Bob Dylan's childhood home in the Central Hillside is currently a pale shade of salmon. Beneath that layer of paint are hints of green. But that shade matches some flecks on the storm windows, so that can't be right. There weren't aluminum storm windows on the house at 519 N. Third Ave. E. in the early 1940s.
Bill Pagel, the owner of the duplex, has a mystery on his hands.
The historian and collector of Dylan memorabilia -- whose collection hit its apex with the purchase of this house in 2001 -- is trying to restore the home to its appearance when the folk singer lived there with his parents, Beatty and Abe Zimmerman, and younger brother, David.
"My purpose in doing all of this is I wanted to preserve it and restore it as much as I can to what it looked like," Pagel said. "Beyond that, I don't have any idea. For posterity. At some point, get it on the national registry."
He's referring to the National Registry of Historic Places, the official list of the nation's historic places worthy of preservation.
Pagel has a binder with photographs that show the structure of the porch, as well as neighboring properties -- some of which have been razed. But the black-and-white image he has of the house exterior, taken in the winter by the owners who came after the Zimmermans, reveals only that the house was a light color but not white. The shade is darker than the snow on the ground.
Pagel is looking for anyone who might have a photograph that shows his house -- anything that can help him get it close to how it was from 1941-46 when the Zimmermans lived there.
The Zimmermans rented the 900-square-foot, two-bedroom space upstairs of the house built in 1909. It has a dark wood staircase that ends with a twist to the left. It opens into a middle living area with piano windows facing the lake, the view obscured by buildings. Carpet covers the original wood floors, and there is a shelving unit built into the wall.
At the front is a living room with a large window and a door that leads to an upper-level porch with a view of Lake Superior. There is another, smaller porch off the back of the house. The bathtub has its original claw-foot tub. The heavy oak doors remain, as do the push-button light switches.
"Bobby reached up and pushed those a couple times," Pagel said, fingering the switch panel.
Pagel plans to finish the house's exterior this summer: fitting the front porch with a skirt of vertical wood, painting the house, and fixing the roof. He will work on inside projects like refinishing the original wood flooring and rehabbing the kitchen in the winter.
"I remember it here"
Pauline and Theo Swierc say that when they owned the house from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, Dylan stopped by about three times. He introduced himself to the couple from Poland and told them that he had been born there. They let him look around inside, they said Friday. Pauline's mother still lives next-door to the house.
"Friendly guy," said Pauline Swierc. "He said, 'I remember it here. I (was) born here.'"
Theo Swierc said when they sold the house, the real estate agent added the information about Dylan to the listing, and they sold it the next day to Kathy Burns. She wasn't interested in the house as much as its history, they said.
Pagel bought the property in 2001, after an initial eBay bidding war fell through on Burns, who listed it as a "must have for the die-hard Dylan fan." She billed it as the place where the musician took his first steps. Pagel was the second-highest bidder and eventually bought the house for about $82,000. He has been planning renovations for years.
"I just procrastinated," he said. "I just got to it now. I should have done it earlier."
Local Dylan enthusiast John Bushey, who hosts the show "Highway 61 Revisited: The Music of Bob Dylan" on Saturdays on KUMD-FM, was rooting for Pagel during that online auction. Bushey had met Pagel at concerts and was familiar with what he considers the premiere Dylan website in the world, www.boblinks.com, which Pagel runs.
Bushey said he knew that Pagel had a lot of Dylan memorabilia and liked the idea of the then-Madison resident bringing his collection to the area.
"He's a historian," Bushey said. "He wants to preserve the house of one of America's greatest writers of the 20th century. That's why I wanted him to get the house. He's trying to put it back the way it was. He's intense in his research."
ATTENTION FROM FANS
The two-story house, which would be nondescript if not for its place in rock 'n' roll history, attracts plenty of attention from Dylan fans -- more so in recent years.
Pagel said a handful of people stop by every week from all over the world. On Friday, he had visitors from France. Former tenant Bertram Bergeron, who lived in the apartment with his wife, Sue, for 13 years until 2002, said traffic was lighter in those days.
Bergeron said the most striking moment of fandom when he lived there came on Dylan's 50th birthday when some kids asked if they could decorate the light post outside of the house.
"Then they said, 'Can we come in?' and we said 'No,'" he recalled.
Neither Bergeron nor his wife is a fan of Dylan. While they still miss living in the apartment, the space held no "Dylan was here" appeal for them. They never saw Dylan's initials etched in the woodwork, or any of the other urban legends associated with the space.
When fans stop by now, Pagel will gladly talk about Dylan. He considers himself more of a historian than a lyric interpreter, and will talk about his collection of vintage posters and relics from Dylan's childhood and teen years. But like Bergeron before him, Pagel won't let fans inside, either.
Bob Dylan, who is a year older than Pagel, turns 70 next year. Pagel is hoping Dylan will want to come back to the hillside where he spent his first six years. Dylan has mentioned the fog horn, and the rocky ledges of Duluth's landscape in his poetry. And when he played at Bayfront Festival Park in 1999, he said:
"I was born on the hill over there. Glad to see it's still there."
Pagel would offer an opportunity to the star not afforded to others who stop by his residence:
"I'd let him come inside," Pagel said.