Marty and Judi Nora’s home looks like something out of an exotic fairy tale, with its ornate columns, arches, gilded medallions and carved plaster.
But it didn’t look that way when the couple first saw it almost 20 years ago.
The house, originally built as a lumber baron’s ballroom next door to his Stillwater mansion, had been divided into a triplex long ago. Many of its grandest, most distinctive features weren’t even visible; the ballroom’s soaring ceiling had been lowered, and original architectural elements had been stashed in a makeshift attic above one of the apartments.
“The first time I walked in here, the house just said, ‘Help!’ ” Judi recalled.
Still, she saw enormous potential.
“The house spoke to her,” said Marty. So the Noras bought the place, moved in with their three young children (then ages 3, 6 and 8) and began a yearslong renovation project.
When it was built, the dwelling was modeled after the Alhambra, the legendary 14th-century palace in Granada, Spain. In addition to the ornate ballroom, it included a bowling alley and an indoor pool inside a separate pool house.
“We started remodeling it to restore it back to the way it was in 1902,” said Marty. “We knew it would take some time to restore it properly, to find the right artisans.”
Some of the craftspeople they talked with didn’t think a complete restoration was even possible. “They were intimidated,” said Judi. But not Henning Church and Historical Restoration of Forest Lake. “Doug [Henning] never said ‘No.’ He brought the ballroom back to life.”
The family of five lived in the 5,000-square-foot house throughout its restoration, getting firsthand lessons on art and architectural history.
“It was an adventure. The kids got a kick out of it,” said Judi. “We moved multiple times within our own home.”
At one point, the giant ballroom — 30 by 42 feet with 20-foot ceilings — was piled almost to the ceiling with salvaged artifacts. At another point, the kids used it as a volleyball court, until the wall mirrors went up.
During the ballroom restoration, the Noras also worked with designer Ed Hawkesford to remodel other parts of the building to create a livable family home, including adding children’s bedrooms in the former bowling alley, a home theater and a new kitchen that complements the Old World Moorish aesthetic of the rest of the house.
When completed, the restored ballroom became the family’s living/dining space.
“It was easy to raise children in,” said Judi of their unusual home. “The layout is so completely open, it felt secure. The kids loved it. They always wanted to play here.”
The Nora children threw dance parties and sleepovers, and once pitched a tent in the middle of the ballroom. “They liked having friends over,” said Marty. “What a place to play hide-and-seek!”
The grown-up Noras also entertained frequently, hosting concerts, fundraisers and their eldest son’s wedding. “It’s fun to watch people’s expressions when they walk inside,” said Marty.
Outside, the Noras added a pond and fountain, incorporating granite salvaged from the downtown Minneapolis library and cobblestones salvaged from SE. 4th Street in Dinkytown, where Marty grew up. “We get a kick out of our fountain coming from Dinkytown and the Minneapolis library,” said Judi.
The design of their fountain was inspired by their home’s original source material.
“The Alhambra had a fountain, so we put one in,” said Marty.
The Noras have never seen the real Alhambra in Spain. (“Not yet,” said Judi. “But I will go.”)
She’s aware that the original palace, while similar in style, is more monochromatic than their exuberantly colored rendition in Stillwater. “Ours is Moorish Revival, a Victorian interpretation.”
They’ve loved living in their palace, but now that their children are grown, the Noras have decided it’s time to downsize from the four-bedroom house.
“It’s bittersweet,” said Marty. “We don’t want to leave, but it’s a big property for the two of us.”
“Now that the kids are gone, the house is too quiet,” said Judi. “It’s a party house, a happy house.”
Richard McDonough of Edina Realty has the listing, 612-819-3518.