Downtown Excelsior is known for many things, including its designation as a historic district.

So when aging homes and businesses in the district need upgrading, a fine balance must be struck between maintaining the unique character of the structure while adding modern amenities.

In that regard, few homes stand out more than the recent transformation of "The Beehive," the city's original schoolhouse built in 1857.

The humble brick structure has been in Sheila Holleran's family since the mid-1990s when her mother purchased it. By then, the onetime schoolhouse had been converted into a fourplex. In 2008, Holleran bought the place from her mother. Recently, she decided to upgrade the home and put on an addition.

"My intention was to have multigenerational living here," she said. But "the building was in disrepair. It needed work."

Holleran wanted to combine two back-to-back units on the main floor into one larger apartment for her living space. Opening up the floor plan to the outdoors was a goal, too. Updating the remaining two units for renters (and for family members, in the future) was also on her wish list.

At the same time, Holleran was keen to preserve the structure's old-school charm.

"I am very proud of bringing this building back into a useful and loved space," she said. "I think that's important to not always tear everything down."

An interior designer, Holleran started sketching her ideas, then brought in CityDeskStudio to collaborate on updating a home that was steeped in history.

In this case, the home benefited from a certain amount of thinking inside the box.

Wanting to honor the shape of the original schoolhouse, the team dreamed up an expansion of modern, glassy boxes.

"This is a brick schoolhouse that's extremely boxy and square," said CityDeskStudio's Ben Awes, whose team dubbed the project the "Schoolhouse Box." "We envisioned a cascade of boxes, which is drawn from the existing shape of the schoolhouse. There are references to proportion and shape."

The team decided to expand off the back of the house and upgrade each of the units, adding decks or patios to connect to the outdoors.

For Holleran's space, two units becoming one 2,100-square-foot apartment meant reimagining the floor plan and deciding on the best use for the addition.

The team was careful to design around the original chimney in the middle of the house as well as a staircase.

"It split up the spaces in front of the house. That meant where the bedrooms and living room would go was defined pretty early," Awes said. And "the kitchen wanted to be in the back of the house."

The addition would allow the kitchen to be moved to the back. It also allowed for a powder room and screened-in porch.

Honoring history

In addition to coming up with the right floor plan, the home came with other challenges.

The former schoolhouse was located in the Excelsior Downtown Historic District and designated as a Heritage Preservation Site.

The Excelsior Lake Minnetonka Historical Society lists the site as one of 21 historical destinations in the area. Considered one of the oldest buildings in the city, the brick structure has had several iterations over its 164-year history. At one point, the original schoolhouse was relocated to its current spot in the heart of downtown.

"It was moved here in 1883 and expanded in 1891 to a 23-room dormitory, called Sheldon Hall, for the Northwestern Christian College located nearby. When the college burned in 1896, this building became a boarding house," according to the Historical Society website. "The one-story addition was later added as an apartment. The Beehive got its name from the frequent movement of people into and out of the building."

CityDeskStudio worked closely with the Excelsior Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) on Holleran's residence, which is located next to Excelsior Village Hall.

"One of the anomalies or the extenuating circumstances of this project is the HPC has jurisdiction over the building part that faces the street," Awes said. "They were most concerned with the facade. You could make more changes inside the building."

That meant the original brick exterior in the front of the residence could not be altered. And when the team wanted to install large windows as part of the addition in the back, they found themselves having to tweak their original vision.

"We wanted large picture windows, but they wanted us to maintain the building's vertical, double-hung character to be consistent with the ones in the front of the house, only those windows are smaller," Awes said. "We ended up changing our direction to double-hung, but they're 8-foot-tall ones. The HPC was satisfied with what we came up with. It all worked out in the end and ended up being a great partnership."

Honoring the building's history also meant persevering and reusing original materials whenever possible. Wood studs were repurposed and made into new screen door dividers. Original brick walls were exposed and integrated into the design.

Finishing touches

When introducing new materials, items were selected to fit the home's patina and warmth. Walnut was one of Holleran's favorite types of wood, so it was used to make cabinets. The kitchen island countertop was crafted from earth-toned, vein-cut travertine stone. And steel and stone were used as accents.

Holleran is a fan of shou sugi ban siding, an ancient Japanese preservation technique of charring wood. So for the exterior, Holleran and one of her sons sourced cedar, had it milled to the home's specifications, burned the wood using giant torches, then hosed and scrubbed the pieces down.

"We literally did every board by ourselves. We had to char it pretty deep because it was an exterior. It has so many wonderful attributes," she said. "It's fire-retardant and you never have to stain it. It's bug-repellent. And I just love the texture of it."

Now that the construction dust has settled, Holleran can enjoy spending time in her newly configured two-bedroom, three-bathroom abode.

"The layout is perfect for my needs and brings me joy on a daily basis. All the exposed brick and things that were repurposed are truly beautiful," she said. "We spend a great deal of time outside and I know the people living in the other units really appreciate the [new] decks and the firepit in the yard."

Holleran hopes that her home can be an example of how the past and present can come together.

"I think a renovation shouldn't necessarily try to mimic what was there because it's rare that you can do it successfully," she said. "So why not make it special and say, 'Yes, this is an addition. It highlights and complements it versus trying to pretend it was originally there.' "

About this project

What: A modern addition to the original Excelsior schoolhouse.

Size: About 4,000 finished square feet.

Architectural design firm: CityDeskStudio.

Project team: Ben Awes, AIA; Chris Bach; Nate Dodge.