Poehling's Castle

Diana Watters

FOR MORE THAN a century now, the Van Dusen house has cast its own peculiar spell over the corner of LaSalle and Groveland Avenues in Minneapolis. In recent years, it has been boarded up, due to be demolished, a magnet for petty crime. Even as a hulking ruin, it had presence and the power to stun into gape-jawed amazement anyone who saw it for the first time.

It's a small castle: turrets everywhere, arches, heavy Gothic construction, fanciful copper-trimmed towers, a carriage yard. Built in 1894 by George Van Dusen (he had invented a new way of moving grain from one place to another, and in 1890s Minneapolis that was a good way to get rich) for what would today be around $900,000, the house is a sturdy representative of the generation that came to be called the Gilded Age.

Jung held that when you dream of an old house, it represents your own subconscious. By extension, the legends attached to the old house voice the city's secret dreams. One story concerns a little boy, Van Dusen's grandson, who is said to have died after he fell down the elevator shaft. According to legend, his ghost walks the house. The boy's nanny, guilty over the death of her charge, is said to have hanged herself in one of the servants' bedrooms. When renovation began recently, workers found the elevator shaft walled-off and the elevator removed. But Tim Schlamp, one of the workers, has lived in the house for two years and says he's never seen a ghost. And Bob Poehling, who owns the house, said he's talked with a Van Dusen family member and she denies the deaths ever happened.

Other stories are happier, like the one about the jewels in the tower. A previous owner noticed a crack in the wall in what had been Van Dusen's tower bedroom. In the crack, he could see a lock. It was a hidden wall safe that, when opened, spilled forth Mrs. Van Dusen's jewelry, apparently forgotten and left behind by her departing heirs. The new owner tracked down the heirs in Florida and returned the jewelry.

This would have been one of the last of the house's series of private owners--until Poehling came along. For a while it became a school. A fire in about 1940 gutted the kitchen and charred a stairwell. Later it served for 10 years as headquarters for Aveda's Horst Institute. Finally, in the early 1990s, with the house abandoned and scheduled for demolition, the Stevens Square Community Organization put up $300,000 of NRP money for anyone interested in renovating the house.

Three years ago, La Crosse businessman Poehling answered the call and bought the house for $210,000. Poehling has spent, observers guess, more than $1 million of his own money on the project, but he refuses to be specific. "Don't ask me how much I've spent," he orders. "Would I come into your house and ask how much you paid for it? Or how much money you have?"

But money is at the heart of it, because the building--all buildings--are one way we tell each other our status, how much money we have. Van Dusen's was a particularly powerful status symbol during his time, and it promises to become one again. The architects who build the vast homes of the Robber Barons, says Charles Nelson, Minnesota's official historical architect, were "ego builders for the empire builders. They gave the empire builders their castles, and they did it in such a fashionable way that they made lasting statements." A hundred years later, we are in a new Gilded Age. Rich men with stupendous fortunes again are building--and restoring-- stupendous houses. And, once again, the Van Dusen has come to rest in the hands of a rich man who has the money and time to make it beautiful.

Over the past two years, craftsmen and artists hired by Poehling have made a full-time job of bringing back the Van Dusen. They have found luxury, eccentricity and mystery. A heavily-carved mantle bore the sculptor's signature hidden against the wall. Carpenters found woods they'd never seen before; they wonder if some are from extinct trees. With no blueprints, the house itself became an absorbing mystery. Workmen brought clues to architect David Sabaka--metal struck here, stone there--and Sabaka pieced the puzzle together. Tunnels were found extending out into the yard; Sabaka believes that Van Dusen, who'd had one home leveled by a tornado, was constructing escape routes. And no one has been able to figure out why there are enormous cisterns under the basement floor. Artist Tim Schlamp has painted subtle designs on woodwork and walls and, Michelangelo-like, lain on scaffolding to paint complex and beautiful designs on the ballroom ceiling. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime," Schlamp says.

Nelson says a successful restoration is one that allows you to walk in the front door and imagine that you have been transported back in time, that--in the Van Dusen house--you are a person of the 1890s. He also says that one characteristic of the Beaux-arts style of architecture, of which the Van Dusen is an example, is that the builders themselves were trying to make their homes an escape from reality into a world of fantasy. Today, Poehling is financing the renewal of the fantasy, and the restoration of the dream time.

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