Unexpected Treasures Await in This 1872 Italianate Victorian

Fate led a St. Paul couple to this 1800s Italianate Victorian that teems with history and hidden secrets

Photos by Andrea Rugg

Sky-high storage, dramatic quartz slabs, and a rolling library ladder only add to the allure of this 1872 St. Paul home’s new kitchen.

Twelve years ago, Sarah Dye’s stroll through St. Paul’s Como Park neighborhood was interrupted by the unusual discovery of a big Italianate Victorian. Considering its castle-like tower, ornate brackets, and large bay windows, to suggest the home was simply “different” from its surrounding 1920s-type bungalows would be a gross understatement. Although enamored by its presence, Dye kept walking around the block and circled home to her husband, John Coulter, and their two dogs. The story seemingly ended there.

More than a decade later, the family needed to find a bigger house that would allow them to care for Dye’s mother. “I went online and plugged in my criteria for the new house,” she says. That home, the very one she had stumbled upon, was for sale. “It was truly meant to be.”

But quickly, Dye learned “meant to be” and “happy ending” were not synonymous—not yet, at least. Long a residential home, briefly a Presbyterian church, and most recently a bed and breakfast, the history-rich property had fallen into disrepair. So much so, in fact, that the family couldn’t fully move in until extensive (albeit necessary) repairs were completed—particularly in the kitchen, where fixtures and appliances were leaking or out of operation. “In order for it to even function for us, we had no choice but to fix up the crucial areas,” Dye recalls. “It was disgusting. It didn’t feel good to be in there.”

A small bench near the entry is a practical addition for coats, scarves, and the occasional dog leash.

After collecting referrals from family and friends, the couple selected Betsy Fabel, project manager at Crown Construction, and Carrie Harrington, owner of i.d. interior design, to repair and restore the heart of their 1872 home. “For some, [reimagining an old home] means adding more period things,” explains Harrington, who regularly attends to historical properties. “For others, it means honoring the past.” For Dye and Coulter, it meant both.

When it came to what that specifically looked like aesthetically, the couple were open to it all, Harrington says, with two conditions: The kitchen was his domain, the nearby powder bath hers.

The 225-square-foot kitchen itself is a peninsula of sorts, one that juts off the back of the house with one common wall (connected via doorway to the dining room) and three exterior walls with several doors and windows. Coulter, an excellent cook according to his wife, did have functional requests for the new kitchen: an open plan, abundant storage, and multipurpose areas with the flexibility to do and be whatever he wished. 

Drafting the floor plan wasn’t as straightforward, and challenges surfaced almost immediately. The windows, not to be moved from their original locations, largely dictated the layout. Doors, cabinetry (not original to the home), and floors needed removing. Sizable appliances could only fit in so many places. The common wall called for a large, open archway, and high ceilings required extensive space planning. The entire project needed an innovative design.

The kitchen’s 10-foot ceilings presented an opportunity to maximize storage with stylish alder cabinets that feature beaded fronts and drop handles.

And, Harrington proposed, a dramatic one—leading to the installation of massive quartz slabs. A sweeping, signature grain defines the kitchen’s countertops, extra-deep windowsills, and backsplash behind the large range. The nearby island acts as a drop zone for the refrigerator, and a small nook for coats, shoes, and the occasional dog leash exudes practical charm near the door. Alder cabinets with beaded fronts and drop handles add a touch of sophistication to the space while a rolling library ladder provides easy access to upper cabinets. “It’s a modern, working kitchen where John can create modern-day meals in an honored old space,” Fabel says. “That’s how the two [eras] really come together.”

The range and hood are focal points in the 225-square-foot space.

The reuse of original window casings and trim takes the remodel’s blend of old and new a step further. “It was ornate, thick, and handmade, but it also wasn’t consistent throughout the whole house,” adds Fabel, who saved every tiny scrap of the casing. “Reusing that material made it feel as if the kitchen was always there.”

The neighboring powder bath also needed attention. At the time, Dye’s mother needed an accessible bathroom, but the pre-existing 40-square-foot bath—which featured a peculiar shower-and-tub combo—was also cramped, and its location near the entryway odd. “Who in the world wants to take a shower right off the entry of a house?” Harrington asks, laughing.

Small, unexpected moments make the refinished bathroom one of tranquility and tradition. Vintage brass fittings add another touch of history, and a curved console sink is not only period-appropriate but also perfect for aging in place. A feminine Hudson Valley light fixture and subtle pink ceiling overhead were superb selections for Dye, who loves pastels and all things that sparkle. A William Morris wallpaper, featuring a monochromatic white-on-white pattern with delicate crystal beads, embellishes the walls with classic elegance. “It’s a modern take on an old pattern,” Harrington says of the material.

The traditional, feminine powder bath is elevated with vintage brass hardware and a console sink.

Shimmery selections, a functional kitchen, and collaborative effort weren’t the only things that made this project memorable: “When we were demoing, we found items from the 1800s behind the walls,” Dye says. “We found a die, block, alphabet book, shoe, children’s toys, and a few other things. I researched and found out when people built in the past, they would put items behind the walls as a charm of sorts.”

Lesson learned, loud and clear: Unexpected treasures are everywhere—hidden in plastered walls, captured in beautiful design, and in this special case, waiting a short walk down the street.

Floor Plan

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