Striking architectural gold in Superior: Wealth of grand homes in need of repair drawing attention from afar
Superior has the oldest housing stock in Wisconsin, and some of the oldest in the country.
That makes it a gold mine, in certain circles.
"It's always talked about as a negative," said Brian Finstad of Superior. "In any other city, it would be a badge of honor."
He and his husband Robert are currently restoring one of the Roosevelt Terrace townhomes, which are located at the corner of North 21st Street and Ogden Avenue and date back to 1890, to its former glory. The fun stuff — vintage fixtures, furniture, replacement fireplace tile and more — are on the back burner as they deal with the basics.
They've stopped up the leaks in the roof, returned heat to the home and replaced the pipes that froze while it was in foreclosure. All the townhome owners have jointly funded work on the brownstone foundation and brick exterior, bringing back fixtures such as a brick portico that had been lost.
"I'm very much like a rolling stone," said Finstad, a Gordon native. "Once something gets finished, then I want to go on to the next wreck. It doesn't need us anymore."
The townhome, and the reconstruction of Tower Avenue, helped convince Finstad to return to Superior after more than a decade of living in Minneapolis.
"When I left here is when they just demolished the Palace (Theater), demolished Central (High School), and I was like, this is a depressing place to live," Finstad said. "And I don't want to live in a city that doesn't share my values."
In Minneapolis, he joined a network of home recyclers determined to bring life back to vintage homes. But family members in the Twin Ports area kept encouraging him to return, and the Tower Avenue reconstruction lit a home fire for Finstad.
"I saw them redo this street and do historic lampposts and stuff, and I thought, 'Well, maybe mentalities are changing,' " Finstad said. "If it hadn't been for the Tower Avenue reconstruction, I would never have even considered it. It was so depressing here. You need your environment to make you feel good."
Finstad and his husband made an impulsive bid on the Roosevelt Terrace home and started spreading news of Superior's architectural loot to their network.
Three fellow Minneapolis housing enthusiasts have since purchased vintage homes in Superior, including the Raspberry Inn, which had been served with a raze order. Three more are seeking the right home project in the city.
"It's part of our history; it's part of what we are as a society," said Jasmine Ricigliano, who is in the process of restoring the former Raspberry Inn with her husband, Brandon. "I think it devalues our society when we buy into that culture, 'Oh, I don't need an old thing, I don't want an old thing, I need a new thing.' "
But it's not easy.
"You have to be a little bit nuts to go to a house that's raining through and say, 'This could work,' " Ricigliano said.
"The house needed somebody crazy, and I knew they were crazy enough," Finstad said of the former inn on John Avenue.
The Riciglianos have since launched a Save the Raspberry Facebook page where folks can watch their progress.
"It's a different thing for people in Superior to be following something that they thought was irretrievable and beyond hope and to see it come back," Finstad said. "It's kind of a new thing for this town."
These housing activists are tired of hearing that the numbers for restoring a house are upside down. Finstad said that every home that is saved in Minneapolis prevents about $100,000 worth of unnecessary public expenditure, from demolition fees and lost taxes to the cost to shovel sidewalks and cut grass.
"The greenest house is the one you save," said Superior Mayor Jim Paine, who made housing one of the central themes of his campaign. It also maintains the character of the neighborhood, he said, and saves "beautiful, unique architecture."
It raises local property values, Ricigliano said, and the city gets tax revenue and permit fees. It can also prompt neighbors to fix their own homes.
"This circle of community impact," she said. "You improve one space, it's going to connect to other spaces."
There are intangible benefits, as well.
"Rehabbing this house is something that gives people hope," Ricigliano said.
Finstad has been restoring houses for years.
"I started in Superior working for Picket Fence Properties," he said. "They owned a bunch of old houses around town. So when I was in high school and college, I worked for them. That's kind of where I got started, hands-on with old houses."
He'd like to replicate Minneapolis' Vacant House Recycling Program, which revitalizes Minneapolis neighborhoods by turning vacant properties into new housing opportunities, in Superior.
Paine said he plans to form a group to look into the possibilities, from incentivizing the marketplace to ensuring they team up with good restoration partners.
"I'm going to ride the wave as long as I can," Paine said.