Historic homes require tactful preservation 

Gluek House
Photo by Isaiah Rustad

Like many of their neighbors, longtime Wedge residents Gary and Evelyn Hill admired the stately Gluek mansion from afar. Built around the turn of the 20th century on a triple lot at the corner of 25th & Bryant, the house dominates its block — no small feat in what’s arguably the most desirable (and certainly the most historic) part of greater Uptown.

The Gluek house’s arched leaded-glass windows and towering porch columns were impossible to miss from the street. What really interested the Hills was the home’s interior. Its then-owner, an octogenarian widow who rarely spoke to neighbors and had no close family in the area, was — along with her late husband, who died in the 1970s — only the property’s second owner. The Hills didn’t know it at the time, but they’d treated the house like a museum, leaving the interior much as it had been since a top-down renovation in the late 1910s.

The widow passed away in 2005, at age 89. (According to Gary Hill, she suffered a medical emergency while cycling around Lake of the Isles on a hot July day and couldn’t be revived.) Two years later, following an MPR feature, a five-day estate sale and some heroic persuasion by Evelyn (“I laughed it off at first, but she was serious about buying the house,” her husband says), the Hills were the Gluek mansion’s proud — and apprehensive — third owners.

A block to the southwest on Colfax Avenue and a decade later, Molly Mogren and Josh Willard found themselves in much the same place as the Hills: moving their growing family from a historic duplex they’d fixed up on their own into an even bigger project with a fascinating backstory. 

Built in 1903 by a local grocer, the new house was a two-and-a-half story Victorian with narrow porch columns, an arched picture window on the uppermost floor and a slightly bowed roof terminating in wide eaves. It was in rough enough shape that the owners — a married couple confined in separate nursing homes amid the pandemic — didn’t want to put it on the market, lest a developer tear it down. (Unlike the Gluek mansion, the property has no official historic significance.) That suited Mogren and Willard just fine; they’d long admired the place from afar and jumped at the chance to buy it. And it didn’t hurt that their new home was across the street from their old — an up-down duplex they now rent out.

The Hills have grown comfortable in the Gluek mansion and completed restoration work, at least for now. Mogren and Willard are just wrapping their heads around what’s to come — a kitchen renovation, a new powder room downstairs, probably a bathroom remodel upstairs — though a major renovation at their duplex has prepared them well. 

Indeed, both families have devoted substantial shares of their adult lives to renovating generations-old homes in the Wedge. Their stories, informed by expert advice from local tradespeople and historians who’ve given over their own lives to the work of preservation, offer a road map for current and prospective Minneapolis homeowners eager to do right by the distinctive old homes they’ve bought or inherited.

Gluek House
Photo courtesy Jane Veitenheimer

Comfort vs. history

Older homes compel their occupants to balance contemporary comforts with respect for the past, even when that respect isn’t enforced by ordinance. This tension sets up a series of early decisions that shape the new homeowners’ relationship with the property for years to come.

“I call it the preservation paradox,” says Mark Johnston, owner of Historic Design Consulting. “For an historic building to survive into the future, it must remain relevant in a modern context. But to remain relevant, it has to change from what it was before.”

In the Hills’ case, the sense of responsibility for a piece of the past was almost overwhelming. They were now responsible for a rambling mansion that, while worse for the wear, looked much as it had 90 years earlier. 

“Suddenly you become stewards of this old glory,” Gary Hill said. 

Acquiring a residential time capsule was a double-edged sword for the Hills. The bedrooms’ intricately striped walls hadn’t been repainted in decades yet were somehow in great shape. The leaded glass windowpanes were different in every room. Vintage wallpaper beckoned throughout the house. The sweeping main landing bore the imprimatur of the home’s architect, William Kenyon, who would later design the Minnesota State Fair Amphitheatre. In all, the Gluek home’s bones were “in an amazing place,” Hill said.

But the home was far from immaculate. The roof badly needed fixing. Parts of the original plaster walls in the home’s rear were beyond repair, as were many of the home’s 80-odd window frames. The plumbing hadn’t been updated since the early 20th century. The carriage house out back, little more than a glorified barn, was in utter disrepair, the single electrical wire sagging between it and the main line a self-evident fire hazard.

