Ryan Knoke and Montana Scheff were just putting the finishing touches on the Colonial Revival in Minneapolis that they’d spent 10 years restoring when they got a call from a Realtor friend.
A “fabulous” house designed by renowned architect Clarence H. Johnston was coming up for sale in St. Paul’s Cathedral Hill neighborhood. Were they interested?
“We were not even in the market,” said Knoke of that call three years ago, “but we’re big Clarence Johnston fans.”
So they agreed to take a look at the Classical Revival house, which was built in 1894, several years before Johnston designed Glensheen for the Congdon family in Duluth. The house in St. Paul, which featured stately columns and original oak woodwork, had been designed for a state senator.
“We realized we had books on our shelves with this house in it,” said Scheff.
In addition to its pedigree, the house had an unusually open floor plan for its era.
“We completely fell in love,” Knoke said. “Within 24 hours, we made an offer.”
Back from the ’70s
Now the couple had an even bigger restoration project to tackle. The 5,000-square-foot, three-story house had fallen into serious disrepair, with extensive water damage and failing plumbing, not to mention clashing updates like shag carpeting and golden oak finish on its formerly dark built-in buffet.
“The house needed so much work. It hadn’t been touched since the late ’70s,” Knoke said.
But he and Scheff were determined to return it to its former glory, using the research skills they’d honed during the restoration of their previous house.
They scoured old newspapers, available online through the Minnesota Historical Society and the Library of Congress. They dug up old photos and plats, and used Ancestry.com to locate descendants of earlier owners.
“Ryan will cold-call relatives,” Scheff said. Most people are happy to help, once they hear that someone is trying to restore an old house that’s been in their family.
“It’s about tenacity,” said Knoke. “My belief is, someone out there has a photo of your house in a box.”
Eventually they discovered a cache of interior photos, taken in the early 1900s for the Western Architect magazine, and saved by a great-granddaughter of the original owner, who was still alive and living in the Twin Cities. “We struck gold,” Knoke said.
Knoke and Scheff relied on the photos to guide their restoration of the home, from selecting stains and period-appropriate wallpaper and light fixtures, to crafting new cabinets and stained- and leaded-glass windows to match originals.
The old photos provided many answers to their home’s mysterious quirks. The second-floor bedrooms, for example, had narrow niches built into walls; the old photos showed they’d once held marble sinks. While Knoke and Scheff don’t plan to add a sink back into every room, they did use the photos to inspire a marble sink in the new master bath they built inside a former closet.
The house itself revealed other clues. During the most recent project, restoring the butler’s pantry, which had only one bank of its original cabinets remaining, the couple made a fortuitous find. Demolition revealed old paint lines showing where the original cabinets had been. “We traced them, and had our cabinet maker rebuild them to match the original,” Knoke said.
In addition to learning details about the house itself, Knoke and Scheff also learned about its former inhabitants, including original owners Sen. Thomas and Susan Welch. He died before they could break ground on the new house, but she went ahead and built it for herself — and took his place as president of the Sibley Bank, a rare role for a woman in the 19th century.
They also discovered that Susan burned through a series of cooks, taking out more than 20 classified ads during the eight years she lived at that address. “The ads became increasingly insistent, from ‘Cook wanted,’ to ‘Good cook wanted,’ to ‘Good cook wanted. Must have references,’ ” Knoke said. “Either she was very difficult to work with, or had bad luck.”
Those old classified ads are now enlarged, framed and hanging in the kitchen and pantry — “an homage to the help,” Scheff said.
Knoke and Scheff did a lot of the work themselves, including refurbishing vintage light fixtures they found on eBay. But they also relied on local artisans they’d worked with on their previous house, such as cabinet maker Gary Anderson and finisher Tom Waade.
“There was so much to bite off, and we could only chew so much,” Knoke said. (Both have full-time careers in addition to renovating houses, Scheff as co-founder/chief creative director at ad agency Whittier, Knoke as senior writer in marketing for the American Academy of Neurology.
Why was it so important to the couple to faithfully restore their home to the way it was?
Aesthetics is one reason. “When a house is designed by an architect, there was a big picture for the design,” Scheff said. But over the years, as design trends come and go, previous “improvements” can detract from that vision. “The flow of the house can become off.”
They also felt a duty to preserve their home’s legacy. “This house was here before we were, and will be around long after we’re gone,” Knoke said. “We want to show respect and do what’s right for the house.”
Their house was designed by a prominent architect, but research is just as important — and possible — for owners of everyday old houses, they insist.
“Absolutely, you can do this for ordinary houses, too,” Scheff said. Their previous home on Park Avenue wasn’t as big, grand or architecturally significant as their current one, but they were still able to unearth many details about its previous life and occupants.
To help other homeowners get started, Scheff and Knoke are hosting a class at their home on Oct. 8, co-sponsored by the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota and the Clarence H. Johnston Society. A librarian from the Minnesota Historical Society will explain what resources are available and how to use them, then Knoke and Scheff will share what they’ve learned about historical home research.
“It makes you love your house so much more,” said Scheff.
Resources for uncovering your home's history
Homeowners Ryan Knoke and Montana Scheff share the resources they’ve used to research their home’s history:
Minnesota Historical Society.
Ramsey County Historical Society (for original St. Paul building permits).
Hennepin History Museum (for homes in Minneapolis).
Minneapolis City Permits Department (for original Minneapolis building permits).
Ancestry.com (for searching census records up to 1940, finding family trees and descendants).
Library of Congress “Chronicling America” (historic American newspapers from 1789 to 1922, scanned and word-searchable).