Drive through Marine on St. Croix, the picturesque town north of Stillwater, and you can't miss the Asa Parker house. The stately Greek Revival with white columns sits atop a hill overlooking the historic downtown and river valley. Built in 1856 — before Minnesota became a state — the house is a prominent local landmark and a piece of Marine's history.
Parker, co-owner of Marine's first commercial sawmill, built the house for himself and his bride. After decades of single-family ownership, the historic house became a bed-and-breakfast in 1990. But after more than 20 years, the B&B went out of business, and the property fell into foreclosure.
By 2015, the once-grand house was vacant, bank-owned and in poor shape. The roof had been leaking for years, and there was extensive rot.
"The house was beginning to slowly come apart," said Jack Warren, a longtime resident of Marine, a few months before he died last year at age 83.
Warren had always admired the handsome house and even considered buying it years earlier when he and his wife, Janice, still had kids living at home. "But we couldn't figure out how to make the floor plan work for a family with three children," he said last year.
Concerned that the house was in jeopardy, Warren, who's been described as the city's "ultimate volunteer," decided to rescue it by buying it at auction and doing more than just returning it to its former glory.
"The goal was to make it a single-family home again," he said. "A historic house from another era but fully functional for today's world."
Warren was well aware that the massive project would likely cost more than he could possibly hope to recover.
"I knew there were critical structural issues," he said. "I'm guaranteed of losing money." But, with his family's blessing, he plunged ahead, as "a gift to the community — or my kids' gift."
Warren, who battled cancer in his final years, "wanted a project he could sink his teeth into," said his daughter, Julie Warren. "It gave him so much joy and a reason to keep going."
A true community
Warren's commitment to preserving the house grew out of his commitment to Marine.
A native New Yorker, he and his wife moved to Minnesota more than 55 years ago for his job at 3M.
"We lived in St. Paul but couldn't get comfortable," he recalled. Then they discovered Marine. "This town's a community, where you have the ability to know your neighbors and participate."
And participate Warren did, serving for many years on the planning commission, the volunteer fire department and helping lead a drive to protect the historic mill site from development.
His vision for the Asa Parker house was to preserve and restore its classic character, but to also update it to make it energy-efficient, with a new kitchen, new bathrooms and a layout that would work for a modern family.
Warren hired architect Eric Hansen, of E.J. Hansen, after seeing one of his projects that had won a preservation award.
Hansen, who has worked on many historic restorations, could immediately see that the Asa Parker house would be a monumental undertaking.
"When he first showed it to me, I said, 'Are you serious, Jack?' This is like running a marathon," Hansen recalled.
Warren was serious. So Hansen began work on the design, and Warren recruited helpers for the first round of demolition.
To create space for the enhancements, Hansen designed a three-story rear addition that could accommodate a large kitchen with a center island and see-through fireplace on the main floor, a potential media room on the lower level and additional bedroom space on the second floor.
The home's original character was maintained by replicating existing dormer details for six new dormers. New windows and doors were matched to historic proportions. And Warren even insisted on an internal gutter system because that's what the house originally had, Hansen said.
New insulation, ventilation and radiant heat flooring made the old house cozy and comfortable. "It's super-efficient," said Hansen, who collaborated with Hagstrom Builder on the project. "The goal was to save as much as possible."
Not everything that Warren had hoped to save could be saved. The home still has its original pocket doors, but much of the original woodwork was too dinged to salvage. The new woodwork and staircase were designed to replicate the scale and details of the originals. Lumber and other materials that couldn't be reused were donated to a reuse nonprofit, Better Futures.
Picking up the reins
During the lengthy project, Warren's health declined to the point that he set up a trust to fund the project's completion. After he died in November, daughter Julie, who lives in Texas, picked up the reins of the renovation, making multiple trips to Minnesota to sign off on details and check on the home's progress.
"It's a great project, very meaningful, and my dad wanted it finished," she said. "It didn't feel like a choice."
The massive renovation is almost complete. The four-bedroom, three-bathroom house will be open for touring during the Homes by Architects tour Sept. 21-22.
Next month, the 4,000-square-foot house and its 1-acre lot will go on the market.
"It's stunningly beautiful," said listing agent Elliott Hagstrom, Coldwell Banker Burnet. "It's an 1850s house, restored without any penny spared. The millwork is just exceptional and true to the era."
But instead of the small outdated rooms it used to have, the house now has an open floor plan, a new kitchen and a spacious owners' suite with a sitting room, walk-in closet and luxurious bathroom. (A price has not yet been set. Interested parties can contact Hagstrom, 651-324-4137, or Krista Wolter, 612-247-5106, Coldwell Banker Burnet.)
Julie is happy to see the historic home ready for its next chapter. "The house looks amazing, and it's so rewarding to see it restored," she said.
She's sure her dad would be pleased with the final result.
"He wanted to bring another family to Marine and have the house last another 160 years," she said. "It's been great to be able to see that through for him."