To call this exotic home unique hardly does it justice. One step inside the main living space (once a ballroom), and you are enveloped in a Moorish dream of soaring ceilings, oriental arches, intricate plaster arabesques, gilded medallions, colorful leaded windows and glittering chandeliers, all reflected in the 14-foot mirrors that surround the room.
What is this jaw-dropping property doing on a quiet street in Stillwater? Like many show places in the North, it’s the legacy of a 19th century lumber baron who made his fortune logging Minnesota’s great forests. William Sauntry built his nearby manse in 1881 and added this building as a gymnasium in 1901.
His fanciful pleasure palace was inspired by the Alhambra, the Moorish fortress in Granada, Spain. Back in the day, Sauntry’s guests accessed the recreation hall and its amusements — a one-lane bowling alley, indoor swimming pool and two-story ballroom — via covered link (an early version of the skyway).
But Sauntry’s fortunes soon turned, leaving his house and extravagant gymnasium for others to repurpose. (The mansion, also currently on the market, is an operational B & B and a Stillwater Landmark Site.) The recreation hall, meanwhile, was subdivided into a triplex during the Great Depression, most of its glories either covered up or removed and stashed in an attic space created when the ballroom was horizontally divided to create lower and upper apartments.
And there it dozed until Judi and Marty Nora happened upon it in 1999. She was looking for a home for her parents, who were retiring after living in Asia for many years. “But when I saw it, I knew it was too much for my parents, considering they were retiring and the last thing they wanted was a big project,” Judi explains. “Then I thought, How about us?!”
A woman of boundless energy and enthusiasm — as well as experience living with home renovations — Judi jumped into the project, which was equal parts reconstruction and architectural detective work. With Marty working from a home office and three children living amidst the dust and debris, the Noras began the decade-long process of transforming the 5,426-square-foot structure into a home.
With the help of numerous contractors, they deconstructed the three apartments once housed in the space to create a livable floor plan for their family. The original bowling alley became three bedrooms (two with lofted sleeping areas), a sitting room and a bathroom. The original indoor pool is now part of the sizable kitchen, complete with a large island built with a dog kennel beneath it. A second level, carved out of the original double staircase and balcony, has been reborn as a sitting room, a media room and the large owner’s suite.
The now-adult children raised amidst this architectural history recall thinking little of their eccentric surroundings while growing up. Their days were spent outside, enjoying the large lot (nearly two-thirds of an acre), swimming in the pool (housed in the nearby pool house), and playing hide-and-seek. Their mother’s whimsical collection of antiques, puzzles and musical instruments was always available for entertainment and enjoyment.
Henning Church and Historical Restoration of Forest Lake restored the original plaster, windows, floors and mosaics, and pieced together the stored historical artifacts. The firm recreated the molds for missing plaster, cut the stencils, and repainted the 20-foot-high ceiling and trim in the original colors and gilt. Doug Henning even taught Judi to cast plaster so she could “make herself useful,” she laughs.
The work continued for more than a decade. “People wonder how we could have lived here for 10 years while we worked on it,” Judi says. But it was truly a labor of love. The Noras’ passion is evident as they tell tales of their home’s evolution. Every floorboard, every chandelier, every paint color has a story behind it. And they know them all. “It’s a treasure,” she adds. “And it’s been a joy — pure joy.”
But now that the Noras are empty nesters, it’s too much house for them. And Minnesota winters are too cold for Judi. After spending more and more time at their Florida cottage, they’ve decided to move there permanently. As they pass on the stewardship of this historic place, they hope its next owners will be as passionate about its many stories as they are.