Elisabeth and Paul Helstrom sat on their front deck. The sun poked out behind the clouds, and green was starting to sprout from the garden, which would soon reveal lilacs, poppies and irises.

“It’s harder for me to leave the plants than the house,” Elisabeth said.

The Helstroms, who already live with Paul's father, are saying goodbye to their Central Hillside home and saying hello to more housemates. Five of them. And they’re all related.

“We are moving into a house with my parents, my sister and her two kids, and then my father-in-law … so, we’ve been busy,” she said.

In early February, Elisabeth called a Realtor and started looking at listings — ready to leave the house they renovated after 13 years — when she found a “gargantuan” mansion in Congdon that features eight bedrooms, six-and-a-half bathrooms, six garage stalls and an elevator, among other things, on a 1.9-acre lot.

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It was too big for her immediate family of five, but it might work for her wider family of 11.

And what started as a “kind of a joke” quickly evolved.

Elisabeth "Buffy" Helstrom stands at the kitchen peninsula overlooking the dining room on Friday, April 16, 2021, explaining what the former space used to look like before she and her husband, Paul, fixed up their home at 132 W. 12th St. in Duluth. The Helstroms, a family of five along with Paul's father, have sold the house and are now moving in with Buffy's parents and her sister and her two kids in a multigenerational home. (Samantha Erkkila / serkkila@duluthnews.com)
Elisabeth "Buffy" Helstrom stands at the kitchen peninsula overlooking the dining room on Friday, April 16, 2021, explaining what the former space used to look like before she and her husband, Paul, fixed up their home at 132 W. 12th St. in Duluth. The Helstroms, a family of five along with Paul's father, have sold the house and are now moving in with Buffy's parents and her sister and her two kids in a multigenerational home. (Samantha Erkkila / serkkila@duluthnews.com)

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“COVID had a little to do with it. Not seeing people, being kind of isolated, being kind of bored. … We joked that during the next pandemic, we’ll all be in the same bubble,” she said.

It wasn’t an easy sell at first. Elisabeth asked her folks about touring the home for a solid day. Her sister was not a fan of the idea, but the house reeled her in.

“My brother still thinks we’re looney,” she added.

Paul warmed to the idea in increments: 10%, 25%, 85%. But now he's all on board.

“It’s happening, and it’s exciting,” he said. “I don’t think we would’ve all quite jumped at the same time had it been a different house.”

Paul Helstrom describes the process of getting solar panels installed on the red outbuilding in the family's backyard on Friday, April 16, 2021. The Helstroms recently sold their home near the radio antenna farm on the top of the hill in Duluth. The property also sits on one of the only open-air sections of Clark House Creek. (Samantha Erkkila / serkkila@duluthnews.com)
Paul Helstrom describes the process of getting solar panels installed on the red outbuilding in the family's backyard on Friday, April 16, 2021. The Helstroms recently sold their home near the radio antenna farm on the top of the hill in Duluth. The property also sits on one of the only open-air sections of Clark House Creek. (Samantha Erkkila / serkkila@duluthnews.com)

They’re creating a multigenerational home with ages ranging from 9 to 83 in what they’re calling “a social experiment.” They’re hoping their folks will be able to age-in-place, and that this will create added support for the family.

Around the world, this is how it’s commonly done, Paul said. People know growing up that they'll take care of their parents. Elisabeth didn’t want to visit her folks at any point in an assisted-living facility, and she has hopes that she and Paul might also age-in-place in their new digs, or elsewhere.

The move means three house sales, the merging of assets and furniture and houseware. Children, pets and adults.

While they’re all selling at around the same time, they weren’t competing. The homes are in different Northland locations and at different price points. Early this week, they’d sold two out of the three homes, and they close on the Congdon house May 4. Elisabeth is still reveling in the sequence of events that had to line up for this to work.

“I feel like we’re going to fill up that house like it’s meant to be,” she said.

THE BUSINESS SIDE

The family is covering their bases.

They started a limited liability company; they have a lawyer; and they conduct regular business meetings to discuss the basics. Some of the topics are typical new-roommate things: the division of utilities, groceries and cleaning.

There’s also the subject of insurance and creating a structure to protect everyone’s equity, and the questions of adult children paying rent, and what if someone wants to walk away at some point?

