When the foundation was laid in 1889, it was a church.
Located at 4820 Stewart Av. in White Bear Lake, a Swedish Evangelical Lutheran congregation opened its doors when Minnesota had been a state a mere 31 years. Over the next seven decades, the classic carpenter Gothic structure was twice renovated and enlarged and changed hands to become the home for worshipers of several Protestant denominations.
In 1971, it was transformed after the Lakeshore Players purchased the building. The boxy bell tower became a community theater. The altar was converted into the stage; the narthex became the box office; and rows of pews were replaced with 182 theater seats.
For almost 50 years, audiences applauded comedies, dramas and musicals produced by the award-winning theater troupe. But in 2018, the final curtain dropped on the Lakeshore Players' presence in the building when the organization vacated the property to move to the new Hanifl Performing Arts Center in White Bear Lake's Arts District.
That's when a developer bought the oldest surviving church building in White Bear Lake with plans to demolish it. With the wrecking ball nigh, like a plot twist in the third act of a thriller, two characters stepped in to upstage the landmark's destiny and turn it into their unique version of a dream house.
Enter Kelly Clement and Steve Bucher, who heard about the property through a friend of a friend. Even though it had been stripped of "pretty much everything that could be removed, with not even a light bulb left," Bucher said, when they toured the building and saw the stage, they felt an immediate pull.
Clement, a manufacturer's rep for residential and commercial audio systems, and Bucher, a retired electrical engineer, patent attorney and tech company founder, are both lifelong musicians who own and play "about a bazillion instruments," Clement said.
The idea of putting their home amid a performance space where they could jam with their musical friends and find plenty of room for their equipment (Bucher owns a 9-foot concert piano) proved irresistible. They snapped up the 7,800-square-foot property.
Since then, their vision has evolved and expanded to include novel ways to share their baby, which they named "Old Stewart."
They closed on Jan. 30, 2020, and work began the next day under the supervision of Legacy Contracting of Elk River. It was "three months of dumpsters, 20 or 30 of them," said Clement, as the building was gutted to the studs and more than 130 years' worth of debris was hauled off.
"Someone asked if it was haunted. We didn't find any dead bodies or ghosts. but there were some structural issues we didn't see coming," Bucher said.
Construction crews went to work opening the former theater space by tearing out the backstage area, replacing the sloped floor and demolishing the old stage, which was swapped for a larger elevated platform that bows into the broad open hall.
Meanwhile, the 3,500-square-foot lower level was remodeled into a living space. In December 2020, the couple and Clement's teenage daughter Rachel moved in. They unpacked and settled into two bedrooms, a bathroom and an office space that had previously housed the theater's concession stand and dressing rooms.
"We got used to living in a construction zone," said Clement.
In phases, Old Stewart took shape. In addition to renovating existing space, the couple added speakeasy-style front doors, solar panels atop a new roof, a three-car garage and a fenced and landscaped English garden, complete with a fountain and hot tub. The building's existing exterior lap wood siding was replaced with LP Smartside siding as well as painted dark blue with pale yellow and black accent trim.
A 500-gallon granite-and-stacked slate koi pond went into the front entrance, flanked by two water closets. An industrial staircase now rises from the foyer to a third-floor owners suite, where the theater's sound room is now a bedroom and bathroom.
Built with enough space for caterers to roam and put up a buffet service spread, the modern galley kitchen in the main room features Quartzite counters, German-made Leicht cabinets and Gaggenau appliances. The sink's Zip HydroTap faucet pours filtered cold, carbonated or boiling water.
"I never get tired of walking through the building and seeing how magnificent it is," Bucher said. "Everywhere you look there is something to see; there are no boring angles."
Serendipity and stained glass
In their quest to keep elements of the interior consistent with the period when the building was constructed, Clement and Bucher put their design and construction sources in the hunt for authentic accoutrement. Through word of mouth, they lucked into what Clement calls "barn finds," vintage pieces that had been languishing in storage, in some cases for decades.
The first was an 18-foot mirrored bar from a tavern in Boyd, Wis. Refinished to its glory, it sits to the left of the stage.
"Not every house has a bar and very few churches do," deadpanned Bucher.
Serendipity also brought them 11 stained glass windows with sacred pictorial scenes. Three were discovered in Afton and eight were pulled from a Minneapolis church. Carpenters painstakingly built individual frames and sashes to install each of the windows around the building.
Created in the so-called Munich style popularized in the era, the oversized windows are constructed of panels of glass that were hand-painted and then kiln-fired to preserve their rich colors. Ten of the 11 are the handiwork of the Ford Brothers Glass Co. of Minneapolis, a renowned studio founded in 1892 that made stained glass works of art for hundreds of houses of worship across the country. The company also fashioned the art glass skylight in the rotunda at Minneapolis City Hall.
"We'd been in touch with a window expert who heard about the church windows and said if they weren't salvaged they'd land in a dumpster. There's not much demand for enormous Gothic stained glass right now," Bucher said. "We had a different plan for our windows but when these fell in our lap, we shifted directions. They were too good not to incorporate."
Sharing the space
Other than throwing their own housewarming party to show off the almost-finished project to friends and fellow musicians, Old Stewart has not yet been used as a venue. But Clement and Bucher have hatched plans and are getting ready to launch the website, oldstewart.com.
"There's no model for what we want to do," said Clement.
They are talking about how to share their home "to give back," in Clement's words, imagining that A-list and emerging artists might be interested in playing intimate concerts on their stage to raise money to benefit their favorite causes.
They also think their showplace would be a hit with corporations, Fortune 500 companies or nonprofits looking for a fresh spot for an invitation-only gala or private fundraising event. They've installed professional stage lighting and sound systems and three professional cameras that could be used to record, stream or broadcast performances or live events.
"This would be a different experience than a hotel ballroom," said Bucher. "There's going to be a wedding here in the spring. We're not striving to be a wedding venue, but there may be a natural call for that. We'll have one and see how it goes."
The couple figured it would take a year to turn a former humble church into an opulent residence, but they laid those plans before COVID-19.
"It took twice the time we anticipated," said Clement. "We got started before the shortages with lumber and building materials kicked in. But later, there were delays with custom items and a bottleneck with worker availability. It took longer than we'd expected to get on some of their schedules."
Bucher and Clement estimate that at least a hundred subcontractors and artisans have had a hand in the project, from plumbers, roofers, landscapers and HVAC technicians to carpenters, painters and refinishers.
When asked how much they've invested in the project, the pair stared at each other for a moment, then Clement admitted, "We don't know. We didn't have a master plan."
They stopped tracking expenses shortly after they spent $435,000 for the property itself, then $100,000 on initial demolition.
"There's no way to plan for … this," said Bucher, gesturing to the open main room. "You don't count calories when you're on vacation."
Old Stewart is mostly complete. There are plans to add screening to the porch off the back and they're leaving their options open for the bell tower. The 10-by-14-foot space is wired for electricity, heating and cooling and they could imagine installing windows to create a room with a view of White Bear Lake, two blocks away.
"We need to sit a while before we do anything more," said Bucher. "It's been quite an experience to go through a project of this magnitude and creativity. And the end result is so much more than I expected. It was a good pandemic project to keep us busy, but we're kind of tired."