Residents reclaim Whittier Mansions

Once abandoned to businesses and social service groups, historic homes are again luring the affluent

Historic Whittier mansions — once single-family homes before giving way to commercial and nonprofit use — are returning to their owner-occupied roots.

Most of the mansions, built between 1890 and 1920, possess a fine craftsmanship and woodwork from old-growth forests that is impossible to match today. Although many Whittier mansions have remained owner-occupied, several were basically abandoned to nonprofit and other organizations a generation ago, when affluent residents fled the inner city.

Now, the affluent residents are coming back.

Chad Campbell bought the brick mansion at 121 W. Franklin Ave. with two other buyers in 2002. The 1908 Carpenter family mansion was previously used as office suites for attorneys, massage therapists and accountants. Campbell said such buying and returning mansions to residential is becoming more common.

The Carpenters made enough of a fortune in lumber to afford a 10-bedroom, 6,600-square-foot home. Now, Campbell lives there with four friends whom he called his chosen family.

"This is a fabulous house to live in," Campbell said. "I love this neighborhood’s accessibility to Uptown and downtown. There are three owners in the house. At least one of us is hoping that we will make our first million by owning it."

The home is currently valued at $749,000, according to Hennepin County data.

Denny Kemp beat the trend and is now part of it. Fourteen years ago, Kemp paid $180,000 for the mansion at 2215 Pillsbury Ave. that was then the Uptown Mental Health Clinic.

He renovated the mansion’s interior, added a backyard pool and turned the carriage house into a pool house and a garage. He is about to put that house on the market for $945,000 — because he recently bought the mansion next door at 2201 Pillsbury, formerly owned by the Jesuit order.

He will move in next month to a 13,000-square-foot brick Greek Revival Colonial with six bedrooms on the second floor. The third floor, once a ballroom, has been turned into nine bedrooms for the priests. He intends to tear down the walls and restore the floor to its original splendor.

"There were about 14 to 19 priests living there when it sold," said Kemp. "It was expensive for them to keep running it. The house is great, but it needs a lot of work and I don’t think they wanted to put the time and money into it."

An influx of new condo developments attests to Whittier’s residential lure, and the condo craze has rubbed off on the mansion market.

Carl Kent, CEO of real estate and development company Willard, Ernst and Barrett, bought the mansion at 100 W. Franklin Ave. in April from African American Family Services and plans to create 11 condos. Construction is slated to begin this summer.

The 20,867-square-foot Neo-Classical Roman mansion was built in 1896 by Frank B. Semple. Semple made his fortune owning a chain of hardware stores; his family lived in the house until 1950 when Franklin National Bank bought it and converted it into a bank.

Kent, who plans to live in the mansion when it is finished in 2005, said, "We are restoring it with the intent of working with the opulence and the nature of the building and bringing it back to its historical relevance."

Michael Murphy, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Burnet, said, "Compared to similar mansions around the Chain of Lakes and other expensive Southwest neighborhoods, Whittier is a bargain."

According to Murphy, "Whittier appeals to the urban buyer. It is a good time to buy there because soon that neighborhood is going to get really expensive. There is a buzz in Whittier and the properties are appreciating."

Although they bought their 2400 Pillsbury Ave. mansion from another family, Daniel Shulman and his wife Margaret typify the upscale Whittier newcomer. Previously, the Shulmans lived near Lake of the Isles. Their new home, built in 1916 by jeweler J.B. Hudson, has 17 rooms, a library paneled with Cuban mahogany and the original light fixtures. It is assessed at $511,300.

"I like the neighborhood. You feel like you are living in the city. There are a lot of group homes in the area, but they seem to be managed very well," Shulman said.

More mansions are hitting the market. The Sexual Violence Center (SVC), a nonprofit dedicated to helping rape victims, recently put its 2100 Pillsbury Ave. mansion up for sale.

Ironically, the supply of mansions for the wealthy is partly fed by cuts to the poor. SVC Executive Director Phil Manz said the home is for sale because Hennepin County budget cuts reduced his program’s revenue. SVC staff dropped from 10 to five, forcing the group to sell the 6,400-square-foot mansion, which houses the group’s offices and services.

"We had a fair amount of debt over the past two years that we will be able to pay off when we sell the building," Manz said.

SVC has owned the 1913 mansion since 1993, when it paid approximately $350,000. Two years ago, the appraised value was $540,000. The asking price is currently $749,900.

Manz stresses that SVC will stay in business; he says the best guess is the group would move downtown, closer to Hennepin County Medical Center, 701 Park Ave. "We’ve been invited by the county to be an advocate for anyone admitted to the hospital who’s been sexually assaulted — about 350 people a year," Manz notes. "It would be easier to be closer to the hospital."

Manz said the relocation plan is uncertain because it’s contingent on the mansion selling. He says half the tire-kickers are people looking to live there; the other half are groups looking for office space.

Even mansion owners are subject to the caprices of the real estate market. At press time, the house was unsold after two months on the market, and Manz said the group was considering reducing its asking price.