Anoka has found a way to preserve one of the county’s most historic homes, visited by governors and Civil War soldiers, by reincarnating it as a restaurant overlooking the Rum River near downtown.

An Anoka couple, Tim and Liz Koch, are renting and renovating the 155-year-old Woodbury House. They will relocate their Mad Hatter Tea Room from Main Street to 1632 S. Ferry St. (Hwy 169). They hope to open a family-style restaurant and tea room in the city-owned house before March.

Liz Koch, 49, started the Tea Room in 1999 in the old downtown Post Office. She said she is happy to stay in Anoka, where she has raised her two kids, now college students working part time for her. Tim Koch, her husband of four years, is doing much of the remodeling. She said they had been looking for larger quarters for years in Anoka and elsewhere. Finding a historic building fits well with the ancient art of serving tea, she said.

“I just want this to be a community place,” Koch said last week, glancing around the vacant living room with bay windows overlooking a steep bank along the Rum. She said she’d like to have croquet, picnics and Easter egg hunts in the big front yard and host school prom dinners and residents’ parties. She said two small Anoka bakeries and a butcher shop will provide pastries and meats.

City bought building

The City Council voted to buy the foreclosed home, which had fallen into disrepair, in April from the city Housing and Redevelopment Authority for $330,000. In November, after reviewing several development proposals, the council unanimously approved a five-year lease with the Kochs. The city is investing about $350,000 in new plumbing for a sprinkler system, upgraded electrical and other mechanical improvements before the grand opening, said Planning Director Carolyn Braun.

The Woodbury House, designed in the Greek Revival and Federal styles in 1857, is the third-oldest building in the county, said Todd Mahon, executive director of the Anoka County Historical Society. Dwight Woodbury, who bought the two-story house in 1860 from Anoka’s first doctor, was a state legislator. He helped develop Anoka with his water-powered flour and sawmills on the Rum River where City Hall now sits. During the Civil War, Union army volunteers rested at the house on the way to Fort Snelling.

Mahon said Anoka area people have a deep interest in the old mansion, owned from 1985 to 2006 by former legislator and civic leader John Weaver. Mahon said the society’s annual home and garden tour, limited to 600 tickets, sold out for the first time last summer when the Woodbury House was added to the tour.

“We never came close to selling out before,” he said. “It is great that it is saved, and people have some access to it as well.” A generation ago when Hwy. 169 was the main road north, the house with its big circular driveway was a landmark for thousands of families headed to summer cabins or resorts, he said, adding:

“It is white, sits up on a hill surrounded by an iron fence under a canopy of trees. It’s kind of mysterious.”

Overcoming concerns

Mayor Phil Rice said he was reluctant for the city to become a landlord and indirectly compete with other businesses. But he said his concerns were outweighed by the historic value and strategic location of the 2.2-acre property, which could become part of a future trail down the Rum River to a city park at the Mississippi River confluence.

Rice said he hopes to sell the house to the Kochs or others in 10 years, by which time restaurant rent would have recovered city improvement costs.

“Hopefully we can live up to our part,” said Tim Koch, a former baker who manages a restaurant equipment supply warehouse.

The Kochs, who blast emails to 4,000 customers around the Twin Cities and beyond, plan to invest more than $250,000 in a larger, commercial kitchen, painting rooms, a handicapped accessible bathroom, glass and dinnerware, tables, chairs and other improvements, Liz Koch said.

The Mad Hatter will close its cramped shop in the old Post Office, built in 1916, at year’s end. Then the couple will dive deeper into Anoka’s history at the Woodbury House. At least two Minnesota governors, writer Ignatius Donnelly and several early legislators have visited the house. It sheltered area settlers who fled their outlying homes during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. The home was added in 1979 to the National Registry of Historic Places.

Liz Koch said the living room and wood-paneled, high ceiling library, both with fireplaces, will become dining areas to seat about 50. Dining also will be offered on the wraparound porch in warmer months. Koch said she has hired a veteran chef to prepare lunch and dinner entrees, ranging from $12 to $20, five days a week and brunch on Sunday. The house’s dining room will become a gift shop offering teas, jams, postcards and other items.

Koch said many of her patrons have asked if they can help with the move. She said she is setting up an online Kickstarter campaign to raise about $58,000 to assist with start-up costs. Those who contribute will receive free meals, tea parties or other rewards.

The city will provide parking for the Mad Hatter at the adjacent Carpenter’s Union, which will be demolished soon, Braun said.

Anoka County’s oldest building is the Banfill-Locke farm house in Fridley, now housing an arts center. It was built in 1847 as an inn and tavern on the Red River Trail, which ran up the Mississippi and through Anoka, Mahon said. The second-oldest building is also in Anoka. The Shaw-Hammons House, built in 1852, sits a few blocks north of the Woodbury house.