Everyone with some sense of drive has a story from when they were young and stupid and believed they could do anything – and by so, doing, did.
For me, this was the restoration of the 1860 Spencer House at 47 Irvine Park, undertaken with my then wife Deb Fitzpatrick. After having lived half of my life in this sprawling pioneer era home it’s time to sell it and move on for a number of reasons. Modesty has always prohibited me from saying too much about this portion of my life’s work, but this is a time to reflect. And make a buck off of it.
It was in 1992 that word came to us that the house at 47 Irvine Park was up for sale. We lived in a condo at 13 Irvine Park at the time, and we wanted to take on a project. At this time there was plenty of hard work to be done all through the West End of St Paul, but this neighborhood was special. It wasn’t just the park with the fountain, nice as that is.
Irvine Park is old as the state of Minnesota. The connection was less through space than through time.
Living in an extra dimension can be difficult, however. The previous family hadn’t been able to fully gut the house and start over, as it demanded, so we did. The condition was simply terrible. A structural issue, which actually dated to when it was built, caused one of the supports to fall 3 ¼ inches. All of the plaster was gone, and sometime in the 1970s the quick solution was to glue up cheap paneling and install a false ceiling. All of the trim was destroyed in this process. The plumbing was antique and the electrical was installed in 1901.
All of this had to go.
Phase 1 was the demolition, started the day Bill Clinton was elected President. Pulling down all the plaster in the middle of the Winter is, in hindsight, an incredibly stupid move. The furnace barely kept the house above freezing but still ran up $800 in gas in January. But it all had to go, taking the house down to studs and lathe.
That’s when the structural problems were fixed and a few walls were moved around – and a few removed. My zen friend John Yust one day sat me down at the end of one room and said, “Tell me what this room needs.” Having no idea what he meant, I sat there. Then, it came to me. “That wall, in the middle, it doesn’t belong there!” “You’re right,” he drew me in, “Let’s go tear it down.” And so we did, revealing that it was indeed added much later to a vast 14.5’ x 29’ main parlor.
We could tell because that wall had round “wire” nails, not the square “cut” nails used on the original parts of the house. Wire nails didn’t come along until the late 1870s.
The lesson here was that the Spencer House is always speaking. It takes a certain stillness to listen to it but the effort is worth it. The same can be said for nearly everything in life, of course, but the elegance of this house speaks in its own rhythm and tone. Add another dimension to life in a historic home.
As it was all re-assembled, the pieces came together slowly. The trim had to be reconstructed, but there were clues still present. For example, the windows on the main floor were originally trimmed like doors, going all the way to the floor with a classic plinth block to rest on. The space under the sill had a panel. Only the dining room had this completely intact, but there were enough clues to proceed. The panels were fashioned on a cheap table saw in the basement based on the dimensions from door panels. The trim was a combination of new millwork and reconditioned old red pine pieces.
The dimensions came down to details, often to the 32nd of an inch – which is to say a big 16th marked with a + sign in a notebook. It all had to fit like it had been there for more than a century.
We glazed 28 windows and 18 storms. Original glass was carefully harvested, brittle as it was, the wavy imperfections allowed to dazzle and distort. We restored the original hardware, hand cast with metal full of flaws. The reception parlor was given a wallpaper reminiscent of Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Illinois – since the house was built by abolitionist Republicans in the year Lincoln was elected.
We painted the exterior, matching a color that seemed to be left behind on the shielded side of the house. It was probably never repainted between 1860 and 1994, so the tiny shards of color that were left were at least close. Another dimension discovered.
Gradually, it came back together. The hardest part of the work continued for six years, through the early days of life for my child Thryn. Though we divorced in 2003, the house stayed with me though years of working as a freelance writer.
It was hard for me to keep up, however. It shows today. After 25 years it needs another round of restoration, and I have neither the money nor the energy to do it. I often joke that with small accidents involving saws and drills there is enough of my own blood in the house that it is practically a member of the family. But it time for it to have its own path.
My time in the Spencer House has defined me as much as this house, if not more. Yet it is only a tiny share of the time it has been here in St Paul, bearing witness to the arrival of nearly everything we know today. Many people have come and gone, yet the Spencer House lives on.
Immortality does require maintenance, however, so it is time for me to depart. Despite all my work and research and love it is time for someone else. Whoever that may be they will be given careful instructions in the delicate art of living in dimensions beyond the humble three which occupy mere mortality. If my words fall a bit flat I won’t be afraid.
The Spencer House will still be able to speak for itself, after all. It can be quite convincing, especially when it tells you that anything is, indeed, possible for those with enough love in their heart to persevere.