Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Twin Cities Housing and Architecture

Two weeks ago my spouse and I went to the annual Minneapolis St. Paul Home Tour.  We've been attending this event since 1992.  Each year, people living in St. Paul and Minneapolis who have remodeled or renovated, open their homes to the public for the weekend and show all the changes they've made. 

Me, I call it free entertainment.  Where else can you go and see different styles of architecture and living spaces, both old and new, within the Twin Cities?  It's also fun to see the way other people live.  Over the years we've visited Victorian houses in Crocus Hill, on Nicollet Island, and along Park Avenue in Mpls.  We've explored new condos built in the warehouses of downtown Mpls. and historic buildings of St. Paul.  We've seen people make living spaces from old fire stations (the pole still intact!), former churches, a steam plant, and turn-of-the-century carriage houses.

In the early years that we attended, we tried to go to as many houses as possible.  A few days before the tour, we'd sit down with the tour map and pick out the places that looked most interesting.  Then, we'd plan our route, and rush around from house to house, sometimes seeing as many as 20 houses in the two days of the tour. At each stop you present your "passport" and get checked off.  You remove your shoes, and either leave them among the others at the entrance or carry them with you.  If it's raining, you're often provided with a pair of thin hospital blue "slippers" to cover your feet.  When you leave, just make sure you grab the right pair of shoes! 

In later years of the tour, we've visited fewer houses and have been a bit more selective either because we'd seen similar places before or we had limited time.  This year we decided on five of the houses.

The first two were near Como Lake in St. Paul.  But before we started, we had to stop for a coffee at the Black Bear Crossings in the Como Park Pavilion.  Good coffee, a few gluten free treats (although not vegan), and on that particular day there was a rather sizable group of guitar pickers playing folk songs in the cafĂ©.  I didn't catch the name of the group, but they were fascinating to watch - mostly older gentleman carrying out a tradition, but there was also one young woman as well.

Anyway, back to the tour.  The first house we chose because it was a B&B and we're always interested in B&Bs.  The Como Lake Bed & Breakfast was a Craftsman style house built in 1925.  The current owners were the third owners of the house.  They had gutted it and made changes, and after their family grew up and moved out, they renovated it to include 5 bathrooms, an enlarged and upgraded kitchen and skylights.  I especially liked the decorative plates on the kitchen wall - from different states and countries that they or their friends had visited.  The third floor suite is where guests can stay - a bedroom, kitchenette, bath, and dining area.

The second Como house, built in 1920, had a beautiful view of the lake. The original kitchen had been a small area near the back of the house, so the owners added an extension and created a "hang-out space" that included the kitchen, an eating area, and entryway.  On the second floor, the main feature was the solar panels.  Not only did the panels generate electricity, reduced energy costs (with tax incentives!), they also provided a unique shading over their second-story deck. 

One more house we had to visit in St. Paul - an 1880 Victorian in Crocus Hill.  I had hoped to see more of the historic features of this house, but the only part on tour was the kitchen.  It was a beautiful kitchen with a island and sleek modern features.  And I always like it when the kitchen includes an extra space with a couch, chairs, bookshelves or a desk - a windowed alcove where you can sit and look through your cookbooks as you plan your meals for the week.  It seems like no matter how small a kitchen is, of course it's the place where everyone congregates, so the extra seating is for guests who want to be involved in the cook's conversations and creative concoctions.

On Sunday we went to two Minneapolis houses.  The first was in Prospect Park, always fascinating because it's the area with the water tower that looks like a witch's hat.  The owners, an older couple, had decided to make changes to accommodate a single-story lifestyle. An office space at the back of the house had been converted into a kitchen that opened into the main living room/dining room area.   Just off of the kitchen was a greenhouse which had been there from the beginning.  I loved seeing the efficient use of space in the kitchen.  There were little shelves and cupboards tucked into the center island and in reachable corners next to the regular cabinets.  A extension on the island could be pulled down to create a counter space that you could sit at while you chopped your vegetables.  Once again, the theme was to put the kitchen in the area with the most light and connect it with the "social" areas of the house.

The last house we saw was in the Kenwood Park area near Lake of the Isles.  The owner had a sense of humor—as we walked through the front gate, two stone lions on either side "roared" at us.  (Sound coming from a nearby recording.)  The style of the house was 1922 Mediterranean.  The inside had been stripped to it's joists so that everything was new and architecturally interesting. The faucets in every sink and basin looked more like hoses with levers.  There was music piped into every room from a "brain" closet in the basement.  We were trying to figure out the career of the owner - a musician (judging by the collection of autographed guitars in the office) or maybe an audiophile?  A designer or an architect, but definitely, someone who likes to entertain.

Two more floors above had bedrooms, walk-in closets, and fireplaces.  The third floor was a whole suite with a bedroom, wet bar, bath, and a walk out deck with a fireplace that was large enough for probably 20-25 people in close conversations. 

And that ended our tour route for this year.  It always makes me proud to live here in the Twin Cities because of the people who enjoy their living spaces and take time to preserve the old and take risks to create new things.

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