The kindness of neighbors
Ted Tucker and Penny Petersen were lucky in many ways last July 17.
No people were hurt in the fire that consumed the back quarter of their house on Southeast Fifth Street and smoke-damaged another quarter. (The cause of the fire, which started outside, is undetermined.) Only one of four pets in the house perished. Firefighters from Station 11, which is just across the street from the other side of their block, responded and put the fire out quickly. Help from neighbors was immediate, overwhelming and lasting.
But the couple’s experience since that day — 10 months of living in temporary quarters, keeping a close watch over work to put their true home back together — was a more agonizing ordeal than one might expect.
When your house burns, Tucker and Petersen learned, you rely, in rough chronological order, on fire fighters, friends, your insurance company, a variety of workers and then your friends some more — not to mention, through it all, yourself and your partner.
With a little help from their friends
Fire fighter Jeremy Norton, who lives just around the corner on the same block, led the crew from Station 11 that fought the fire. Neighbors Sara Tittle and Ken Backhus, who were out of town at the time, offered the use of their house next door, itself damaged from the heat and smoke of the fire. Other neighbors tended the yard and garden.
Vic Thorstenson and Cindy Johnson, who live on the same block around the other corner, took in Petersen and Tucker for two nights. Johnson also looked up on the internet how to get smoke out of clothes. Mary Kay O’Hearn supplied water and drinks to those working at the site.
Meanwhile, their insurance company mobilized a response team that knew what needed doing after a house fire, taking care of tasks the residents might not think of. Petersen recalls a man from Falconer’s on Lake Street who purposefully removed all the fabrics from the house for cleaning — from the drapes and bedsheets to shoes and Petersen’s lucky leather jacket. Their possessions filled 200 boxes, sadly not including the recipes Petersen had been collecting for 40 years.
Taking help that’s offered in the aftermath of a disaster, whether in the form of loaner pajamas (from Johnson) or a bottle of Scotch (from neighbors Noah Bly, Chris Wilson
and Scott Bean), is something anyone would do.
But taking a trip to Iceland two days after the fire?
With their house securely boarded and tarped, Tucker and Petersen boarded an Icelandair plane July 19 for a long-planned visit to friends Ganti Sigthorsson and Vera Juliusdottir.
“At least we had a roof over our heads there,” said Tucker. They took respite in thermal baths and inside the mongo SUVs Icelanders use to cross the island’s barren tundra.
When they returned, Paul White, who lives six blocks away in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood, offered them four months’ stay in the mother-in-law apartment of his restored brick mansion, until the December arrival of his mother-in-law. That seemed like all the time they’d need before moving back in to their own house.
But the job of putting their house back together would continue another six months. At first, Tucker and Petersen had to correct the well-intended but (to Tucker and Petersen) wrong-headed plans of the insurance company and contractor, who suggested replacing all the floors and trimwork in the house.
Petersen, a professional historian, and Tucker, who oversaw the renovation of the 1858–59 Octavius Broughton House he owns around the corner, knew that the floors and trim were perhaps the most distinguishing features of the damaged house, built in 1891 by William Porter Washburn.
With the help of people Petersen and Tucker know in the preservation community, they recruited craftspeople — Jack Kuhlman, Kevin Ristow and Marty Schirber among them — to do special jobs, from patching wood floors to milling molding that matched trim profiles no longer manufactured.
It took building contractors Welch Forsman (winners of a 2008 Minneapolis Historic Preservation award) nine “knives” (special die cuts) to replicate the various interior trim work, some of which they discovered had been originally carved by hand — a real rarity.
“I don’t want it to look like a 120-year-old woman with a facelift,” Petersen said. “I want it to look like a 120-year-old woman with fine bones. … I want layers of history. I want a story.”
One new story the house now tells is the two holes bored into the dining room floor — an emergency measure Tucker took to drain inches of standing water left from the fire fighting.
With visits every day, “Ted was essentially the project manager,” Petersen said. Tucker also took the opportunity to redesign the kitchen according to sketches he’d made on napkins in Iceland. The handsome open shelves, custom-built out of Baltic birch, show off whatever goods or implements are stored on them and provide an unplanned but perfect cat perch with a view out the window over the sink. It’s the house’s second handmade kitchen: Tucker’s earlier effort was lost in the fire.
Also lost that day was a cat named Lagavulian, who will be memorialized in the new kitchen on tiles painted by neighbor Melissa Bean, alongside the images of five other cats with whom Petersen and Tucker have shared the house over their 24-plus years there.
Petersen and Tucker still count themselves lucky, because firefighters say you cannot enter a house that has had a fire and expect to find a missing pet alive.
You also can’t count on an empty house keeping its copper pipes and other valuables these days. While Tucker and Petersen spent the last six months in a nearby townhouse that neighbors Martin and Joanne Rockwell helped them find, they made sure to do things, like keeping sidewalks scrupulously shoveled, to give the house a lived-in look. Many other neighbors, including Gabe Welker, helped keep an eye on the place.
That’s one thing Petersen and Tucker discovered from their 10-month house-fire ordeal: You can count on the kindness of neighbors.
last revised: July 8, 2008