A Duluth family re-creates a charming Arts and Crafts home
By Laine Bergeson
Photo by coldsnap / John Gregor
Since then, Jamie has had a lot of time to plan for the restoration of this hillside Duluth home that was built between 1912 and 1913, during the Gilded Age of logging barons and shipping magnates. The house hadn’t had any structural or mechanical updates since the “freshening up” Jamie’s great-grandmother, Ophelia Sellwood Leithhead, undertook when she bought it as a belated wedding present for her son and his bride, Virginia, in 1947. Ophelia had a mahogany bedroom set painted lime green with black trim, and all the original oak woodwork painted blue. Two years later, when Ophelia passed away, the home was furnished with the finest, turn-of-the-century furniture that had once filled her own sumptuous Duluth mansion.
“If it didn’t get updated when my great-grandmother bought the house in 1947, it didn’t get done at all,” chuckles Jamie, who with her husband Kenji inherited the house in 1997 when her grandmother passed away. The house still had its original electrical wiring and gas-fueled wall sconces. Even the original coal-burning furnace, unused for years, still hunkered in the basement, with coal at the ready.
Then there was the stuff. Her grandmother was a collector—of everything. Jamie found boxes and boxes—old candles, Band-Aids, 30-year-old newspapers. In total, she estimates they hauled out more than 20 construction-sized dumpsters full of “junk.” But among the masses of stuff, Jamie and Kenji uncovered some remarkable treasures: ornate sets of china with Ophelia’s initials prominently displayed; a bond issued for passage on the Olympia, the Titanic’s sister ship; clothes, from intricate flapper dresses and ball gowns to pairs of 100-year-old ladies’ stockings; and nearly every piece of furniture from her great-grandmother’s much larger home.
“It took us three years just to clean out the house before we could start renovations,” says Jamie, who lived with Kenji and their son, Robert—now an adult and stationed in Georgia with the Army—in a much smaller bungalow in Duluth during the restoration. The family kept about 25 percent of the original wood furniture and had it restored to its original luster. They also kept other meaningful correspondence and unique artifacts, including a luxuriant red-leather and steel-trimmed book of old drug formulas from Jamie’s great-grand-father’s drug company.
Then, they focused on bringing the house’s structure and mechanics into the twenty-first century. With an architect’s help, the couple had the house squared and the basement dug out an additional 18 inches to make it a more livable height. Careful to retain the architectural integrity of the original Arts and Crafts style, the team ripped out the old wiring and plumbing, re-roofed, added a room to the basement, and expanded the kitchen. Today, the house is slightly less than 6,000 square feet.
The Arts and Crafts tradition, a response to the Industrial Revolution, celebrated a return to hand craftsmanship and intricate detail, and drew heavily on Asian design principles. The renovation and restoration brought added features that highlighted Kenji’s Japanese heritage. In the refinished basement, the couple added a traditional Japanese shower and tub area (where the shower and tub are adjacent but drain separately), tiled in pale earth and water tones. A “creek” of river rocks, inset between the square tiles, creates a meandering path from the bathtub to the floor drain.
Coldsnap / John Gregor
The added basement space became a workout room with an endless pool for all-season swimming. Here, again, a Japanese sensibility is evident: Two cranes compose the pool’s faucet, Frank Lloyd Wright’s “water sprites” flank the swimming area on one side and light-filled windows covered with custom-made, Japanese-style shoji screens are on the other.
The basement’s hidden gem is Robert’s bedroom. His room and private Japanese garden nook, adorned with rock and bamboo, is tucked away behind a sliding bookcase that was added during the renovation. Once the maid’s quarters, the space became the perfect hideaway for a teenager.
The main-floor restoration involved stripping and restoring the living room and dining room’s woodwork to its original high-gloss finish. (The couple were able to restore the wood to its original condition because they found an untouched curio cabinet in the basement.) Old family photos and watercolor paintings are on display in the living room next to modern-day mementos, including the two Purple Hearts their son was awarded for bravery during his tour of duty in Iraq. The walls and ceilings on both the main and second floors are covered with intricately patterned Arts and Crafts wallpaper. The second-floor bedroom ceilings are wallpapered with bright flowers, swooping lines, dazzling stars, and smiling songbirds.
Jamie and Kenji updated the expanded kitchen by replacing the original, deteriorating cabinets with custom-made ash cupboards. They added a large island, a six-burner, burnt-red Viking stove, and a row of windows above the sink that overlooks a waterfall garden. An expansive, multi-level deck also has a Japanese feel, with clean lines, squared spaces, and hidden corners. On the deck’s upper level, the couple hopes to eventually build a Japanese-style teahouse.
Another improvement took place in the previously unfinished attic space. It’s now a studio where Jamie teaches belly dancing. The space is naturally lit with expansive skylights that can be opened up into mini open-air verandas. The whole attic feels at once roomy and private.
When Jamie and Kenji took over the property, the house was in such disrepair that it was worth no more than the land it sat on, she says. Today, the home radiates sophisticated beauty, blended styles, history, and a family’s love.
Laine Bergeson is a Minneapolis freelance writer and editor.