After George and Evelyn Larson married in 1932, they saved money from his job as a radio technician and her secretarial work. During Sunday drives with a relative who had a car, they saw the outside of a house on Zenith Avenue and fell in love with it.
Evelyn put together notes about their dream home. By 1937, they had saved enough to build it near 55th & Aldrich.
“They built and filled that home with so much love,” says daughter Kay, from her long-time home in Duluth. “It was not just a place to live. They spent their whole lives together in that house and died there.”
Kay couldn’t bear to sell the home after their deaths in the 1990s. A friend needed a place to live, so she let him stay there. Over the next 20 years, the house deteriorated. A family of raccoons took up residence in the front room; the door was simply closed to shut them in.
Eventually Kay knew it was time to sell the home she had once shared with paper dolls and her mother’s couch full of teddy bears.
“I had a terrible time thinking of selling it,” she said. “It was a house built by two caring, loving people, in a neighborhood where people took care of each other.”
She hated the idea that someone might buy the house and simply tear it down to build something new and bigger.
After 80 years of ownership
Kay and her cousin, a real estate agent, put the house on the market in July 2017. Local remodeler Dave Perry of Artisan Homes had been looking for the right house project — one with older home charm and curb appeal.
“The immense satisfaction I get from bringing the beauty back into older homes is the reason I do what I do,” he told Kay in a letter.
Some warned her that he was just saying that to outbid others for the house. But Kay judged his words to be sincere. She sold it to him in the hopes that he would restore it for a new family.
Perry’s specialty as a self-employed builder is rejuvenating older homes, particularly in Southwest Minneapolis. He tends to look for homes with unfinished space.
In this case, the attic had potential for a full bath, master suite and walk-in closet. The unfinished basement could house a bedroom-slash-office, bathroom, family room and updated laundry and mechanical room.
He widened the opening between the kitchen and dining room, renovated the main floor bathroom and created a mudroom by moving the position of a few walls.
Perry added a two-car garage for the first time. The roof was redone. He put in new triple-glazed windows, refinished doors with original glass knobs, refurbished hardwood floors and insulated up to modern standards. Previously, the walls were filled with newsprint from the 1930s.
He viewed house design as a puzzle. How could he create a smarter, modern layout — including functional kitchens and additional bathroom space — without making big structural or exterior changes?
“I enjoy that,” he said. “Figuring out the best way to rearrange interior walls.”
It took about five months to renovate the house. It went on the market at the end of February.
Perry described the work of restoring the old charm of homes as “soulful.”
“I’m drawn to that, as opposed to new construction,” he said.
For Kay’s project, he did a lot of the work personally, including sweating out details such as what kind of knob to put on a cabinet. Perry said he gets “personally attached to the home.”
He grew up on the east coast, where his construction career started with a new house for his mother, built with his stepdad. After relocating to the Twin Cities, he worked for a company that flipped about 130 houses in four years. Since becoming an independent builder six years ago, Perry has nurtured about 20 houses into re-use.
Through rehab work he has “seen everything that can go wrong,” he said.
He learned how to jack up homes with crumbling foundations and deal with major water problems.
“Anytime you’re working with an older home, you are inevitably opening up a can of worms,” he said. “You have to just roll with it and often assume you have to re-do everything once you go inside — new plumbing, new electrical, new HVAC. Once you’re committed to that, there’s not a lot that can stop you.”
Perry is licensed as a real estate agent and buys and sells his own properties. He looks for the unique charm of homes built in the 1910s, ’20s and ’30s. Older homes tend to have generous window sizes, crown details in the ceilings, larger moldings.
“I don’t care how the space is laid out originally,” he said. “I just care that there’s enough to be opened up.”
Perry said he dreams of building a new net zero home someday — “I’m interested in super energy efficiency” — and creating a cluster of small homes with the atmosphere of an Old World village.
“I want to contribute to a sense of community, which is why I love working in traditional neighborhoods with front porches, big trees, pedestrian walkability,” he said.
Perry lives in a Southwest home he refurbished from top to bottom for his wife and two children. For his next trick, Perry said with a smile, he’s relocating to a home whose remodel will include a fire pole along the stairway.
Dave Perry can be contacted for old home sales and rebuilds at ArtisanHomes.us.