The 1889 Project: A Victorian Restoration Story

“What should we do now?” I asked my friend after we left our local watering hole on a hot September night in 2005.  “Let’s go for a drive” she said and that is where the beginnings of this restoration story starts.  I knew I was looking for a house around this time, but not seriously at this point.

My friend and I left downtown St. Paul and meandered throughout the streets of the city commenting on houses we found attractive on our midnight drive.  After 45 minutes of driving we spotted a large, frankly ugly looking house, with a for sale sign.  The asbestos tiles clad the great architectural treasure like a hospital gown on a patient, nobody ever looks good in those.  We pulled over briefly as our eyes scanned the old beast and I picked up every detail that was still there and imagined all the others obscured behind the white tiles.  I in some odd way knew that this was the house that I would live in.  I didn’t know what the price would be, or what condition the home was in or even what neighborhood I was really in, but something in my gut told me this place and I were meant to meet.

After my friend and I had discussed the tower and how cool the view must be from the turret, we left to go home having written down the address to find out more information the following day.  Several short days later I had arranged to take a tour of the house with my father.  We walked around the exterior and stared up at the large vertical wall that was before us trying to figure out how to mount a full-fledged restoration attack on the siding…mind you, I have a fear of heights!

Interior work, and mostly cleaning, to make the house livable. Photo by Matt Mazanec.

We toured the interior of the home and found many details still intact; fireplaces, hardwood floors, pocket doors and woodwork.  We imagined the home with the awful drop ceilings removed, windows restored to their original height and the grand staircase open as it had been when the house was built.  These visions were in actuality a long way off from that day of the initial tour, but perhaps all one needs is a vision of what can be, to feed the strength of what had to be done first.

A Short Month Later and the House was Ours 

Right after the closing my father and I went to the house and began removing one of the drop ceilings to see what was underneath.  We spent the first four hours of ownership trashing the house until our energy was absolved and it was late into the night.  This would be the process for about the next year, demolishing ugly add-ons to find out what was underneath.  The fall and winter began with the renovation of the second floor.  Rooms and rooms of disgusting carpet was torn out, the floors were scrapped and more staples than blades of grass in the yard were removed after countless hours of pulling them out.

The 1970s wood paneling of the walls would have to stay, because removing them also meant removing much of the plaster behind them so rather the walls were paint to freshen it up.  The bathroom needed to be completely gutted and rebuilt.  A new floor was installed along with a new toilet and sink.  It was not the full renovation of the bathroom that was required, but at least now it was functional, clean and not somewhere you would have to walk into wearing sandals like a college dorm.   This was all that was initially required to make the house livable for the time being.

A sampling of projects illustrated on Matt’s blog to explore!

Historic images of the house. Installing salvaged floors. Opening up the main stair! Refinishing vestibule doors.
Handcut replica decorative shingle. Vintage lock sets. Refinshing the hutch. Restored salvaged fretwork.
Replicating trim. Stripping the “new” siding. Exterior painting. Inside the tower.
Butler box. Repaired stained glass. Making it livable! Opening up the vestibule.

The Second Year

After a long winter in a very cold house it was spring and it was time to remove the white veil that was covering the home for the past 40 or so years.  I couldn’t wait to see what was behind the large asbestos tiles that covered my new baby.  I first began taking off the siding that was on the first eight feet and below on the house.  I removed only what I could reach with an extension ladder and the house started to look like a sweater that a string had been pulled until the bottom part was gone making it look like a belly shirt.  The bottom half of the house was” battleship gray” as I affectionately call it, and the top half was still white tiles and barn red paint.  The inevitable requirement of scaffolding was here and it was the only way of reaching the upper half of the house.   The siding removal was easy, what was under was not as easy to address.  The siding itself  was in good shape, however holes had been drilled in to blow-in insulation at one point, there was water rot in a few spots and innumerable nails and spots of flaking paint.

