Blessings on Cathedral Hill

How one young family turned a grand old house into a Showcase Home.

  • Photo by Craig Bares
  • Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society
    An early photo of the Frank P. and Anna Shepard House
  • Photo by Katherine Harris
    View from a stairway
  • Photo by Katherine Harris
    Details of built-in storage
  • Photo by Katherine Harris
    One of the original fireplaces
  • Photo by Katherine Harris
    Ceiling texture
  • Photo by Katherine Harris
    Details of another original fireplace

Whitney Blessing grew up in an 1890 Victorian brick home in Denver, Colorado, where many turn-of-the-century houses were built of brick made from the abundant clay and limestone found in the local foothills. Whenever Whitney would tell her husband, Andy, that she wanted to live in a brick house one day, he’d remind her that her dream was unrealistic, given the relatively small number of brick homes in the Twin Cities.


Three years ago on Christmas Eve, Whitney typed the words “brick” and “St. Paul” into a search on the Multiple Listing Service (MLS). When she saw a listing with a single blurry photo of a 15,000-square-foot brick home with 13 bedrooms, 14 baths, and six fireplaces, she was intrigued. Whitney, a former realtor turned Montessori teacher, and Andy, a contractor, had built a successful career buying, renovating, and selling homes. As the couple was always on the lookout for their next rehab project, Whitney showed the listing to Andy, who was equally intrigued.

Two days later, the Blessings drove from their home in St. Louis Park to St. Paul to find an enormous red brick Victorian home on the corner of Dayton Avenue and Farrington Street. The couple stepped gingerly past the fluted and Doric wood columns on the wraparound front porch into the unheated front hall. As Whitney and Andy looked around at the dusty hand-carved mahogany balustrades and the coffered ceilings, they both knew they wanted to live there.

“Within five minutes we knew where we were going to put the Montessori school, even though we’d never considered opening our own school, and which rooms we’d use for our B&B, which we’d only ever talked about as a fun thing to do after we retired,” says Whitney. “Most importantly, we could both picture our children growing up in the house, hanging Christmas stockings on one of the home’s many fireplaces, running through the halls, and playing with their friends in the yard,” says Andy.

By April, Andy and Whitney were the new owners of this grand old house situated on four city lots in St. Paul’s Historic Hill Heritage Preservation District. As the Blessings learned, the Queen Anne–style Victorian home was built in 1880 for Frank P. Shepard and his wife, Anna McMillan Shepard.

“The family residence is a beautiful home at No. 325 Dayton Avenue, filled with magnificent works of art, its furnishings being all that wealth can secure and refined taste suggest.”

A 1906 description of the Shepard homestead

Frank, along with his father, David Shepard, built much of the Great Northern Railway for James J. Hill. Anna was the daughter of Samuel J. McMillan, who was a U.S. senator from Minnesota, and a member of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The Shepards raised four children in the house, and after Frank died, Anna continued to live there for many years. In the 1950s, as a number of

the Historic Hill District’s homes began deteriorating, with many of them demolished or divided into apartments, the Shepard home became a caretaking facility for several decades. From 2001 until 2007, the home served as an international boarding school until it fell into foreclosure, lying empty and unloved until the Blessings came to Cathedral Hill.

Within months of closing on their new home, the Blessings moved into the 450-square-foot carriage house with Gwyneth, 5, Weston, 2, and their dog. “We knew it was a crazy challenge, but we both saw the house as a home, a project, and an opportunity,” says Andy. “It just made sense to us,” echoes Whitney.

In November 2011, just 11 months after the idea of a school was conceived, the Blessings, assisted by an outpouring of support from the Montessori community, opened Cathedral Hill Montessori School with eight students.

As the school continued to grow, the Blessings became friends with one of the parents, a designer named Krysta Gibbons. Last June, after touring the ASID MN Showcase Home on Lake of the Isles, Whitney asked Gibbons if she felt their home had the potential to be a Showcase Home project.

With Gibbons’s encouragement, Whitney sent an e-mail to the ASID MN Showcase Home committee, and several days later Bonnie Birnbaum, ASID, Angela Parker, ASID, and Natasha Freimark of Mpls.St.Paul Magazine met the Blessings at the house. “Having just finished wrapping up the 2012 Showcase Home, we were a little weary,” says Parker. “But as soon as we entered the home and saw the turrets, balusters, antique doors, and grand rooms from the past, we were thrilled.”

Intrigued by the idea of helping the Blessings transform a historic house into a modern family home, the trio presented the Blessings’ home to the ASID MN Showcase Home committee, which was equally enthusiastic about the opportunity.

Working closely with Andy Blessing and Andrew Nelson, co-owners of A-Squared Design/Build/Remodel, and a team of artisans and craftspeople, 39 ASID MN designers have reimagined, reconfigured, and renovated 22 public and private spaces from the basement wine cellar to the children’s quarters (including a room for their new baby, Freya) on the third floor of the house.

