Split-Level on Summit

Originally built to house a boiler over a century ago, this historic property received new life as a home for a local filmmaker

Photos by Karena’s Photography

Textures abound in this vertically oriented, 1,200-square-foot home in St. Paul.

After moving 15 times over the past 20 years, Peter Bisanz was ready to put down some roots. And where better than his hometown of St. Paul, where the majority of his family still lived? But for this particular gentleman, who had spent the past two decades living and working around the globe, from England to Switzerland, India to Africa, and everywhere in between, he needed someplace unique to call his first permanent home.

He found it when—thanks to his friend Pat Flood of Edina Realty—he discovered a small brick house located off Summit Avenue, two blocks from St. Paul’s famed University Club. Built in the late 1800s, the historic building had originally acted as the boiler/utility room for a block of row houses and consisted of roughly 1,200 square feet spread out over four levels.

“I hate living in cookie-cutter housing,” says Bisanz, who has previously called two carriage houses home. “Then I saw this tiny little castle that was so old and so unique. Every part of the layout was so surprising— I just loved it from the moment I saw it.”

Warm wood tones and exposed brick walls reflect the home’s historic character.

While an earlier renovation had converted the split-level structure to a residential home, there was still plenty of work to be done before Bisanz could truly call it his. Scott Rajavuori, design manager at Titus Contracting, was brought in to bring the home up to code, and Bisanz also collaborated with his uncle, John Bisanz of Bisanz Bros LLC, and close friend Sulinh Lafontaine, a Los Angeles-based interior/architectural designer and remodeler.

“Peter’s lived in Europe, and loves old buildings with great architectural details. But he’s also lived in New York and Los Angeles and has an affinity for modern, industrial design,” Lafontaine says. “So the question was, ‘How do we update this place to meet modern needs while retaining its historic character?”’

A sleek linear fireplace lends a modern touch to the entertaining area and hints at the contemporary design of the upper level.

The first part of the solution involved addressing problems with the vertically oriented building’s limited layout—a unique challenge for the design team, who was forced to get creative with the small living spaces. “You have to remember that it wasn’t originally designed to live in long-term,” says Rajavuori, who continues, “It’s a very broken-up home: You come in on one level, and the main living room is downstairs another level. A little half flight of stairs leads to the galley kitchen and powder room, and a full flight of stairs leads from the main level up to the bedroom suite.”

The home’s lowest level features a small galley kitchen and powder room, while the main living space is located up a small flight of stairs.

Since the building had been designated as a historic property, there wasn’t too much the design team could change inside. Luckily, the top level—which had, once upon a time, been the main living space—afforded them a little more flexibility.

“Some poor gentleman who lived there would run downstairs and shovel coal into this giant 30-foot boiler, and the top level was his living quarters,” explains Bisanz. “There was a tiny little open bathroom that faced the bed, along with a washer, dryer, and two closets on either side of the bed. There was zero privacy!”

A wall was added and partitioned off to separate the bedroom and bathroom, and custom-built cabinets installed for additional storage. A customized freestanding tub was also brought up and a special darkening blind installed for the existing skylight.

“The tub was literally the largest one we could possibly get up the stairs, and then we had to make some kind of shower work when the ceiling was so low,” says Rajavuori.

Ceilings were repainted, previously dingy white beams stripped to expose natural wood, and floors darkened to ground the space. Stone, natural brick and beams, and darker colors set a tone both historic and modern. The upstairs bedroom suite in particular was designed to be more contemporary, with gray walls, dark wood floors, and uptown vibes.

Designed as the new owner’s personal retreat, the master suite features cooler, darker shades for relaxation, along with a custom bathtub and built-in storage closets in the bedroom.

“We wanted to make it more masculine and private—I don’t think there was a single treatment for any of the home’s 15 windows!” says Lafontaine, who used darker colors to make interior elements pop. “The trim outside was purple, so we changed that to black as well,” she adds.

Downstairs, an old fireplace was ripped out and a sleek linear electric one installed in its place. Bisanz also added a Peloton bike to one of the open spaces to create a small workout area to complete his unique little “castle,” which is now the perfect fit for him.

“I came out this fall and this older couple and their 20-something-year-old daughter were walking by, and I hear her say, ‘Does someone actually live in this thing?’ and I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, me!’” he laughs proudly.

Floor Plan (Master Suite After)

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