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A sure sign of better days, at least for home design fans, is the return of the Minneapolis & St. Paul Home Tour. Scuttled since the start of the pandemic, this free event is back — allowing screen-weary folks to check out 25 new and remodeled homes in person.

The tour, which started as a way to celebrate older housing stock in city neighborhoods, continues to evolve, expanding to include a few first-ring suburbs and new builds. Homeowners will be on hand to welcome visitors and answer questions about their projects, ranging from a historical renovation of an 880-square-foot cottage to Minneapolis' first new construction Certified Passive House.

To get a sampling of the tour's range, we checked in with three homeowners about their projects and the neighborhoods they love.

Neighborhood blend

Nick Archer has seen a lot of houses during his 20-plus years as a real estate agent. So when he and wife Robin decided to put an addition on their 1932 Tudor, Nick had one request.

"He wanted the house to blend together seamlessly," said Robin.

Living near Minnehaha Creek in the Ericsson neighborhood, the Archers were satisfied with their space, except for one thing: the small galley kitchen. "I love to cook, and had to keep most of my tools and pantry items in the basement," said Robin.

They considered moving and even looked at a few homes but discovered their attachment to the area was strong. "I grew up in a small town and love this neighborhood because it feels familiar — the little 'main street' with shops and restaurants, the post office and library are all just a few blocks away," said Robin.

Architectural designer Will Spencer pushed the new kitchen into the side and back yards and recast the old kitchen as a walk-through pantry, taking care to replicate original archway and cabinet details from other parts of the home.

On the exterior, new stucco and trim were matched with the existing structure to make it difficult to tell where the new section of the house begins.

The Archers were tempted to increase the project's scope during the design phase, specifically adding a second-story bedroom or a main-floor family room. But the potential cost increase helped the couple stick to the original plan, for the most part.

"Our old kitchen had a small nook. Once the addition was framed in, I realized I would miss sitting down at a kitchen table every day," Robin said. "The thought wouldn't go away, so we redesigned the plan to include a built-in bench and table."

Good thing. It's now the Archer's favorite spot in the house.

Natty in the North Loop

Claire Kestenbaum knew the North Loop was for her long before it was the North Loop.

"Not much was happening on this end of the Warehouse District when I purchased my townhome 22 years ago," she said. "But Minneapolis was heading this way. I could feel it."

At the time, Kestenbaum lived in a western suburb and worked downtown. Still, the up-and-coming downtown area spoke to her. She suspects it had something to do with growing up in New York City, in Brooklyn.

"I was drawn to the river and the bridges. I guess when you're raised in a big city, it doesn't leave you," she said.

Her rowhouse was one of the area's first developments and the three-level home built in 2000 has served her well for the past two decades. In fact, it wasn't until she saw a neighbor's unit with the wall between the kitchen and living room taken down that she decided to remodel. "It was wonderful. So I asked their builder, Lake Country Builders, to do the same for me," Kestenbaum said.

At the same time, Kestenbaum decided to take inspiration from her own furniture and art from the 1950s and '60s and infuse a modern aesthetic into the space. She worked with architect Kurt Baum.

"I told him, 'I love midcentury modern and want a midcentury modern kitchen,' and Kurt said, 'How about midcentury modern-esque?' '' Kestenbaum said, laughing, "He was absolutely right. My house is traditional, and it was important to blend the styles."

The kitchen was redesigned with distinctive horizontal-grain walnut cabinetry and a crisp white peninsula. It's a handsome space, but Kestenbaum quickly points out that the beauty isn't just skin-deep. "My kitchen is real and filled with things I use," she explained, referring to dishes and cookware piled on open shelves for easy access as well as visual interest.

While many homeowners lament the construction process, Kestenbaum isn't one of them. During the six-month process, she easily worked around the renovation, moving a microwave oven and coffeemaker to the basement office and enjoying takeout from the area's many restaurants.

The result is a home makeover that fits the energy of the North Loop — now a more bustling area than when Kestenbaum first moved in. And she's looking forward to sharing her home with tourgoers.

"This isn't anonymous downtown. North Loop is a comfortable, walkable neighborhood," Kestenbaum said.

Return to Richfield

For these homeowners, moving forward meant going back.

When Kaizen Hummer and Kate Grande decided to downsize from their five-bedroom house in Lakeville and move closer to the metro, they had no question about where to look. "We'd previously lived in Richfield and wanted to return. It always felt like home to us," said Hummer.

A rambler made the most sense from an age-in-place perspective, according to Hummer, and they found one in a quiet quadrant of the city. The 1,900-square-foot house was in good shape, with just enough yard to satisfy their gardening and entertaining needs without requiring a lot of maintenance.

But there were a few things they wanted to rework before moving in: dusty, messy structural elements. "Living in a construction zone would not be my choice as long as we had other options," said Grande of their decision to rent during the remodeling.

This house is the Hummer-Grandes' last — where they'll retire and grow older. With that in mind, the couple looked for ways to increase the safety and one-level function of the space. This included addressing potential hazards.

"The back corridor had a step-down, step-up situation — a 'trip and fall' waiting to happen," Hummer said.

Working with Bloomington-based AMEK Design + Build, they leveled the area and borrowed space from an adjacent screened-in porch to create a mudroom with rough-ins for a washer-dryer. Each of them had particular areas of interest for the project.

Hummer needed a bigger garage to accommodate two cars and a workshop. For Grande, it was all about the kitchen. "I wanted lots of light, storage, prep space, beauty and flow," Grande said.

With the must-haves now complete, the duo moved in one year after signing the purchase agreement. Future plans include landscaping, new windows and solar power.

"My biggest fear was navigating this process without negatively impacting our relationship," said Grande. "Happily, our bond is stronger and we still like each other. Go, team!"

Minneapolis & St. Paul Home Tour

What: Self-guided tour of 25 homes in the Twin Cities, reflecting a variety of housing styles, neighborhoods and home improvements.

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 30 and May 1.

Where: Homes are located throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul. Digital guidebook at Print guidebooks are available at metro area public libraries.

Cost: Free.

Good to know: COVID-19 protocols may vary from home to home, so visitors should come prepared with N-95, KN-95 or equivalent masks and proof of vaccination.