Chris Crowell proposed to his wife, Kristin Fisher, in front of Mankato’s historic courthouse in 2016. It was clear early on in their relationship that they both had a passion for architecture and historic buildings.
As avid travelers, they’d observe various buildings and their potential.
“Chris always finds the most dilapidated buildings, most run down and say, ‘My God, look at that!’” Fisher said. They could be in Europe, she said, and Crowell will be fascinated by the old 1600s buildings and say, ‘Just imagine what you could do with that!'
“Chris is the visionary, for sure,” Fisher said. And that vision has been the ultimate goal since the husband and wife purchased the Queen Anne home — aka The Hunt House in Lincoln Park — in 2018.
The 2½-story building had been run down when they purchased the home, but that didn’t deter them. The house was an opportunity to keep a piece of Mankato’s history alive.
“I think we both respect the idea of preserving stuff,” Crowell said. “Hopefully, with what we’ve done with the Moulin Rouge House, it’ll spur the interest to do something similar to restore old places.”
The house has been under renovation since, now nearing completion. It's been turned into a bed-and-breakfast, featuring three rooms and a place for people to gather. The B&B will also feature “customized experiences” — a “Stay and Play” package featuring kayaking the Blue Earth River or skiing at Mount Kato or an Arts and Culture package, featuring the CityArt Walk, local music and theater including meals at local restaurants.
The Moulin Rouge House features a spiral staircase inside the turret; decorative inlaid floor woods; stamped metal ceiling tiles and two fireplaces. The stained-glass window in the dining area had been missing but was replaced by another historic stained-glass window that local artist Tom Hall rebuilt. Each guest room includes its own bathroom.
The artistry that can be found inside the walls of Moulin Rouge is something that can’t be replicated anywhere else, the couple said.
“There’s beauty in the details that you don’t get in the new construction,” Fisher said. Details can be found in every element of the home — light fixtures, the curved railing and especially the intricately placed inlaid floors. “Those little pieces that we have are all hand laid. You cannot afford to do that with labor in this day and age.”
The uncovering of the inlaid floors was a gift after peeling away the 1930s cork floors in the living room. It’s many of these small details that the couple has found through restoration — it became an architectural treasure hunt. Much like when Fisher had begun painting the peaks of the home. It wasn’t until she reached the ground that she looked up at them to discover cutout swan details on the exterior of the home.
“There’s all these little fun things that keep us going,” Fisher said.
Of course, the undertaking of bringing the home back to life brought its challenges. Crowell, experienced in construction work, said that the digging can be “painstaking” with renovating even more difficult.
But the treasure hunt, so to speak, proved to be one of the many rewards in fixing up the house. It’d been like a time capsule, Crowell said, as they began to dig deeper into the property.
“We were trying to figure out how the bathrooms were, then you realize, ‘Oh, wait a minute, in 1886, they didn’t even have bathrooms,'” Crowell said. “They had an outhouse outside so there was no plumbing to begin with.”
And, of course, there was no electricity either. Crowell discovered a newel at the base of the spiral staircase that’d been cut off and replaced.
“The reason is because it used to have a gas lamp mounted on top of it,” Crowell said. “Sure enough, down in the basement, I found a gas line going up on the floor right under the post.”
The most rewarding aspect, however, has been the connections made in the community during the renovation — people who take a great appreciation in all things history.
“It’s this community of people that I wouldn’t have met otherwise,” he said. There’d even been people who've connected with them stating they had lived in the house at one point or even knew someone who lived here.
“Or even got their hair done there,” Fisher said.
The Moulin Rouge House is named after the beauty shop that was in the parlor run by Betty Webb, later to be run by her daughter, Cecelia Hanson. Betty and husband, Henry, had rented the home before purchasing it, owning the home for 75 years until 2015.
“It makes you feel good, it makes you feel like you’re doing something not just for yourself but for everybody else,” Crowell said.
Fisher’s line of work had always called on her to travel, too. She’s the owner of the travel agency Restorative Vacations and she also helped with marketing with her parents’ resort in Belize.
“So for 20 years, I’ve been traveling a lot,” she said. The time away from Mankato made it difficult for her to connect with others and serve in the community in various ways.
“I feel like I’ve always kind of felt like I’m here but not here,” she said. Being in Mankato working on the project (and traveling less due to the pandemic) helped her connect. “You don’t go into a project knowing what gifts it’s going to bring you, but that’s been one for me.”
Though most of the restoration has been done by the couple, they have hired many local businesses along the way to help from Schwickert’s, Haley Plumbing and The Tile Guys. Tom Hagen, who has done historical construction on his North Mankato property, also has been a great resource.
“He’s repaired some significant pieces of woodwork in the house,” Fisher said.
The connections have spread among the community, too. Pieces that have been carefully curated by the couple to fit the mood of the home have sparked nostalgia by followers, such as an antique red globe light fixture that is now in Moulin Rouge’s parlor. The fixture was purchased at an estate sale in Lincoln Park. Fisher had posted the new addition onto Facebook.
“An acquaintance of mine said, ‘Oh, that’s my good friend Thelma’s light fixture! She’d be so happy that it’s in the Moulin Rouge House,’” Fisher said.
Fisher and Crowell welcome others from the community to share any photographs or objects related to the house or even stories to further the community connections.
The couple is now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel with only a few details left and expect to complete the project by spring 2021. But in the end, the amount of time it takes to finish bringing Moulin Rouge House to its complete state hadn’t ever been the ultimate goal — it was always their vision.
“It’s not about how much hard work it is (to renovate), but it’s about enjoying it,” Crowell said.
“We’re really excited about putting the home in service to the community,” Fisher said. “Whether that means highlighting somebody else’s business or providing a space that people can gather. … It’s a beautiful piece of art that we’ve preserved and restored and are excited to share.”
“It’s all about sharing,” Crowell added. “I ran a hostel for budget travelers from all over the world out on the East Coast, and it’s such a great experience to have people come and stay in your place — you’re the host. … You get to make people feel comfortable, and that’s what’s special. Those things are not so tangible things, but it’s a really important part.”