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.