Architect Alissa Pier loves north Minneapolis and its old, architecturally rich housing stock. She and her husband, Brent, have lived on the city’s North Side since 1998, in three neighborhoods, and have no desire to make their home anywhere else.
“North is awesome! You couldn’t pay me to move,” said Pier, of ADL Pier Design Inc. “There’s a sense of community here.”
So the tornado that struck north Minneapolis in May 2011 hit close to home. Her house was spared, but when she saw all the houses that had been devastated, she sprang into action, recruiting other design professionals to donate their services to storm-stricken homeowners. She also helped launch an initiative, Rebuilding It Right, to ensure that homes didn’t lose their architectural character as a result of storm repairs.
Someone told her, in the days tollowing the tornado, that North Siders didn’t need architecture, they needed food and necessities, she recalled. But she knew that even struggling neighbors were also hungry for beauty.
“They have pride, too. Design is not just for the rich; it’s for everybody,” she said.
Little did Pier know that she would soon be restoring a tornado-damaged house of her own. The vintage-architecture aficionado kept a mental Top 10 list of favorite dwellings in the Twin Cities. No. 1 on her list was a French Country-style house she’d spotted years ago in North’s Homewood neighborhood.
“It has this presence. It’s stately but not pompous,” she said of the white stucco house set on more than an acre that backs on Theodore Wirth Park. When she first spotted the house, “you could barely see it, because of the trees,” she said. “It was this big hidden thing in its own quiet corner of the world.”
Pier’s dream house was hit hard by the 2011 tornado, which took its roof and about three dozen of its mature trees — but not its charm. Months after the tornado struck, she was driving around the neighborhood, “trying to keep tabs on houses with tornado damage,” she said, when she drove past her favorite house. There was an estate sale being held, so Pier stopped, eager to get a look inside. “I got to see the basement and first floor,” she said, which included the airy living and dining rooms, the music room, library and the breakfast room, still with its original blue-and-white tile floor. The house needed work, but Pier was smitten. She could envision her family living there. “It had such good bones, such a good feel,” she said. At more than 6,000 square feet, it was big, but not overpowering. “It’s beautiful, elegant and classic … a really comfortable style.”
Not for sale
The house wasn’t on the market, but Pier wondered if the estate sale might be a clue that it soon would be. Intrigued, she started researching the house’s history. It was built in 1921 for Max and Hattie Kaplan. He was a food supplier, who shipped eggs and chicken from local farms to grocers across the country, via railroad cars. But his business faltered during the Depression, and he moved his family to their summer house on Lake Minnetonka.
The city house was rented out for several years, then sold in the late 1930s to Max and Jeanette Kunin, who owned a hair salon and raised their six children in the house; it remained in the Kunin family, owned by the widow of one of the sons, who had recently died. So Pier wrote her a letter, expressing her interest in the house, should she ever want to sell. Not long afterward, she got a call from a real estate agent inviting her to make an offer.
The Piers jumped at the chance. “We weren’t looking to move,” she said. They’d renovated their 1910-built house in the Hawthorne neighborhood, and were happy living there. “But I’ve loved this house for years.”
Her dream house had gotten a new roof, but the third floor, heavily damaged by the tornado and resulting water leakage, had been gutted to the studs, although the millwork had been saved. “We bought it ‘as is,’ ” Pier said.
The rest of the house, however, was in good shape. Under the carpet, the hardwood floors were “pretty pristine,” she said. “There hadn’t been children here since the 1950s.” (She and her husband have two, Maeryn, 6, and Lucian, 4.)
And many of the home’s original features, including a walk-in closet with built-ins in the master bedroom, needed little improvement. “The layout is so ahead of its time,” Pier marveled.
Plans and surprises
Pier was eager to find the original plans for the house to help guide its restoration. “There had to be blueprints. It’s too awesome not to have them,” she said. She scoured Northwest Architectural Archives, a collection owned by the University of Minnesota, her alma mater, without success — until she discovered that the plans had been misfiled, under the right address but with an “S” for south Minneapolis, instead of an “N” for north.
Armed with 90 pages of plans and specs, Pier was able to “geek out” over sketches of the original plaster work, windows and doors, detailing for the five fireplaces and even an exterior ornamental crest that was obscured by a later solarium addition. “I’m dying to know if the crest is under there,” she said.
Pier also found plans, rolled up in a tube in the coal room, for a lower-level remodel in the 1940s, when the Kunin family transformed their rec room into a Cuban-style cantina. The room still boasts two unusual relief murals added during that project — one shows the family in festive Cuban-inspired finery, and another shows two Kunin brothers, who fought in World War II, in uniform.
The old house has yielded other artifacts and treasures. In the basement, Pier found original light fixtures. She’s restored several of them, sometimes piecing together parts from multiple fixtures, and rehung them in the house.
In the basement, Pier discovered another relic from the home’s past — a hidden hooch compartment behind a sliding panel in a medicine cabinet. “The house was built during Prohibition — if the cops came, you could hide your stash,” Pier said. (During the years the house was rented out, in the 1930s, its tenants reputedly included bootlegger Benny Haskell and his wife, Fritzi, founders of Haskell’s.)
The kitchen still looks much as it did decades ago, with its built-in breakfast booth and 1930s stove, which still works. The Piers did add a kitchen island. “I had to have a dishwasher. We cook a lot,” she said. The butler’s pantry still boasts its original hardware, but Pier designed a new floor, in black-and-white marble, to look period-appropriate.
The house remains a work in progress. “We haven’t even gotten to the yard,” Pier said. “Things take time.”
But they love living in the house, with its proximity to downtown and wildlife in Wirth Park. “We can see skyscrapers and fireworks from the third floor, and awesome sunsets in the solarium,” Pier said.
They’re in their home for the long haul. “I’m a steward for the house. I want to build on its legacy,” she said. “I think our grandchildren will fight over it after we die. And I hope that 100 years from now, someone looks back and thinks we were good for the house.”