket Co. during the economic decline of the 1890s. He hired one of his casket company workers to paint elaborate golden designs that still glisten on the house's interior black doors. And later, Reiff's son Ernest portrayed Vulcan in the 1940 St. Paul Winter Carnival and is credited with restoring the carnival character to prominence. (https://tinyurl.com/Octagondoors)
3. Two Reiff daughters, Henrietta and Minna, announced in 1907 that they had no interest in marriage but wanted children. So they adopted nine girls from across the country, raising them in the house. The family was newsworthy enough to appear in a 1922 New York Times photo. Two of the kids were prematurely born twins, who arrived by train in 1915 in a shoe box — weighing 5 pounds combined. By 1936, they were photographed christening a new locomotive in fur coats.
4. Octagonal houses became popular in the 1850s, allowing more living space, natural light and easier heating and cooling dynamics. Minnesota boasts 32 octagonal houses, tied for 11th place with Connecticut, according to a national database — https://tinyurl.com/OctagonalHouses. St. Paul's first octagonal house, built in 1857, was razed in 1917 to make way for a hospital near what is now the Minnesota History Center — leaving Woodbine as Ramsey County's last existing octagonal house on the list.
5. Among the mysteries Sours and Olson solved: A concrete memorial in the backyard is etched with the word "Peace" and the date June 28, 1919. That's when Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles after World War I, an important day for the German-rooted Reiffs.
6. Besides the basement, the house has a "spooky subbasement we call the crypt," Olson said. It includes a cast-iron door and shaft believed to be a tornado shelter that would allow for escape if a twister collapsed the structure.
7. The Reiff family owned the home from 1892 to 1963 and left behind one remnant from Ernst, the casket company exec. "We found a wooden crate in the attic that appears to be a shipping case for a casket," Sours said. Not so lucky to survive: stained-glass windows in the sunroom transoms, which included the words: "My Eden Sacred to the Muses." They were sold to an antique dealer.
8. Modern-day owners of the octagonal house included social work professor Eugene Sahs and his artist wife Marjorie, whom the Sacramento Bee called "a noted art educator, writer and activist" known for her stone sculptures and hand-painted silk scarves. After their short stint in 1960s, they sold the house to John and Roberta Carlson. He was an accountant and she was an avid gardener who performed in local theater. After 39 years and raising three kids in the house, they sold the home to Sours and Olson — who became the fifth owners of the house. He's a retired computer analyst. She's 62 and a retired medical researcher.
They have built a website filled with the house's story, including some ghostly encounters, at https://tinyurl.com/OctagonalHouse.
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His new book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: https://tinyurl.com/MN1918. Podcasts at www.onminnesotahistory.com.