Like many empty nesters, Uri and Melissa Camarena started thinking about downsizing to a condo.
Instead they upsized — big time — to a gigantic limestone mansion.
It was a “rescue” mission they couldn’t resist.
“We looked at this house and fell in love,” said Uri of their 1903 home. “We saw the potential. It’s such a piece of Minneapolis history.”
That history began in 1903 with Alfred Pillsbury, the only son of Pillsbury Co. founder John S. Pillsbury. Alfred was less interested in the family flour-milling business than he was in Chinese art. He acquired a massive collection and left more than 900 pieces to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, which is near the home in the Whittier neighborhood.
His 10,600-square-foot house was English in style, boasting classic features of its era, including abundant woodwork, grand staircases and multiple fireplaces. There’s even a 17th-century library, imported from England by Alfred Pillsbury, with original oak paneling, a hand-carved plaster ceiling and a wall of bookcases.
The historic house had fallen on hard times when the Camarenas bought it about a dozen years ago. It had been converted into a series of offices and later a boardinghouse. The roof leaked, the plaster ceilings were damaged, and the electrical system was antiquated. Plus there was no garage. “The Pillsburys shared a stable [carriage house] down the block,” Uri said.
The Camarenas, who had renovated several other older houses, were determined to restore the mansion to its former glory, while updating it with modern amenities.
“We loved the building and felt we had to rescue it,” Uri said. Melissa, an interior designer, served as general contractor.
Creating an updated kitchen was one of their biggest challenges. The original one was small and tucked into a corner, with poor flow and functionality. So the Camarenas converted the long porte-cochere, which ran along the back of the house and had been used as a storage porch, into a kitchen.
The distinctive space still has its original limestone-arched walls but is now equipped with professional-grade appliances and yards of countertops, as well as decorative limestone columns and custom iron chandeliers that the Camarenas had shipped from Mexico.
The couple also added a garage. Because the home is on the National Register of Historic Places, the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission had to approve any structure addition.
Finding exterior materials that matched the house also was a challenge; the Platteville limestone used for the home’s exterior is no longer quarried and becomes available only when existing buildings are demolished. When an old church made of the same stone began to collapse, Uri quickly made a call, only to be told he was too late, that someone had beaten him to the material. Luckily, that person turned out to be the Camarenas’ stonemason.
Over the years, they’ve updated everything from the master suite and seven bathrooms to the lower level, which now includes an exercise room, wine cellar and “tequila room” designed for tequila tastings.
“It has all the conveniences a modern house should have,” Uri said. “We’ve tried to keep the original flavor, but it’s not a museum.”
Despite its imposing size, the home has comfortable spaces that feel cozy when it’s just the two of them, he said, but the grand-scale rooms also accommodate large-scale entertaining. The Camarenas have hosted many fundraisers, primarily to benefit arts organizations.
“We have definitely put the house to work,” he said.
That was one of their original goals when the couple made the decision to buy such a large house for a household of two. “The question became, ‘How do we justify this just for us?’ ” Uri said. “We decided to share it.”
Now that the restoration is complete, the Camarenas have decided it’s time to share the house with a new owner. Their work on it is done, and they’re ready to take on another residential rescue mission. “We want to get another project,” he said. “That’s a passion Melissa and I share.”
What will he miss most about living like a Pillsbury? “The neighborhood,” he said. “Eat Street has developed into a destination. And there are all these nearby cultural institutions — the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Children’s Theatre and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. It’s very walkable.”
Steve Havig of Lakes Area Realty has the listing, 612-867-5624, firstname.lastname@example.org