Photos by Spacecrafting
Everyone who visits Stillwater knows the house at the top of the historic Stillwater stairs on a bluff that overlooks the downtown and St. Croix River. Built in the 1900s, the building was a church for various denominations through the decades, then renovated over the years by residential owners.
Recently, it earned the moniker “the mushroom house” for its shingled roof and curved shingled soffits. Uninhabited, the house’s interior was a disaster until designers Kasey Johnson and Regan Nix, co-founders of Blue Pencil Collective in White Bear Lake, saw its potential.
Determined to live in downtown Stillwater, Lee Stoerzinger asked Johnson and Nix to check out the house before he put in an offer. “Everyone else that looked at the house had gone in and run out,” Stoerzinger says. A teardown, to be sure, except the house is in a historic district and listed in the National Register of Historic Places. So, what could be done?
Far too dark, a little musty, definitely outdated, and with minimal views of the nearby river, the house was anchored by a central two-level fireplace with 4-foot-deep walls of mortar, field rock, and brick. Nix and Johnson were undaunted. “We were so excited when we walked in,” says Nix. Johnson adds, “We thrive on renovations. We love old houses. They’re some of our most prized projects.”
“These crazy ladies said, ‘Yes, we can do this!’” Stoerzinger recalls, laughing. So, he bought the house and demolition began. Todd Anderson of Lifespace Construction Inc. and his team took the structure down to the studs.
“That’s when we discovered the house was butterflying, or bowing out, structurally,” Nix recalls. “The upper level was a foot wider than the lower level, and we couldn’t figure out why. Then, the structural team saw that the main load-bearing wall was cut apart and ‘stapled’ back together.” The builders also uncovered significant fire damage that impacted the integrity of the structure. And because the house sat on top of rock on the hill, footings had to be inserted.
After that, the real fun began. “Lee and his family had two goals,” says Johnson. “They wanted to share this iconic house in Stillwater with friends, family, and the community by having a big open space on the first level with views of the city and the river. Lee also insisted on a huge woodburning fireplace as the centerpiece of the home, open to both the kitchen and living area, that people could gather around.”
Constructing the new double-sided, 25-foot fireplace, using irregular-cut stone from Rivard Stone, was among the renovation’s biggest challenges. Materials surrounding the feature had to be fireproof. Codes for a woodburning fireplace had to be met. The new footings had to be substantial enough to support the massive structure. The mechanical system was redone with a “makeup air” addition to ventilate inside air and bring fresh air into the home. The detailing required to complete the modern, minimal look “was painstaking,” Johnson says. “Where stone and concrete met had to be strategic to ensure we created nice, clean lines.”
Another challenge was the stairway that wound through the old church’s choir loft and into the priest’s quarters. The designers reworked the stairway “30 times because of the angles and head heights,” Johnson recalls. Now, the stairway winds elegantly to the primary suite at one end of the balcony, replete with a woodburning stove and panoramic views, while the kids’ bedrooms and bath lie at the other end.
Conscious about using every square inch, the designers added a new bedroom without adding extra square footage. They tucked a walk-in shower, freestanding soaking tub, and double vanity into a teeny bathroom with an odd-angled ceiling and views of the river. Built-ins also helped conserve space. For instance, a wet bar features a mini fridge in an alcove near the fireplace, an office behind bifold doors doubles as a sleeping space with a built-in daybed with bookshelves and pullout drawers, and floating wall-affixed nightstands add a modern touch of convenience to the primary suite.
Downstairs, the designers reconfigured the kitchen to create connections with the dining and living areas. Painted wood cabinets and countertops by Livingstone Concrete are among the simple materials used throughout the house, along with stone, sheetrock, handmade clay tile, and black metal railings. “We always design with a European sensibility and materials palette, as materials there last forever,” says Nix. “They also acquire a lovely patina over time.”
The sustainability aspects of such materials were also in play. Wary of the “greenwashing” aspects of sustainability, the designers remain acutely aware of the ways in which they can make good on reducing the environmental footprint of their projects. The wood floors come from FSC-certified (Forest Stewardship Council) products. They also reused all of the home’s existing energy-efficient windows. “We just put them in different locations throughout the house and painted them,” Johnson says.
In addition, stone from the old fireplace ended up as part of the landscaping. LED lighting was installed throughout the home. The contractors also provided a certificate of waste management, ensuring everything put in the dumpster was separated and recycled. Old appliances were donated. Moreover, an uninhabitable 3,800-square-foot house was not only restored and made livable but also turned into a showpiece.
“What Kasey and Regan did is absolutely stunning,” says Stoerzinger. “They were not deterred. I’m eternally grateful to them for walking into the old place and saying, ‘We can do this’.” Johnson’s sentiments ring equally positive: “Lee and his family took a big risk in buying this house and placing their trust in us. In return, we transformed it into a home that completes their vision.” The designers also retained a sense of the building’s history, balancing clean, modern lines and interior archways with the catwalk leading to the former sleeping quarters and choir balcony.
So, what’s it like living in a notable house at the top of a famous stairway? “Oh, everybody does the stairs—hundreds of people a day,” Stoerzinger says, “I see proposals, weddings, dogs, people exercising, and people taking selfies. The kids love it. Like the old saying goes, you don’t buy a house next to a gun club and complain about the noise. I knew what I was getting into.”
But, he adds, “I can walk out my front door and enjoy downtown Stillwater, a beautiful small river town, and grab a sandwich or dinner, hit the hiking trails, or go fishing. It’s a special place.” And when the family needs to retreat? “We have a very private backyard with a fantastic view of downtown and the river. No one else has that view. I’m thankful every day that we live here.”