2 Victorian survivors get makeovers in Minneapolis
When Paul White was growing up, the big Queen Anne on the corner was known as “the witch’s house,” the one kids avoided on Halloween night. “We were all afraid to trick or treat [there],” White recalled. “It looked dark and scary, the bricks were crumbling, and there were vines growing on the side.” Now that once creepy Victorian is his home. And after nearly a decade of restoration, it’s no longer a forbidding presence but a jewel of the neighborhood. “We’ve all watched the trans formation,” said Arvonne Fraser, a longtime resident of Minneapolis’ Marcy Holmes neighborhood. Before White moved in, the house had “lots of potential, but was sad and dingy,” she said. “The whole neighborhood is delighted.”
Back in its heyday, the yellow brick mansion was a showplace, with decorative gables, carved stone lintels and a cupola. Built in 1881 for lumber baron James Lane, the “large and handsome dwelling” was proclaimed by the Minneapolis Tribune as “one of the finest residences constructed this season.” At 7,000 square feet, the house was big enough to accommodate Lane’s large family, yet he was also wealthy enough to build nearby houses for two of his daughters.
But Lane’s fortunes declined, according to “Hiding in Plain Sight: Minneapolis’ First Neighborhood” by Penny Petersen. The lumber business changed, and most of the sawmills moved upriver. In 1905 Lane turned his mansion into a duplex to create a home for his married son; there was no money for a new house as there had been for his older sisters. When Lane died the following year, his entire estate, including the house, was worth less than the $12,000 he’d spent to build it.
Meanwhile, the southeast neighborhood now known as Marcy Holmes also was beginning to change. Once home to the city’s wealthiest movers and shakers, it was becoming more defined by its proximity to the University of Minnesota. Many of its grand Victorian houses were demolished or carved into apartments or roominghouses for students.
By the time White rediscovered the Lane mansion in 1998, it had been turned into a triplex and its cupola was gone. Still he was fascinated with the spooky Victorian he remembered from childhood.
At the time, White, a wind energy entrepreneur, had just moved back from California and was looking for a house to renovate. He got to know the elderly woman then living in the house and told her he’d like to buy it eventually, offering to move in as a tenant and help her take care of the place in the meantime.
One of White’s first self appointed duties was getting rid of the squirrels in the attic. “I couldn’t sleep; they were having parties all night,” he recalled. “I finally said, ‘Do you mind if I trap some of these squirrels?’” The owner was reluctant, but White snuck in a live trap, caught almost two dozen and relocated them.
After the owner died in 2000, White bought the house from her children, and began an overhaul. He’s had “a ton of help from family and friends,” he said, including Munce Tronsgard White, now his wife. When they married in June 2005, they held their reception at the house, even though the renovation wasn’t completely finished.
“It was a lot of work to get the house ready for that party but we were inspired by the wedding party wishes from 1881 penciled on the attic chimney,” White said.
Tronsgard White was already an active partner in the renovation project. “Paul had the vision,” she said, but she collaborated with him on many of the details, such as designing decorative molding to restore the home’s Victorian character. “Most of the original architectural stuff was ripped out.”
Over the years, they’ve gutted the kitchen, created a spa like master bathroom out of two small rooms, converted the former attic into a media room, and restored the cupola, creating a third floor reading nook.
“There were so many spaces that could be opened up and reinvented,” White said.
Yet they’ve also tried to remain true to the home’s original spirit, rebuilding a pocket door to fit its original pocket and having dining room wall panels painted in a faux wood grain to match the faux bois finish on the fireplace.
The home’s original banister, which was moved to the second floor when the house became a duplex, was brought back to the main floor staircase. “It’s a wonderful step back to what it was,” White said. Finally, the home is “almost exactly how I envisioned it.”
And, in many ways, it’s been a labor of love. “The biggest thing for me was the historic and architectural value of the house,” he said. “I was inspired. Sometimes at night, I’d lie in the yard under the stars and look at the house. It was just awesome.”
Is old the new green?
“Green” was just a color when Jaxon Bonsack’s house was built in 1886.
“It’s the flip side,” he said, taking an old house and restoring it using re purposed materials. “When you’re building new, you can use all the latest technology. But old houses are built far better; the lumber is denser and stronger.”
Bonsack and partner Michael Lee originally were seeking a vacant city lot where they could build a sustainable home from the ground up until they became smitten with a 120 year old house just two doors down from their south Minneapolis duplex.
“We love the neighborhood,” Bonsack said. “And we fell in love with the house when we walked onto the porch.” Once inside, they fell for the home’s architectural details, including its Italianate tile fireplace and an “original solid oak pocket door that still slides. The woodwork sealed the deal.”
The home’s structure and mechanics were in good shape, thanks to the previous owner, so Bonsack concentrated on giving it a complete cosmetic makeover that honored its heritage without being enslaved to it.
“I’m not a strict historic preservationist,” he said. “I don’t like living in museum pieces. I try to renovate within the spirit of the time period.”
Bonsack, who was completing a degree in architecture, had a very modest budget so he relied on salvage centers, discount stores and ingenuity. “I’ve always been a big bargain hunter,” he said. “Growing up on a farm, you learn to jury rig things.” Some of his budget minded design innovations included:
Do it yourself grandeur: The original foyer was “underwhelming,” and decades of living had left its ceiling damaged. Bonsack created an ornate, Victorian style ceiling for less than $500, using plywood and assembled bits of trim, which he finished with seven coats of high gloss enamel.
Regal bedroom: To create the illusion of a canopy bed in the master bedroom, Bonsack suspended fabric from a curtain rod and hooks in the ceiling. The good as new Ralph Lauren bedding duvet, dust ruffle, sheets and pillowcases came secondhand from Salvation Army for $20. “God bless rich people,” Bonsack said.
Bargain paint: Bonsack shopped the “miss tint” section at Hirshfield’s, where he found colors that were close to what he wanted, then had them tinted to his desired shade.
Make your own wallpaper: To give the master bathroom an English cottage vibe, Bonsack bought coffee table books about rose varieties, on clearance, then cut out the botanical color plates and decoupaged them on the walls, using leftover polyurethane from another project. Bonus: The pages were easier to hang than conventional wallpaper. “It took longer to cut them out than to put them up,” he noted.