After a natural gas explosion tore through a Minnehaha Academy building in August 2017, claiming the lives of two cherished employees, pathbreaking couple Y. Marc and Alicia Belton joined other officials, parents and community members in a multipronged effort to repair the breach at their children's school.
Quiet and self-effacing, the philanthropists aimed to rebuild the physical structure and help heal the community's jagged spirit.
"Marc and Alicia have been generous with their time, talent and treasure even before the event," said Minnehaha Academy President Donna Harris, who herself was lauded for her heroic leadership during the episode. "They exude warmth and care, with a great heart for service. They've always been people connectors and have hosted many events in their homes."
Their current home, a historic Mediterranean-style house overlooking Minneapolis' Lake of the Isles, is one they moved to almost a decade ago. Even before they took up residence, Alicia, one of the earliest licensed Black female architects in Minnesota history and the incoming 2022 president of the Minnesota chapter of the American Institute of Architects, led a nine-month top-to-bottom update that brought an aesthetic cohesion to the restoration.
All that work was necessary because of the house's long, sometimes complicated history. First owned by the manager and editor of a publication called the Daily Market Record, one Plumleigh Rogers, the 1916 property reflected the aesthetic choices of subsequent occupants over the decades, including former news anchor Paul Magers and Par Ridder, the onetime Pioneer Press publisher who also served briefly in the same capacity at the Star Tribune.
"Every owner did something different, and it wasn't a merged vision," Alicia said. "There was a circular staircase that somebody wanted, but it was overdone. In some places, it was 2 feet wide. Paul Magers put the pool in, but the way it was, you couldn't see it from inside. We opened it up to see the kids."
In their previous place, a Spanish-style house near Lake Harriet, the Beltons regularly entertained family and friends with gatherings marked by joyful music, bonhomie and scrumptious food. They also hosted a summer open house that was the culmination of a golf tournament Marc holds annually as part of the family's extensive philanthropic efforts. That summer function drew an eclectic, diverse mix of people from all walks of life, including from the faith, corporate and arts communities.
When the Beltons thought about moving, they wanted their home to still be a place of welcome. But they also had other reasons, including having "a place where my mother-in-law could stay," Alicia said.
Mildred Belton, a retired administrative assistant now in her 90s, lives independently in suburban New York, where Marc grew up. Belton's late father, York, was a police officer.
The mother-in-law suite is still waiting, Marc said. "If she ever decides to [move in], it's ready."
That area of the house was part of the renovation. So was the kitchen, which was reoriented.
The Beltons put the laundry room upstairs — "much more practical," Alicia said. In fact, the upstairs was reduced to the studs, and redone to open up space, reorient space and bring in more light.
And they took out the squished, tight-throated circular staircase in favor of one that now breathes.
A Minnesota love story
The house also reflects a music-minded love story between a New Yorker and a Texan who met in Minnesota. As a teenager, Marc, a bass player, gigged with professional funk bands in nightclubs and had thoughts of a life onstage. But after his brilliant older sister, Monique, got into Harvard, his parents pressed him to focus on his studies.
He did, and matriculated at Dartmouth, then later earned an MBA at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, where he studied marketing.
When he came to General Mills in 1983, Marc intended to stay a couple of years. But in his 32-year career at the global food giant, he made huge strides for the company, and himself. One of his many milestones includes becoming the youngest president of a company division. His success created space for others in the corporate community even as he mentored, and continues to mentor, new talent.
Alicia, who plays piano, moved to the Twin Cities after graduate school at the University of Illinois to take a job at 3M, where she was a project engineer. The daughter of an African American father and Thai mother, she grew up in Galveston, Texas, dreaming of becoming an architect. But she had no nearby role model, only TV dad Mike Brady of "The Brady Bunch."
Now she has her own company, Urban Design Perspectives, and is a more-immediate muse to others.
"Alicia is an even-keel, classy, inspiring role model for me," said Twin Cities architect Damaris Hollingsworth. "I'm not much younger — she could be my big sister. But she's so mature, centered and balanced, I feel like a kid around her. And, of course, she's a pioneer in our field."
Marc and Alicia came together "by providence, not coincidence," said longtime family friend Kimberly Price, who served as a senior 3M executive but has become better known as a matchmaker. "They are both smart and beautiful and share so much in common. But the strongest thing about them is their faith. They both believe deeply that to whom much is given, much is required, and they live that quietly."
Price introduced them 25 years ago when Mildred Belton called from New York to ask for help with the search for a spouse for her only son. Two weeks later, Price saw Alicia Grant at the church they both attended, Pilgrim Baptist in St. Paul. Alicia was working with a clutch of kids in the nursery.
"I saw her with those children, and she had an ethereal presence about her," she said. "If she could love up on the little kids, she could love up on the big kid — Marc."
She called Alicia on a lunch break to get to know her. That initial chat lasted 45 minutes.
"Sweet as could be," Price said. "I just knew: God made them to be together."
This far by faith
Faith informs nearly everything about the Beltons' life. If their home is beautiful, it's for a bigger purpose. It's in the family's mission statement, which hangs on a wall near the front.
Their home "will be a vehicle for blessing and ministry," it says, and their works will be evidence of their faith to "glorify the Lord."
Ask them about any of their achievements, and they become bashful. They give credit to others with whom they work. Most important, they point to the heavens.
"If anything great happens in our lives, it's because the Lord has done something with us," Marc said. "We serve an audience of one."
While that may be, it doesn't stop folks from admiring their intellect, generosity and spirit.
"Marc brings a different way of thinking to a conversation, one that asks questions I hadn't considered, or frames them in a way that I wouldn't expect, which in turns expands my own thinking," said Joseph Haj, artistic director of the Guthrie Theater, on whose board Marc has served for years. "He is so smart, so capable and so philanthropically and community-minded that he brings much to the table in whatever he does."
Architect Hollingsworth has been to the house and seen the renovation.
"Alicia redesigned it with such high quality," she said. "The way it flows, entertaining in their home is easy because the rooms open up to the patio. But there's this sense of calm and peace about it. And, of course, I remember the food. Very, very good."
The Beltons see a lot of work before them.
There are still only a handful of Black female architects in Minnesota — and about 500 nationwide — Alicia noted. She intends to do something about that.
The Belton Family Foundation, which someday will pass to children Alexander, 14, and Gabrielle, 11, supports a host of causes, including a village in Sierra Leone. Marc, through the Wisefellows Consulting business he launched after his retirement, formally and informally nurtures a new generation of leaders.
The family also is involved in their church, Sanctuary Covenant.
There are ample causes in the Twin Cities, including at Minnehaha Academy, where Marc is board chair and has led the capital campaign. Alicia also serves on the board of Habitat for Humanity.
Their house is a testament to their good works, Price said. It's a locus and launchpad for "the great things that they're doing."
If they have made their home a warm sanctuary, it is because they desire that others have the same, even those they will never know.
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390