The back story: Ben Braun, an architect, and his life partner, Dr. Whitney Evavold, were looking for an older house in need of some TLC that they could restore and put on the market. "It was something we wanted to do together," said Evavold. They found a modest, early 1920s house in northeast Minneapolis through a city program, now called Minneapolis Homes, that sells vacant houses to people willing to invest in improvements. The city-owned house, empty for several years, had been neglected, but the couple liked its location in the East St. Anthony neighborhood. "It's a nice, tight-knit community, close to downtown, with a lot of little shops, restaurants and churches," Braun said. "The neighbors kept an eye on it." Evavold appreciated the home's original wood built-ins and "historic charm. The house had really good bones. It was cute."

The team: Braun Architects, Mpls., 612-210-8048, and Evavold; contractor Charlie's Angles, Hopkins.

Untapped potential: Priced at $145,000, the house was the most expensive one then being offered through the vacant-house program, and Braun was leery that they might have to invest more in it than they could recover. But when he went for his walk-through of the house, he discovered unfinished attic space that could be converted into a master suite, adding square footage and value. "There was a lot of potential," he said. And downstairs, he could visualize other fixes that would make the home more appealing to today's buyers. "There were ways to tweak the floor plan and still retain the old charm."

Making their case: The couple put together a proposal detailing what improvements they intended to make, how much they planned to invest and what they would do with the house after renovation. "We competed with one other developer," Braun said. In the end, Braun and Evavold got the house because they planned to do a complete restoration, including new high-efficiency mechanical systems, not just minimal cosmetic changes. "The neighborhood committee liked that about our proposal, that it was not a quick flip," said Evavold.

Hands-on project: Soon they were involved in an intensive hands-on renovation. The contractor, Charlie's Angles, did the framing, plumbing and wiring, but Braun and Evavold tackled just about everything else. "Ben worked on it six days a week for nine months," Evavold said. Even though she has a demanding schedule as a physician, Evavold spent much of her downtime working on the house. "Most days I had off I was there, as well," she said.

Suite space: Before converting the bare, uninsulated attic into a cozy master suite, they first had to create room for it. "One of the big things was taking the chimney out so we could make the whole thing work," Braun said. (There was no fireplace.) Creating the master suite increased the home's finished square footage from 950 to 1,500.

To finish the new master bath and remodel the existing one downstairs, the couple even learned how to cut and set tile. "We went a little crazy with the tile," said Braun, covering the walls all the way to the ceiling. "No acrylic inserts — all tile," said Evavold. "It's much more expensive — and more typical of that era of home."

New recipe: The kitchen also got a complete makeover. When they bought the house, "the only thing in the kitchen was a metal cabinet with a sink in it," said Evavold. Braun reworked the floor plan to incorporate space from a butler's pantry and back entry. "We removed some partition walls to make the kitchen one large room," he said. They also widened the opening between kitchen and dining room to create better flow.

One "happy accident" was finding the original wood floor under layers of linoleum and tile. "It's kind of like an onion," said Evavold. "You peel off one layer, and, 'Oh, there's another.' " There were gaps in the wood flooring where the original walls had been, but they were able to salvage flooring from areas that would be covered by new cabinets and piece those in. "You can't even tell," said Evavold. New cabinets, granite countertops, stainless-steel appliances and fresh lighting completed the transformation.

Old wood: The original built-in buffet, bookshelves, trim and wood-framed windows that gave the home its character also needed attention. The wood surfaces were marred by dings and nail holes, and the grain was obscured by dark ancient varnish. "It was filthy and pebbly, like alligator skin," said Evavold. Stripping the wood and refinishing it was a bigger job than she'd anticipated. "I had no idea there were so many steps in the process. We did it all by hand, and it took us a long time."

At times during the project, they wondered if they'd taken on too much. "The biggest challenge was maintaining a pace and not being totally discouraged," said Braun. But they found they worked well together as a team. "It was a good experience as a couple," said Evavold.

The result: When the project was finally complete, the couple staged the house with furniture from Braun's home as well as his mother's. They listed the house during a hot market last spring, and within minutes started getting requests for showings. "It was like throwing steak in a piranha tank," Braun said. After a "whirlwind weekend" with 45 showings, they accepted an offer from a young couple, first-time home buyers. "We made them promise not to paint the woodwork," said Evavold.

At a sale price of $380,000, "we came out ahead," she said. "It was grueling but rewarding." She's pleased they were able to revive a smaller house that might have been torn down and replaced with a McMansion, detracting from the charm of its older city neighborhood. "Starter homes are fading away. We're really proud of it."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784


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