Salvaging history at Hewson House

Crews resolving code violations and safety issues

WHITTIER — For sale: a Whittier fixer-upper with a very fine pedigree.

The 1905 Samuel J. Hewson House will be opened to the public during the April 30–May 1 Minneapolis and St. Paul Home Tour, offering the first chance for many to see inside the 2008 Pillsbury Ave. S. residence last year named by Preservation Alliance of Minnesota one of the state’s “10 Most Endangered Historic Places.” Current owner Bell Mortgage seeks to sell the property as a single-family home to a buyer willing to occupy the house for at least three to five years.

One of city’s grand, early 20th century homes, the 6,200-square-foot Colonial Revival-style house was designed, built and decorated by a trio of turn-of-the-century tastemakers. It was its tumultuous recent history, though, that brought it to the attention of city officials, who are now considering the property for local landmark status.

Hewson House was foreclosed on in June 2009. What followed made headlines: A controversial estate sale that month was halted at the last minute by TCF Bank, and in April of last year a ceramic tile mural valued at $150,000 was stolen from above a fireplace mantel.

The rehabilitation of Hewson House began in September, when Bell Mortgage purchased it from TCF Bank for $200,000.

Since then, Bell Mortgage Facilities Manager Paul Prenevost has worked with a small crew and on a tight budget to bring the building up to code and make it safely habitable. What they uncovered were significant renovations made without city permits, some potentially dangerous, Prenevost said.

This was clear: Both challenges and opportunities awaited the next owner of Hewson House.

Inside Hewson House

In March, Prenevost and master electrician Mike Entinger were in the second-floor master bath examining the remains of what they guessed was an improvised mirror defogger. Entinger pointed out blackened heat tape — used for warming pipes in the winter — applied to the mirror’s back.

“The heat tape is completely burnt off in areas,” said Entinger, exposing scorch marks on the back of the mirror’s frame. “This was a fire waiting to happen.”

Added Prenevost: “It’s one of those, like — what were they thinking?”

Entinger inspected every light fixture and outlet in the house. He found many upgrades and additions, “a lot of it not even up to safety codes,” he said.

Prenevost said the home’s radiators were at some point replaced with a forced-air heating system. There was no record of a permit for the work, he said.

If anyone could shed light on what happened in Hewson House and when, it might be previous owners Kendahl Sweet and Peter Strum, who purchased the house in 1996 and operated a foster home on the site. An attempt to contact them in March was unsuccessful.

Prenevost had replaced most of the home’s mechanical systems by March. Many other decisions on the property will be left to a future owner.

“We could spend a limitless amount of money,” he said. But the limited budget reflects Bell Mortgage’s goal to offer Hewson House for as little as $400,000.

“We’re not trying to make a penny off it,” Prenevost said.

Samuel J. Hewson was “for twenty years prominent in the building material business of Minneapolis,” according to “A Half Century of Minneapolis,” a 1908 history of the city and who’s who. Born in Detroit in 1857, Hewson moved first to St. Paul in 1879 and then, in 1887, to Minneapolis, where he joined Menomonie Hydraulic Press Brick Company and worked his way up to general manager in charge of operations.

The book adds that Menomonie “furnished the material for a majority of the finer brick buildings of the city.”

Whether Menomonie furnished the smooth blond bricks covering Hewson House was not known, said Aaron Hanauer, a city planner who researched the property for its possible historic designation. But they are just one of the features those who know the house admire.

Meeting as a committee of the whole March 9, the Planning Commission took barely five minutes to recommend Hewson House be designated a local landmark.

Up for protection are both the home’s exterior — designed by architectural firm Kees and Colburn and constructed by master builder Theron P. Healy — and portions of the interior with designer John Bradstreet’s work still largely intact. Bradstreet notably designed interiors for Duluth’s Glensheen Mansion, and one of his Japanese-inspired living rooms is preserved at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Gary Kirt, president of State Bank and Trust’s Bell Mortgage division, orchestrated the home’s purchase. Aligned with the Whittier Alliance neighborhood organization’s stated goals, Kirt planned to include a covenant in the sale terms to ensure the owner-occupant would remain for at least several years.

Asked to explain his commitment to Hewson House, Kirt responded: “This one is just really special.