Using a cohesive palette of the Blessings’ favorite colors, historically appropriate patterns, materials, and finishes, as well as fresh, contemporary fabrics, furnishings, lighting, and other accents, the ASID MN interior designers have honored the storied history of the house while infusing it with the fresh, young spirit of the Blessings.

2013 ASID Showcase Home: Porch

The Front Porch

Come in, relax, and enjoy the spectacular view from the front porch, designed by Gabberts.

2013 ASID Showcase Home: Foyer, Grand Staircase & Snuggery

The B&B Foyer, Grand Staircase, Snuggery & Hallway

First impressions count. Walk into this stunning entrance by Codie Donahue Interior Design.

2013 ASID Showcase Home: Parlor & Powder Room

The Parlor & Powder Room

A fresh and flexible parlor is a modern update on the Victorian space.

2013 ASID Showcase Home: Dining Room

The Dining Room

Bonnie Birnbaum and Keri Olson strike a balance of traditional and contemporary styles in the dining room.

2013 ASID Showcase Home: Farrington Suite

The Farrington Suite

Angela Parker transforms the historic B&B room into an accessible, refined suite.

2013 ASID Showcase Home: Powder Room, Hallways, & Stairs

The Powder Room, Hallways & Stairs

A sense of continuation spans three levels of rooms decorated by Becky Kohout.

2013 ASID Showcase Home: Kitchen

The Kitchen

Functional was the key idea for kitchen designers Sheree Vincent and Letitia Little.

2013 ASID Showcase Home: Breakfast Room & Mudroom

The Breakfast Room & Mudroom

Designers from Indicia elevate the hardest working spaces in the home.

2013 ASID Showcase Home: Living Room

The Living Room

Cozy and warm, the Charlene Ackley-designed living room is a welcoming retreat from the B&B.

2013 ASID Showcase Home: Cathedral Suite

The Cathedral Suite

A bright, inviting, and luxurious suite by Desi Interior Design is a treat for guests of the B&B.

2013 ASID Showcase Home: Library Suite

The Library Suite

Twist Interior Design takes on the library suite, creating an intriguing backdrop for intellectual pursuits.

2013 ASID Showcase Home: Storybook Suite

The Storybook Suite

Tailored bedding provides a custom touch to one of the B&B's suites, created by Designs By Martina and Brooke Voss Design.

2013 ASID Showcase Home: Master Sitting Room

The Master Sitting Room

A serene and sumptuous prelude to the master bedroom is the creation of Linda Gerace-Skinner.

2013 ASID Showcase Home: Master Suite

The Master Suite

The Blessings' bedroom gets an organic and geometric union of elements by Kimberly Herrick.

2013 ASID Showcase Home: Children's Bathroom

The Children's Bathroom

A bathroom full of whimsy and character arose from the partnership of Lori Handberg and Diane Lumpkin.

2013 ASID Showcase Home: Upstairs Kitchen

The Upstairs Kitchen

The homey effect from a sloped ceiling is extended through vintage-style decor by Mary Maney.

2013 ASID Showcase Home: Laundry/Craft Room

The Laundry/Craft Room

“Your laundry room doesn’t have to be boring." Kristen Sheikh designs a fun and funky task room.

2013 ASID Showcase Home: Freya's Bedroom

Freya's Bedroom

Jodi Mellin and Katie Radcliffe mix sophisticated colors, fabrics, and textures for a one-of-a-kind baby room.

2013 ASID Showcase Home: Family Room

The Family Room

The family room becomes a private retreat with intriguing angled ceilings, designed by Ethan Allen.

2013 ASID Showcase Home: Weston's Bedroom

Weston's Bedroom

Earth tones and some fun fox fabric by Rob Edman and Laura Engen welcome young Weston to his room.

2013 ASID Showcase Home: Gwyneth's Bedroom

Gwyneth's Bedroom

A sweet space for the Blessings' oldest daughter (and an amazing view), designed by Katie Lewis and Angie Picotte.

2013 ASID Showcase Home: Wine Cellar

The Wine Cellar

The wine cellar becomes a place for tasting and drinking thanks to Rena Feldman and Kristen Veenstra.

Andrew Nelson, Andy Blessing

Meet the Showcase Home Builders

The master carpenters behind the scenes of the 2013 ASID Showcase Home.

What the Designers Say

What the Designers Say

Get the behind-the-scenes scoop from the designers who worked on this year's Showcase Home.

Cambria stone

Get to Know Cambria

The longtime sponsor of the ASID MN Showcase Home are a perfect fit for the program.

Junior League of Saint Paul and Cathedral Hill Montessori School

Room for Giving

The Junior League of St. Paul and the Cathedral Hill Montessori School are community partners of the ASID MN Showcase Home.