Couple navigates massive renovation project for one of Duluth’s most unique homes – Duluth News Tribune

Couple navigates massive renovation project for one of Duluth’s most unique homes – Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — Paul and Mary Treuer were content living in their traditional home in Duluth’s East Hillside in the early 2000s. They had spent years renovating it and had raised their three children there. They had no plans to move.
But when a friend living on Park Point wanted to sell her house, the Treuers’ longtime dream to live by Lake Superior was rekindledThat it was a unique house made it all the more appealing. Built on sand dunes in 1941, the house had pioneered a bold, modern design rare for Duluth at the time. Overlooking Lake Superior, the house is still a standout with its clean, geometric simplicity free of ornamentation, a flat roof, large windows to maximize views and stucco siding awash in white.

A house on Park Point.

This house at 2700 Minnesota Ave., Duluth, pioneered a bold, modern design when built on Park Point in 1941. The white stucco house, seen here from the backside facing Lake Superior, has simple geometric lines with curved accents, a flat roof and large windows to maximize views. In their restoration efforts, the current owners sought to return the home to its original simplicity.

Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

The Treuers wanted to buy the 2,260-square-foot house, but they couldn’t afford it.

A year later, the owner reduced the asking price for them and sweetened the offer with a contract for deed. This time, said Mary Treuer, “We were able to make it work.”

The Treuers knew the two-story house had moisture issues, but they thought — as previous owners had thought — that it was fixable. The couple wouldn’t know the extent or the source of the problem — stemming back to its pre-World War II construction — until years later. By then, so extensive was the damage that their choice was to partially reconstruct the house or raze it and build anew.

They chose to save it.

A living room.

When visitors enter the living room of Mary and Paul Treuer’s Park Point house, the lake view captures the attention of visitors. “It takes people’s breath away when they see the view,” Paul said.

Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“We had to do it,” Mary Treuer said. “We weren’t going to tear it down and rebuild.”

Today, the couple are retired — Paul as an associate professor of academic affairs at the University of Minnesota Duluth, and Mary as financial manager of a Duluth company. Their efforts to structurally restore their Park Point home garnered them a preservation award last year from the Duluth Preservation Alliance. And in September, the house — now pristine inside and out — was featured on the alliance’s historic properties tour.

“They were meticulous about doing it the right way to save and restore the house as much as possible,” said Bob Berg, an alliance board member. “They went to extensive lengths to ensure there would be no more water damage to the house. They’ve done a fabulous job.”

When the house at 2700 Minnesota Ave. was constructed, its unadorned, boxy form would have been a curiosity in Duluth, said Martin DeWitt, director of the Tweed Museum of Art at the University of Minnesota Duluth from 1990 to 2003. “It was not Midwestern. It did not have an American look. It had more of an industrial look to it, like a factory.”

The house was designed by architect Harold St. Clair Starin for Dudley Russell, president of the Duluth Universal Milling Co. Starin’s design was in the German Bauhaus style of modern architecture that blossomed in Western Europe in the 1920s. Starin had trained there before establishing an office in Duluth in 1923. The modernist movement was a break with past architectural styles in favor of a minimalist, functional form without ornamentation. It was glass, steel and concrete instead of brick and stone.

Aerial view of Park Point.

This aerial shot of the house at 2700 Minnesota Ave. on Park Point was taken in 1946, five years after its construction.

Contributed / Paul Treuer

“Starin was taken by the international style of (modern) architecture,” said DeWitt, who has researched the subject. “Several architects came here, part of the Bauhaus movement. The international style comes out of clean lines, a clean look, the use of metals and other new materials and getting away from wood-framed houses.”

When built, the Park Point house’s straight lines were softened by a two-story curved wall. Despite a one-story addition decades ago that extended the house beyond the first floor’s curved wall, that wall remains as a striking interior wall.

“Curved forms are in modernism,” DeWitt said. “The curved forms evolved out of the art deco movement and fed into the Bauhaus movement with its simple shapes and forms.” 

Modernist art deco features in the house also include a glass block window and glass blocks bordering the front door, square recessed ceiling lights rimmed in metal, original sconces and art deco-style lights on the bottom of curved interior walls.

A curved wall.

Originally, this curved wall was an exterior wall. A 1950s addition pushed out the exterior wall, making the curved wall an interior wall.

Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Twice in the 1940s, the Russell house was featured in newspaper articles about modern homes. One was a feature story about its large windows that were oriented for views without sacrificing privacy. Another story, about the placement of garages in modern homes, noted the Park Point house’s setting atop a knoll with a wrap-under basement garage facing the street.

Then there’s the house’s connection to art. William Boyce, another former Tweed Museum director, owned the house from 1958-1993 and hosted annual summer retreats there where artists could stay and paint. In 2012, DeWitt held a two-day art show at the house, finding it extremely conducive for displaying his modern art.

Some have considered the house a work of art itself.

This house can manifest art,” said Paul Treuer, who compiled a book of his nature photography, “Superior Perspectives: Views of Lake Superior from Park Point,” while living there. “It takes people’s breath away when they see the view. You see color and patterns out on the lake. I’m literally watching the changing horizon. Even the dunes change. 

I love being here, I cherish it. It’s a different concept of a living space. It changes me in how I see the world. The house provides that and from a different angle. It’s a shift in how we feel and exist in nature. It’s because of the design of the house. The focus is out.”

Curved window in a bedroom.

The curved window, left, in the upstairs guest bedroom of Paul and Mary Treuer’s house is a key feature of the house’s original design.

Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

For the Treuers, buying the house meant a welcome return to Park Point. As a young couple scraping by in the mid-1970s, they lived in a small one-bedroom house near the bay for three years. It was challenging. The house was set on cinder blocks. The roof leaked. It would get so cold in winter that ice would form on the shower floor. Pipes would freeze if water wasn’t kept running. But the couple liked living on the Point and hoped to live on the lakeside someday.

When they lived in their East Hillside home, the Treuers had wanted a lake view so much that Paul cut holes on one side of the house and installed picture windows — two on each floor — to see the lake.

That hoped-for day arrived in 2004 when the Treuers became the fourth owners of the Park Point house

“The location was beautiful,” said Mary of the home set on five lots. “It was different, not your usual Duluth house. I liked the modern style, the lines of the house, the curved walls and window, the floor-to-ceiling windows in the sunroom and the view.”

A kitchen.

Among the first projects Paul and Mary Treuer tackled after they bought their house in 2004 was a total remodel of the 1940-era kitchen, including replacing the original metal cabinets with wood cabinets. The pattern of the cabinet doors mirrors that of the Douglas fir interior doors the previous owner installed throughout the house.

Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

To live in such a house carried special meaning for Paul who became enamored of the 1920s-1930s modernist movement when he first saw images of it in 1964 in an architecture class at UMD. The class was taught by Boyce who was living in the Park Point house at the time.

“This type of architecture resonates with my spirit,” Paul said. “I get tingly when I see houses in this style.”

The style provided added meaning when he discovered a family connection with Villa Tugendhat, a masterpiece of the Bauhaus movement, built in 1930 in today’s Czech Republic. Built on a slope, the house with its horizontal lines and walls of windows survived two totalitarian occupations and has been restored. The villa, along with the wealthy couple who built it, inspired the 2009 book “The Glass Room” by Simon Mawer and was adapted into the 2019 film, “The Affair.” It is in the city of Brno where Paul’s grandmother was from, a city known for its modernist buildings.

Once the Treuers purchased the Park Point house, their work was cut out for them. The house needed a good cleaning, remodeling and repairs. The colors didn’t suit them, nor the sponge-painted walls. And the dated kitchen still had the original metal cupboards.

“We rolled up our sleeves and went to work,” Paul said.

Rooms were painted. The kitchen was gutted and remodeled in a period style with the metal cupboards replaced with ones made of recycled eucalyptus wood. The stairwell’s original industrial-style metal pipe railing was replaced with a wood banister using the same wood used in the kitchen. The exterior stucco was painted to cover hairline cracks and to seal it from moisture.

In hopes of stopping water leaking through a first-floor sunroom ceiling, a contractor replaced and reframed a window above the sunroom and a door to the sunroom roof where water appeared to be getting in.

The fix didn’t solve the problem. The ceiling continued to leak during heavy rains.

The situation worsened after the historic June 2012 storm dumped up to 10 inches of rain on Duluth, causing widespread flooding and damage. A couple of years later, the Treuers started seeing more damage.

Large cracks appeared in the exterior stucco. Water condensation built up on a windowsill above the sunroom.

“We tried to figure out what to do,” Paul said. “We weren’t sure what was going on until we replaced the window. We were told we had a lot of water in the walls.”