They’re also discussing how to deal with divorce, marriage or death, and general parenting issues. There will be children of different ages in the home, and they have discussed how to approach boundaries about screen time, and how other adults will have an influence.

Paul and Elisabeth Helstrom enjoy a seat on the front patio on a sunny afternoon on April 16, 2021. As with the rest of the house, the couple put extensive work in landscaping the front patio and garden. (Samantha Erkkila / serkkila@duluthnews.com)
Paul and Elisabeth Helstrom enjoy a seat on the front patio on a sunny afternoon on April 16, 2021. As with the rest of the house, the couple put extensive work in landscaping the front patio and garden. (Samantha Erkkila / serkkila@duluthnews.com)

“It has led to some awkward conversations,” Elisabeth said.

So far, the budgets are panning out to be the same as what all families are already paying. They’ll plan communal meals, kids activities and family fun nights. They’re discussing how to approach visitors and hosting gatherings when it’s safe to do so. They intend to revisit topics and check in with each other regularly.

They all already have their room assignments. And each will have an assigned job walking in. Paul’s in charge of the house maintenance, Elisabeth is spearheading the food, and her sister will be the communication coordinator. Their 9-year-old, Ginger, has designs on supervising family nights, while her brothers do dishes, Elisabeth said with a laugh.

THEIR OLD HOME

An outbuilding fitted with solar panels on the roof, Lake Superior and Ozzy the cavapoo (the Helstroms' Cavalier King Charles spaniel-poodle mix puppy) can be seen from the family's large dining room on Friday, April 16, 2021. (Samantha Erkkila / serkkila@duluthnews.com)
An outbuilding fitted with solar panels on the roof, Lake Superior and Ozzy the cavapoo (the Helstroms' Cavalier King Charles spaniel-poodle mix puppy) can be seen from the family's large dining room on Friday, April 16, 2021. (Samantha Erkkila / serkkila@duluthnews.com)

The Helstroms purchased the space at 132 W. 12th St. for $135,00 in 2007.

“It wasn’t livable,” she said. “We couldn’t salvage the toilet cause there was a dead bird in it.”

“What was left of it. It had been there for some time,” Paul added.

And when they first moved in, they had to carry buckets from the creek to flush the toilet. (They recalled receiving a DVD of “The Money Pit” from a family friend.) The couple brought sewer and water in. They didn’t have a kitchen and were using bookshelves for cabinets and mockup countertops for several months.

A ship leaves the port of Duluth-Superior on April 16, 2021, as seen from the top-level office space of the Helstrom home at 132 W. 12th St. in Duluth. (Samantha Erkkila / serkkila@duluthnews.com)
A ship leaves the port of Duluth-Superior on April 16, 2021, as seen from the top-level office space of the Helstrom home at 132 W. 12th St. in Duluth. (Samantha Erkkila / serkkila@duluthnews.com)

Their approach was to tackle whatever they had the money for. They redid their windows and siding in two stages.

There was a hot tub where there’s now a sunroom, and there used to be a cement hole in the ground that is now covered by their “weird-shaped” deck. They hired professionals to tackle the plumbing and electrical installation, siding, roof and windows.

Elisabeth painted everything, from the pumpkin-colored front door to the lime brick wall in the dining room.

They moved in three weeks before their first child, Hugo, was born, which makes it easy for them to remember, Paul said.

They said they’ll miss walking along Central Hillside, the view and taking their dog on the traverse. But Elisabeth is looking forward to living in a house that doesn’t require work, and having the grandparents in the house with their three children, now ages 13, 11 and 9, when they go through high school.

The Helstroms said they’re all going into this transition with their eyes open. This wouldn’t work otherwise.

“We’re a family, and a lot of it’s my family, and we can drive each other nuts. We understand that,” she said.

“There’s going to be conflict,” Paul said, adding: “I think it’ll all work out. Everyone involved, we all know each other well enough now.”

“We’re going to have a really cool Christmas card,” Elisabeth said, “bearded dragons, dogs and cats.”

Coming up: The grandparents

“We moved here in 1991, and we lived all over the country. Our kids were never around family. When they grew up, that's what they said; they did not want to live and raise their families the way we did. They wanted to be closer.” — Susan Brown, mother of Elisabeth Helstrom

Stay tuned: The sister