“Essentially, we inherited a really old house,” Hill said.

Mogren and Willard have had similar challenges at their new house. They decided to expand the “cave-like,” woefully inadequate kitchen by breaking into part of a charming but superfluous butler’s pantry that presently blocks access to the dining room. They’ll turn the remainder into a powder room, saving guests a trip upstairs, and create a walkway between the kitchen and dining room. Overwriting a piece of history isn’t easy, Mogren said — how many new homes have butlers’ pantries? — but it’s the right call for their family.

“We don’t want to live in a museum,” she said. At the same time, “It’s fun to work with a historic property because it gives you a framework from which to make decisions and obstacles to work around — and you encounter stories along the way.”

Mogren and Willard have already added laundry machines in the basement; somehow, the previous owners got by without. They also plan to remodel a tasteless “’90s bathroom” upstairs. But they’re less sure about the smaller touches that make the property distinctive and don’t directly impact livability — like the hanging, nonoperational gas torches, vintage wallpaper and original woodwork.

Gluek House
Photo courtesy Jane Veitenheimer

The historic home premium

Owners of older homes generally have free reign over interior modifications, notwithstanding any fealty to original fixtures, design and decor. This is true even for homes like the Gluek mansion, a National Register of Historic Places property in an official historic district in Lowry Hill East. 

Exterior work is another matter. Replacing a residential roof is usually quick and straightforward, if expensive. Not so for the Hills, who required approval from the Minneapolis Historic Preservation Commission to redo theirs. The Hills deferred other exterior projects when approvals failed to materialize; they bypassed the commission to replace the home’s front steps by making the new set an exact replica of the old. Installing triple storm panes on the home’s window frames — essential protection for the literally irreplaceable leaded glass inside — was permissible, though inordinately expensive due to the complexity of the work and the fact that few window installers specialize in historic panes. 

The Hills were happy to pay more for a delicate job done right. Call it the “historic home premium” — the added cost of respecting hallowed buildings, if not quite returning them to pristine condition. Even mundane improvements, like exterior painting, carry the premium. Nick Slawik, a New Prague-based master painter and wood finisher who specializes in older homes, advises homeowners spend more for quality paint and primer — at least $70 per gallon for premium paint, double the cost of a basic gallon — and to apply two coats atop primer that’s been brushed on, not rolled. 

Picking a contractor

“Painters and homeowners both fixate on the cost of a gallon of paint, but your paint should only be 10% to 15% the total job cost,” Slawik said. The rest is labor, a fixed cost.

Not all labor is equal, of course. For painting projects and any work involving paint removal in homes built before 1978, Slawik recommends working only with EPA RRP-certified contractors, who are trained to safely remove and clean up lead-based paints. 

“That alone rules out about 90% of house painters,” he said. Homeowners should ask contractors about their approach to older materials and substrates. Power washing is a no-no, Slawik said; “scrape, sand and assess” is the proper method for removing old paint. 

For nonexpert homeowners, evaluating contractor fit is often about listening to one’s gut. “We’ve taken it as a good sign when people who work on houses come into our new house and stay silent for a while, just taking everything in,” Mogren said. 

That reaction signals that the contractor “gets it,” Johnston said — that they’re someone you can trust to respect your home. “Some contractors don’t really understand the concept of preservation,” he said. “They just want to tear things up.”

Comfort and familiarity matter, too. Mogren and Willard got five bids for their attic renovation, which transformed their duplex’s unfinished, “frankly creepy” third floor into a sprawling master suite. The high bid was around $200,000, nearly four times the low bid. Like any major renovation, the attic project presented serious unforeseen challenges: rotting, uneven floorboards that needed to be swapped out; a host of engineering challenges; layout issues that forced the relocation of a window from the front of the house to the back. So they resisted the temptation to do the project on the cheap and selected a middle bid from a business run by a “dear family friend” who also happened to be a “total perfectionist.” 

They did not regret the decision; the results speak for themselves. And now, with the project safely in the rearview, Mogren and Willard have confidence to spare — confidence they’ll need to tackle the challenges of a new old home.