When the contractor removed some stucco siding, he found a bigger problem: major damage in the walls. The more stucco removed, the more water damage found.

“We discovered more and more as they went along,” Paul said.

A bedroom.

The second-floor master bedroom of Mary and Paul Treuer’s house features a large picture window with a sweeping view of Lake Superior.

Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

The flat roof and 1940 materials and construction techniques had contributed to the problem. Part of the flat roof wasn’t directing water off the roof properly. The design of the parapet running across the top edge of the roof made it worse. So did the house’s site, atop a hillexposing the house to the elements.

“This is the worst exposure for any stucco house,” Paul said, noting that east winds surpassing 100 mph can batter the house with wind and rain. Storms push rain and snow up and around the house. Water is blown up the wall, gets under the parapet and flows down into the walls, he said.

Demolishing the house and rebuilding was an option the couple quickly rejected. When the contractor said he wouldn’t do the job unless it was done right, the Treuers were relieved.

“It never occurred to us not to do it right,” Paul said. “We wanted to save this house. We didn’t know the path. It seemed formidable. We went out on the edge to do this house.”

Working with Leider Construction and Wagner Zahn Architecture, the structural remodel began in 2016 and took 2 1/2 years. Throughout, the Treuers sought to be true to the house’s original design simplicity, noting that less is more. They continued to live in the house during the work. But they were used to living in a construction zone. It had taken them years to renovate their East Hillside house while living there.

The walls of the Park Point house were gutted to the inner studs and rebuilt from the parapet to the rim joists. Rotten studs were replaced, new insulation put in. Stucco siding was installed, this time with modern drainage technology that didn’t exist in 1940.

A sunroom.

The sunroom of Paul and Mary Treuer’s house, with a line of floor-to-ceiling windows, was an addition built in the1950s as a three-season porch and rebuilt in the 1980s as an enclosed porch. The original curved exterior wall is at left.

Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Turns out, the stucco, which is permeable, was one of the entry points for the water damage.

“Stucco needs a drainage plane, which is especially important for this type of architecture with flat roofs,” Paul explained. “Water will get into stucco, it just needs to get out.”

Meanwhile, the interior metal lathe and plaster walls, remained intact. All the windows were reframed, with most of them replaced with energy efficient fiberglass windows. Since the wall reconstruction presented an opportunity for changes, some windows were altered and a few more added.

The sunroom, added and rebuilt decades ago, needed more support and a better connection to the house. So the basement was expanded to the area under the sunroom and the room’s floor-to-ceiling windows were replaced.

We basically made it part of the house from the bottom up,” Paul said.

Three-season porches, one atop the other on the first and second floors facing the lake, were removed since views were blocked in winter from frost buildup.

“We wanted to go back to the house’s original design without porches,” Mary said, noting that alterations over the years had moved the house away from its original footprint and style.

Baseboard light.

Art deco-inspired accent lights on the base of curved wall edges are original to Paul and Mary Treuer’s house.

Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

To improve roof drainage, a parapet designed for stucco and sturdier flashing was installed on the roof. A slope was created on the rubber membrane-covered roof where water and snow would build up and seep moisture into the walls. The slope directs water to a gutter that sends it down a pipe to a newly installed underground drainage system. To ease the strain on the Park Point sewer system, the house’s storm water drains into sand dunes 30 feet from the house.

While they were at it, electrical and other wiring was moved underground. And since the couple didn’t use their tuck-under garage for parking, the garage door was replaced with a wall, window and entry door, allowing other uses for the garage space. Tiered box gardens were installed flanking the front-facing former garage.

All that deconstruction and rebuilding led them to rethink the yard. A secluded patio on the house’s north side was rebuilt. Using bluestone blocks found buried on the property, a large garden wall was constructed and block gardens installed. On the house’s lakeside, a damaged redwood deck was removed and replaced with another patio.

“This was so ambitious,” Paul said of the work done. “We made it better than it was. It’s a real improvement from 1940.”

The cost to do it, however, was substantial. The couple dipped into savings, retirement funds and refinanced the house to pay for it. But they say it was worth it, and they are pleased with the results.

“We’re extraordinarily happy with the house now,” Paul said. “It’s just a gift to live here.”

Said Mary: “Living here makes you appreciate more where you live. It connects you to what is happening outside with the lake colors and the storms. Where else are you going to live when you live in Duluth?”