Modern MansionPhotography by Steve Henke / December, 2013
How one young couple brought fresh, youthful energy and style to a historic Victorian home.
The pages of St. Paul, Minnesota history are filled with sepia-tinted photos of bearded men in starched collars and women with tight chignons. Looking at their stoic, unsmiling faces, it’s easy to forget that these people were dynamic young entrepreneurs, building mansions, raising children, and entertaining family and friends in one of the country's fastest growing cities.
One of these couples was Frank and Anna Shepard. Frank and his father worked with James J. Hill, constructing the Great Northern Railway from St. Paul to Seattle. Like many successful capitalists of the day, the Shepards lived in close proximity to each other. Frank and Anna and their four children lived in an enormous Victorian red brick home on the corner of Dayton and Farrington, and Frank’s parents lived across the street.
The young Shepards’ home was a sprawling Queen Anne-style mansion built in 1882 with three floors, more than 20 rooms, exquisite hand-carved woodwork, and plaster ceilings. More than a century later, when Andy and Whitney Blessing stepped through the front door, the home had sat empty for several years. Even though every room was in disrepair, the young couple could tell that the spirit of the original family home was still intact.
Realizing the Potential
Despite the amount of work required to restore the home, Andy, a contractor, and Whitney, a realtor, could see the potential. As the couple made their way through the house, they could envision their children racing up and down the stairs and hanging Christmas stockings on one of the home’s many fireplaces. They also realized that there was enough space to open a bed-and-breakfast, something that they’d dreamt about doing when they retired.
Andy and his team of craftspeople removed a century’s worth of non-historic detritus, including fluorescent lights, drop ceilings, sheetrock walls, and layers of old wall covering, carpet, and flooring. “When you peel away everything that’s not historic, the secrets come out and you begin to understand the home and how the original owners—and their servants—lived,” says Andy. Once the couple could see where the original walls were located, they designed a new space plan to create private and public spaces with modern functionality and traffic flow. “We didn’t want to build a museum and re-create life at the turn-of-the-century,” says Whitney. “Our goal was to honor the original elegance of the home while making it feel young, fresh, and welcoming for our family, friends, and guests.”
Enhancing the Elegance
As the couple began restoring the rooms, they realized the value of the woodwork, the hand-molded plaster ceilings, and other details. When they began selecting materials and finishes, they sought out top quality products that matched the timeless elegance of the home while offering modern-day ease of maintenance. At the top of the list was Cambria, with its vivid natural color variations, which blended easily with the palette of historic and contemporary hues. Add to that its versatility and durability and Cambria was the perfect choice for everything from the kitchen countertops and bathroom vanities to the showers and fireplace surrounds. The Blessings also appreciated the fact that Cambria is a family-owned company located in Le Sueur, Minnesota, just over an hour’s drive from St. Paul.
When Andy and Whitney bought the home, there was no real kitchen, only some pantry-style cabinets and evidence of a pump and a cistern, so they designed their own dream kitchen and dining nook in the former servants’ quarters at the rear of the house. As the house is in a historic district, an exterior wall of windows could not be changed, so the couple placed the sink, a commercial range, two wall ovens, and a refrigerator on the other three walls. To give the kitchen a fresh, casual feel, they created a spacious center island topped with Torquay (Waterstone Collection). The white stone with gray veining was a perfect compliment to the gray painted wood of the island's base and the dark gray of the main countertops in Devon (Desert Collection).They finished the room with a mix of traditional design elements including classic wainscoting, Victorian-style trim, and subway tile, balanced with modern arabesque-patterned tile and valances, and contemporary chrome and glass light fixtures.
Just as the Blessings intended, the kitchen is a favorite gathering place for their family and friends. Everyone loves sitting around the center island, enjoying a glass of wine while Andy prepares a Sunday night dinner of salmon, risotto, and roasted kale. “I wanted a kitchen that cleans up well,” says Whitney. “At the end of the day, I wipe the countertops and the center island with warm water and a soft cloth and everything simply sparkles.”
Honoring the Simplicity
Casual family meals take place in the cozy dining nook adjacent to the kitchen. Because the space was originally part of the servants’ quarters, the woodwork is pine, unlike the costly mahogany elsewhere in the house. Rather than replace the window frames and bookshelves, Andy and Whitney simply sanded and stained them. In the process of restoring the room, Andy found an original brick wall behind the sheetrock. While the original architect never intended for the wall to be exposed, Andy and Whitney loved the warm colors and rough texture of the 19th century bricks, so they left them just the way they were. To balance the simplicity and rusticity of the room, the couple added a comfortable banquette upholstered in colorful blue-and-green striped velvet with an eminently practical chartreuse vinyl seat.
Creating New Traditions
With so many rooms to renovate, Andy and Whitney were careful to manage their costs, using decorative paint finishes instead of expensive wall covering, a selection of furniture from their previous home, and other inventive solutions. “I love it when design needs to be created to meet a budget,” says Andy. “I think that when you’re challenged, you’re more creative.” Being cost-conscious also allowed the Blessings to invest in luxurious yet practical design elements, such as in-floor electric heat in the master bathroom, and a gas fireplace in the living room. Instead of commissioning a custom mantelpiece, Andy designed a cost-effective mantel made by a local millwork company and created an exotic look for the surround using natural stone by Cambria.
Now that the house is finished—even though a family home is always a work in progress—the Blessings find that the living room is one of their favorite spaces. They love hanging out with their three children and their dog and playing games around the fireplace. They’re already looking forward to the holidays in their new home, helping the kids decorate the Christmas tree and hang their stockings on the fireplace—exactly as they had envisioned when they first stepped through the door of this historic family home.