It’s easy to picture ladies in hoop skirts and bonnets sipping lemonade on the front porch that enwraps a genteel, gingerbread-style house in Carver.
The iconic Victorian-era house has been featured in calendars, on holiday tours and even an HGTV show, “If Walls Could Talk.”
Owners John and Kathleen von Walter had admired the home’s stately exterior long before they ever got a look inside. “If that ever goes up for sale we should look at it,” Kathleen remembers thinking. One day, she spotted a tiny photo in a real estate ad and realized it was the house, now on the market.
“We walked in, looked at each other, and we knew,” she said. “Everything was original,” including the woodwork, the floors and even most of the wallpaper.
The von Walters, who had restored a historic house on Summit Avenue in St. Paul before moving to Carver, were ready to tackle another project.
“We both just love history,” said Kathleen. Carver’s history in particular. The couple have been longtime members of the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission, and John, the unofficial town historian, has written several books, including “Sheriffs of Carver County.”
Their home, at least the oldest part of it, was built for Carver County’s first sheriff, Levi Griffin, and his wife, Eliza, in 1856 — before the town was platted and before Minnesota became a state. Griffin, an early settler of the Minnesota River town, established its first general store, its first ferry, its first stagecoach line, its first hotel and a sawmill.
Soon Carver was booming. “It was a steamboat town,” said John, the last stop before a set of rapids. Covered wagons stopped in Carver for supplies before heading west.
“At one time, there were nine or 10 hotels and about 30 saloons,” he said.
One of those early hotels was the Hotel Luksenborg, a “claim shanty” owned by Griffin. He eventually gave it to the city to use as a schoolhouse until a new one was built. Then the shanty was moved onto Griffin’s property.
In the early 1880s, Griffin’s house got an extreme makeover when John and Sophia Hebeisen bought the property. Years earlier, Griffin’s brother-in-law Joshua Torrey, a carpenter and boat builder, had built an adjacent house with a separate entrance, creating a side-by-side duplex. The Hebeisens turned both halves into a single 3,200-square-foot residence that they transformed to reflect the ornate Victorian style that was popular at the time. The house with seven gables and a wraparound front porch is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Over the 17 years the von Walters have owned “the Gables,” they have lovingly updated and restored it. “There isn’t a room we haven’t touched,” said Kathleen. “We renovated to be compatible with the period. We brought it back to the way it should be.”
The couple refinished all the ornate woodwork and wood floors. “The original wood [flooring] was never varnished or painted in the middle — varnish was so expensive,” Kathleen said. Instead, it was the practice to varnish the edges of the room and put a rug in the middle. “We were shocked to find original virgin wood.”
The von Walters also added insulation and air-conditioning, and undertook a 13-month kitchen renovation.
During one of their projects, they discovered a secret door in one bathroom. “You turn a coat hook, and the whole wall opens,” John said.
The ancient hotel is still in their backyard, incorporated into an old stable with hay loft that the von Walters use as a garage and workshop.
Now they’ve decided to sell the Gables, due to health conditions that make it difficult for them to climb the stairs. They considered installing an elevator, “but it would destroy two rooms historically,” Kathleen said. So they bought a townhouse in Victoria and have put their historic home on the market, listed for $424,900.
“We’re very sad. The day I put the sign up, I started to cry,” said Kathleen. “It’s our passion, our hobby.”
She’ll miss sitting on their front porch, chatting with people as they pass by. “It’s just like things used to be,” she said. “You get to know your neighbors when you have a front porch.”
Chris Neill, 612-799-0017, Coldwell Banker Burnet, has the listing.