The other big project that coincided with the siding restoration was the replacement of the windows.  Only 1 or 2 windows which were original to the house were still in the house, the rest were all replacements at various times.  As the siding was removed and new windows were installed the house actually started to look worse than before.  Holes in the house where water rot had sneeked in, missing sections of decorative shingles left the sheathing exposed and a mismatch of old and new windows combined with part of it painted made for, well an interesting appearance.  I don’t think the Adams family could have found a better, creepier looking house in the entire neighborhood.

The process and progress of Matt’s skillful restoration of his 1889 Queen Anne Victorian in St. Paul. Photos by Matt Mazanec.

The Third Year

Another winter had come and yes, we were still working through the winter.  I can safely say that putting in a 6 foot window, 30 feet up on scaffolding and on a 10 degree below-zero day is something you must experience for yourself if you want to really live. As the snow came and went  it I was nearing completion of installing most of the new windows.

As the summer progressed, original trim was recreated on the windows, wood clapboards were put back up, new tar paper and sheathing put in, a new roof installed – thanks to some insurance. Progress was being made, although the house still was this hideous color.  As most restorationists know, there is so much prep and detail work before painting it can feel as if progress isn’t going as fast as one would hope.

A template to create right-on replacements of historic shingles. Photo by Matt Mazanec.


One of the remaining projects on the exterior was the decorative, hand cut shingles that embellish the turret and the bay window.  The bay had a good majority of the original shingles left, but in very bad shape as they had been drilled out to blow-in insulation.  The turret however had not one shingle left so it was up to my dad and I to put something that would complement the home’s other shingle details.  We choose an arrow shingle and put them up with great care and precision.


The bay window was another dilemma.  With the majority of the original singles still remaining, I strained my brain to think how could save them and patch in replacements.  Sadly this was not to be the case and after documenting the details and spacing they were removed.  These shingles were traced and new shingles were hand cut to the specifications of the original and new shingles were installed.  This was a very tedious process that my father and I did.  Cutting out a few hundred shingles and sanding them all was a process I will never forget each time I look at how beautiful they look now.

Using the New 1940 Census
Matt contacted previous owners of his Queen Anne through the 1940s census and They shared several historic and vintage photographs of the house! Check them out here.

Exterior Paint

The author’s father replacing missing decorative shingle on the bay window. Photo by Matt Mazanec.

After the installation of the shingles the house was ready for paint.  For the body of the building, I choose a light green color which is very close to an original green color on the house when it was built.  I found a small area of paint color in a tucked away spot and this light green was the color the house has to be again.  With complimentary colors on the trim and accent details, I was up to seven colors,and the house was starting to look like a painted lady.  There is still more work to do on the exterior, but it has started to take shape and I think, thus far she is looking pretty well, don’t you agree!?

Matt Mazanec has long had an interest in historic preservation and restoration.  After attending college in New Orleans, Matt moved to Prague, Czech Republic where his love for international history and the Czech people grew tremendously.  He has resided in Historic Dayton’s Bluff since 2005 and has worked tirelessly on the restoration of his 1889 Queen Anne Victorian home.  Along with his personal project, he has worked heavily on community revitalization through numerous innovative initiatives which have been rewarded with being added to the neighborhood honor roll as well as recipient of the St. Paul Heritage Preservation award.  Mr. Mazanec also sits on the Historic Preservation Commission for the City of St. Paul since 2009.  He hopes one day to translate his passion for restoration and history into similar projects and ventures in Europe.  Can you help?

Read More by Matt
If you enjoyed what you read here, check out Matt’s blog that details much more of the restoration process.  Check out a sample of the projects represented below. The blog also has a great deal of information about other old buildings across the world. You can contribute to the 1889 Project and others through PayPal here.

© HISTPRES, LLC + Matt Mazanec, 2012. All images © Matt Mazanec.

About the author: Histpres

Histpre is a hand-curated website of opportunities, stories, and news for active preservationists; active in their education, profession, and community – all to advance our movement by equipping their readers with the resources and information needed to be successful. Meagan, a preservation advocate in DC, and Laura, an archaeologist in the Southwest, met in grad school, drove across the country a couple of times, and started Histpres together.

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