As a teenager in the '70s, Dorothy Sams was fascinated when she first visited Nicollet Island, a 48-acre slice of nature floating in the Mississippi River between downtown and northeast Minneapolis.
"All the hippies and donkeys, and the river," Sams recalled of the island's days as a bohemian enclave. "It was a free-spirited place. I had mad love for it."
A decade later, when part of the island was being redeveloped, Sams jumped at the chance to live there. The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, which owns the land, and the Minneapolis Community Development Agency were offering leases to prospective homeowners willing to move historic houses onto the island, which is part of the St. Anthony Falls Historic District.
Meanwhile, an ancient wood-framed house at the edge of downtown on 5th Avenue South was facing the wrecking ball. The Meader-Farnham House had been built around 1860, on what was then farmland, for W.F. and Jennie Meader, who owned a dry goods and millinery store on Washington Avenue. In 1876, the Meaders sold the house to George Farnham, an employee, and his wife, Mary, according to "Nicollet Island: History and Architecture" by Christopher and Rushika Hage.
As downtown Minneapolis grew, the house became surrounded by urban buildings. It was converted into a boardinghouse, later an antique store. But by the mid-1980s, the antique store had closed, and the house had been taken over by transients and was slated to be razed for a parking lot.
Instead, Sams and two others bought the old house for a dollar, had it cut into three parts and moved by truck onto the island, where it was reassembled and set on a new foundation, ready to begin its next chapter.
'Peculiar little place'
Nicollet Island itself has had many chapters over the years.
Here's how architectural historian Larry Millett summed up the island's quirky personality for the Hages' book:
"Nicollet Island is a peculiar little place that has managed to accommodate a staggering amount of history, much of it cockeyed, since the time when Indians roamed its maple forest and wolves howled in the night. It's been home to hippies, hoboes, multimillionaires, mushroom growers, sawmillers, speculators, slumlords, generations of schoolboys, artists, writers and more than a few lost souls, not to mention two donkeys and a telephone-answering parrot."
Early on, the island was a sacred site for Dakota and Ojibwe Indians. Later, grain mills and sawmills located there. The first house, a cabin, was built in 1849, and by the turn of the century, Nicollet Island had become a fashionable address, with several mansion-sized Victorian homes and stylish limestone townhouses. The Island Sash & Door Co., now the Nicollet Island Inn, was built in 1893. DeLaSalle Institute, now DeLaSalle High School, was founded a few years later.
The island's fortunes declined in the mid-20th century, although some longtime residents remained. By the 1950s, one end of it had become an extension of Minneapolis' Skid Row, with cheap rent in rundown dwellings. In the '70s, when Sams first discovered the island, it was home to a hippie colony.
Revelopment in the mid-1980s helped bring renewed cachet and gentrification, making Nicollet Island once again a coveted location.
The hippies and donkeys may be gone, but the island remains a community of interesting, free-thinking people, Sams said.
Her house retains many of its original architectural features, including a central bull's-eye window and wood inlay mosaic floors. Sams and Bill Eigen, her life partner of more than 20 years, have also made numerous improvements, including adding a marble-clad fireplace and three distinctive wood-burning stoves.
The 4,336-square-foot house includes five bedrooms, five baths and an 1,100-square-foot apartment within the house, with private entrance. The house also boasts expansive windows facing the Mississippi and downtown, which is just a 10- to 15-minute walk away.
Sams is a passionate gardener who has created a gated "secret garden" of trees, shrubs and perennials, as well as a backyard fire pit. The couple also added a three-car garage that doubles as "the clubhouse."
"The neighbor girls come and have a glass of wine and dance, play Jenga and cards," said Sams. "It's the Babe Cave."
Listing agent Karen Rue of Edina Realty, who described the house as "magical and theatrical," said she appreciates the way the home has been thoughtfully updated.
"The house has been brought back to life in a complementary way to the original architecture and intent of the first house." (The land remains owned by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, with 67 years remaining on its 99-year lease.)
Nature and sleighbells
Living on the island is like being in another world, said Eigen. With only 144 residents, according to the 2000 census, Nicollet Island is a close-knit community. "How many people get to live in nature, with a pleasant small-town feel, in the middle of the big city?" he said.
Sams, too, cherishes the setting. "The views we have of downtown and the river are so spectacular," she said. The house faces the sunset, which glows against the skyline. Foxes and deer are frequent visitors, and the backyard is like an "aviary."
As a bonus, "We're on the horse-drawn carriage route," Sams noted, which brings the sound of clopping hoofs and, in winter, sleighbells. "It's an enchanting place to live."
But the couple are ready to downsize. "We don't need a big house anymore," Sams said.
"We want to be a little more footloose," added Eigen, who works in the film industry and travels frequently.
Minneapolis' downtown revival has boosted the location's intrigue, Rue noted. "That has really sparked interest in Nicollet Island." In addition to walkable proximity to urban attractions, the island has its own network of walking and jogging paths. "People who are trying to decide whether to buy a condo downtown or live out in the country can have both on Nicollet Island."
Karen Rue of Edina Realty has the listing, 612-916-1110.