A Preservation Loss

This weekend I heard about an estate sale at a large, 1899 mansion near White Bear Lake, MN and my wife, my visiting parents and I thought we would stop by and see if we could find a few treasures that we couldn’t live without.  As tempted as I was to buy an 18th century French print and a few other knick-knacks, I resisted and focused on this beautiful home instead.  We rarely get a change to see the interiors of houses like this so this was an opportunity not to be missed. Be sure to read this post to the end to learn about little surprise about this house.

The house is large (over 9,000 square feet) and is a classic example of Gilded Age estates built during the last part of the Industrial Era. When great fortunes were made quickly, industrialists and entrepreneurs built these grand homes to serve as status symbols.  These estates were manned by staffs of butlers, cooks, housemaids and gardeners and filled with stylish mahogany furniture, Persian rugs and European antiques.  This house was built in 1899 in the Tudor Revival Style with artificial half-timbering and stucco in an attempt to mimic estates found in the English countryside.


The main house’s front façade.

Although the house had been updated, much of its historical character was still apparent.  Many of these changes were in the interior.  Most of the woodwork, which originally must have been dark oak , had been painted and much of the millwork had been replaced.  Although still quite lavish, the house had a distinct, 1980’s vibe which detracted some from its historical character.  However, many of these changes were quite superficial and the home could have been easily restored to its original appearance.


The great room with painted woodwork.
The dining room.








What is the surprise?  In a few weeks this entire house will be in a landfill. Yes, you read that correctly. It will be demolished, the 3 acre lot subdivided and two new homes built on it. Sometimes economic realities collide with our preservation ideals and we are forced to make difficult decisions. A house of this size and age would require an enormous investment to restore, including a new roof and repairs to the stucco and trim. This would only be the beginning, as a significant, yearly budget would be necessary to maintain it. This is why many of these huge, historic homes, although owned by very wealthy people today, are in marginal shape. Even millionaires struggle to pony up $200,000 for a new roof, $100,000 for foundation repairs or $75,000 for paint. Indeed, many of the families that built these houses in the 1800s struggled to maintain and operate them and were forced to give them up after a few decades. The demolition of these houses has become quite common as their very nature makes them a financial burden that few can afford to bear. A solution is elusive since more of these grand estates exist than there are people willing or able to accept this responsibility. The result is a bunch of wonderful masonry, millwork and fixtures being buried with yesterday’s food waste and garbage.

The main stair.

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