Robert Behrens, a preservationist and craftsman who restored historic homes in Crocus Hill and other St. Paul neighborhoods, died Thursday after battling prostate cancer for several years. He was 70.
Although Behrens spent much of his career in the petroleum business, he was best known for his work on old houses, starting in the late 1990s.
“He was extraordinarily meticulous,” said Nancy Lake-Smith, who was among the first homeowners to hire Behrens. “He had an eye for detail. He was one of those guys who thought about everything and executed with craftsmanship that was highly unusual.”
Old houses need steady attention, and Behrens often worked on new projects at the same places over many years. One such house was a six-bedroom 1911 Crocus Hill home designed by architect Clarence Johnston. It was purchased in 1999 by Beth Andrews and her husband Dr. Jeffrey Rank, who set out to restore it.
“When we moved in to the house it had not really been loved for a long time,” Andrews said. “Bob really helped us love it back to its full beauty and then some. He touched every part of the house from the rotting porch … to remodeling the bathrooms and a new kitchen.”
In one example of his attention to detail, Behrens found rotted spindles on the porch railings, and got someone to produce exact replacements, Andrews said.
Behrens made lifelong friends with the families he worked for. “Bob was such a nice man and so nice to have around that people would keep him around indefinitely,” said Lake-Smith.
As his reputation spread, he helped restore other historic houses in St. Paul neighborhoods. His wife, Marybeth Dorn, said he worked on about 30 houses. He also served as historic preservation chairman from 2008-2011 of the Ramsey Hill Association, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the neighborhood’s architectural heritage.
He was a regular at the Starbucks coffee shop at Grand Avenue and Oxford Street, gathering almost daily with a diverse group that included a doctor, a retired stadium manager and a taxi driver. “He was one of those guys that really touched a lot of people,” said Bill Lester, former manager of the Metrodome.
Behrens grew up in New Brighton and attended Mounds View High School, where he joined the track team as a long-distance runner. It became a lifelong love. In his early 50s, he placed in the top 10 for four consecutive years in his age group in the Twin Cities Marathon. He finished first in the 50-54 age division at the 1996 and 1997 Grandma’s Marathons in Duluth. He and his wife were avid bicyclists and traveled widely on touring vacations.
After taking classes at the University of Minnesota in the 1960s, Behrens left school and went into the petroleum transport business, first with his own company and later with Pennzoil. He lived for years in Shoreview, where he expanded the family home. In 1997, he went into the remodeling business, and 10 years later he and his wife moved to a condominium in St. Paul.
For years, Behrens also served as volunteer with the New Brighton police and later as a part-time deputy for the Ramsey County sheriff, and he was a deacon and trustee at House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul.
His father, Herman Behrens, died in 1987 when a plane he was piloting crashed on Long Lake.
Besides his wife, he is survived by daughter Kelly Behrens of San Francisco; stepdaughters Christine Newman of Backus, Minn., and Barbara Williams, and nine grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday at House of Hope Presbyterian Church.