'As you can imagine, I was afraid to come today. I've never had a building of mine moved. I've had buildings torn down."

So world-renowned architect Frank Gehry began his remarks last Sunday at an event marking the Winton Guest House's reincarnation as a part of the University of St. Thomas' Gainey Conference Center in Owatonna, Minn.

Gehry's 1987 village-like guesthouse for Mike and Penny Winton's property in Orono set a new direction for the then-little-known California architect. The assemblage of discrete forms led to his sculptural designs for the University of Minnesota's Weisman Art Museum and the world-changing Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

The guesthouse was moved from its hilltop overlooking Lake Minnetonka to the rolling Gainey campus after real estate developer Kirt Woodhouse bought the Wintons' 11 acres, sold their Philip Johnson-designed house, and decided that Gehry's architectural landmark should be in the public domain.

It took some time to find an institution that would take it. Both Walker Art Center and the Minnetonka Center for the Arts, which is also in Orono, turned down the offer. Four years ago St. Thomas said yes.

Woodhouse donated the house, which was appraised at $4.5 million, and a set amount of money to move and reconstruct it, which St. Thomas supplemented, said Doug Hennes, St. Thomas vice president for university and government relations.

Moving the structure in eight pieces down a steep hill and 110 miles south over a long winter was no easy task. Mover Larry Stubbs, who engineered the record-breaking move of the Shubert Theater, said he made a fixed bid figuring it would take six months to disassemble and move it. It took a year and a half. "But it was worth it," he reported cheerily.

Gehry said the relocated guesthouse is "93.6 percent right." The structure was reoriented 180 degrees so that the most sculptural angles face the green campus. An oak woods forms the backdrop, as it did in Orono. The three small bedrooms, living room tower and garage now display an exhibit on Gehry, the guesthouse and his other Minnesota ties. The space will be available for conference center use and also open for tours and occasional open houses. (The grand opening will be next Sunday afternoon.)

Gehry looks back

For Gehry, 82, the weekend, which began with a 700-guest gala marking the Weisman's expansion and ended with the guesthouse celebration, was a time to reminisce about his longtime Minnesota ties.

He first came to Minnesota to design Southdale with urban planner Victor Gruen and met Dayton's Department Store executive and architecture patron Ken Dayton. Gehry said, "I stayed in touch with him, partly through the exhibits of my Los Angeles artist friends at Gallery 12," the groundbreaking top-floor gallery in Dayton's downtown Minneapolis store.

One Sunday afternoon in 1982, Twin Cities arts patrons Mike and Penny Winton called Gehry after reading a New York Times magazine article about him and asked him to design a potting shed. "And I was up for a potting shed," he said. (At that point his only famous building was his own chain-link-adorned house.)

Then Walker design curator Mickey Friedman mounted a retrospective of his work, which included cardboard furniture, fish sculptures and a handful of buildings. The 1986 exhibit "was amazing for my career," Gehry said.

The Winton project expanded to be a guesthouse, and the 1993 Weisman Art Museum followed. His latest projects: The New World Center in Miami Beach, the 8 Spruce Street high-rise in New York City, and the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Why would he come back to do a $14 million addition to the Weisman when he's designing billion-dollar projects?

"Minnesota seems like family," he said. "You wouldn't say no."