Whittier seeks to preserve imperiled Hewson House

Lender, nonprofit alliance aims to save historic mansion

WHITTIER — The 105-year-old Hewson House, suffering from neglect, misguided repair work and the after-effects of foreclosure — including a controversial 2009 estate sale — is now the hands of a coalition hoping to preserve it.

Bell Mortgage bought the 5,000-square-foot mansion near the intersection of Pillsbury and Franklin avenues from TCF Bank in September for $200,000. A group that includes Bell Mortgage, the Whittier Alliance neighborhood organization and Preservation Alliance Minnesota, or PAM, now aims to rehabilitate the historic property that earlier this year made PAM’s list of the state’s “10 most endangered historic places.”

Bell Mortgage CEO Gary Kirt said he planned to bring the house up to a saleable condition, probably stopping well short of a full restoration. With the Whittier Alliance, Bell Mortgage will seek a buyer who will agree to occupy the house for at least 3–5 years.

“It’s pretty obvious what’s important to Whittier and a lot of neighborhoods in the city is to have more owner-occupants living in grand old houses like this, and to stop the trend toward commercial uses or high-density uses,” Kirt said.

As of September, Hewson House was under consideration for local landmark designation by Minneapolis Preservation Heritage Commission.

Built in 1905, the house was designed by Minneapolis architectural firm Kees and Colburn. John Bradstreet, well known for his work on a number of prominent Twin Cities homes as well as the Glensheen Mansion in Duluth, designed the interior.

Whittier Alliance Executive Director Marian Biehn said the previous occupants owned Hewson House for about 10 years and operated a foster home. The house was foreclosed on in the summer of 2009.

Some interior fixtures were removed during an estate sale that same summer. TCF Bank stopped the removal of items after Biehn and a columnist for the Star Tribune drew attention to the sale.

Following the estate sale, a mural original to the home and valued at $150,000 was stolen from above a first-floor fireplace.

Biehn there was “hope for recovery” of some items if estate sale records could be accessed. She expected some fixtures would have to be repurchased, but suggested some of the new owners might donate items back “out of respect or courtesy for the house.”

In September, Bell Mortgage Facilities Manager Paul Prenevost was more concerned with replacing the house’s improperly installed heating system than with missing fixtures and artwork.

“[Previous owners] did a lot of renovations without doing them properly, so we’re going to have to go back and look at everything that’s been done and see what we might need to do to redo it,” Prenevost said. “… We want to get it live-able.”

Kirt expected to spend at least $200,000 bringing house up to that state. Depending on final costs, the house could be offered for as little as $400,000, he said.

Real estate agent Marshall Saunders of RE/MAX Results, described that as a “fantastic deal.”

Saunders, selected to help market the home, estimated its replacement value
at $2 million.

Prenevost said they planned to complete work on the home by April, possibly with donated time from area contractors and neighborhood volunteers. Bell Mortgage will cover other costs, and Whittier Alliance may contribute an undetermined sum to the renovation.