A Prairie School Companion

MPR to renovate, auction famed Lake of the Isles home, perhaps saving it from wrecking ball

Minnesota Public Radio has paid $1.7 million for one of the finest examples of Prairie School architecture on Lake of the Isles. The Catherine Gray House, built nearly 100 years ago by famed architect William Purcell, will be renovated and put on the market within weeks as part of MPR’s new capital fund-raising campaign.

The Gray House, 2409 E. Lake of the Isles Parkway, was purchased from former Valspar Corp. CEO C. Angus Wurtele and his wife Margaret. The Wurteles are longtime supporters of MPR, the Guthrie Theater and the Walker Art Center, among other local arts organizations.

MPR spokesperson Suzanne Perry said the Wurteles donated a "significant portion" of the $1.7 million sale price to MPR’s capital campaign, though she declined to specify the amount.

MPR and its companion organization, Minnesota Monthly Publications, are organizing a renovation of the house to include new furniture, rugs, window treatments, paint, plants and outdoor furniture.

Minnesota Monthly executive Tom Gavaras said there won’t be any structural changes made to the rectangular, two-story house that echoes the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Purcell designed the nearby Purcell-Cutts home, another example of the clean, open Prairie School architectural style pioneered by Wright.

Gavaras said that after the Gray House has been repainted and refurnished with donations from Valspar, Schneiderman’s Furniture and other local businesses, it would be opened to the public for showcases. The free showcases are the weekends of April 17-18, April 24-25 and May 1-2, noon-5 p.m.

"Hopefully, someone will take a look at it and say this a beautiful home in the Lake of the Isles area and want to purchase it," Gavaras said.

He said MPR would like to sell the house for more than its purchase price.

The Gray House had been the subject of East Isles neighborhood rumors last fall. There was talk that it would be purchased by a suburban couple, demolished and replaced with a house designed partially to accommodate their child with special needs.

Local preservationists breathed a sigh of relief when that sale didn’t go through, and Bob Glancy, a Realtor who serves on the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission, said he’s breathing easier–"for now."

Glancy said he hopes that the house’s sale price rises so that "somebody’s not going to pay the price for a vacant lot that they have ideas of building on, like the other people did."

Said Gavaras, "The idea is to keep the historical aspect of the house intact, but it’s also a fund-raiser for Minnesota Public Radio.

"The hope is — but you can never guarantee things once people become owners of a property — that they will take this beautiful house and make the updates that need to be done."

Perry said there would be "no strings attached to the sale."

When the house is sold, the proceeds will go into MPR’s "The Next Standard: The Campaign for Minnesota Public Radio," an effort to raise $41 million to expand the radio network’s current facilities at 45 E. 7th St. in St. Paul.

"At the moment, we’re in three different buildings in downtown St. Paul," Perry said, "and this is a project to unite everyone under one roof. We’re kind of scattered and cramped right now."

The campaign is currently in its "quiet phase."

"What you do in a case like this is kind of work quietly and make sure that you raise enough money to see that it’s a go and then announce it publicly and seek donations from the public," Perry said.

She said MPR hopes to be in its new facilities by 2006.