Hormel Historic Home enters new era

Published 11:40 am Saturday, November 7, 2009

A turn-of-the-century mansion perched on the corner of First Street and Fourth Avenue Northwest has likely hosted too many soirees to count. The fashionable homestead — now the Hormel Historic Home (HHH) — dates back to 1871, and was home to some of the most prominent of Austin residents.

One could guess that its inhabitants held formal dinner parties in the grand dining room, entertained friends during cocktail parties beside the grand piano and fireplace, carried out business deals in the library and hosted overnight guests in its many bedrooms on occasion. As was common during the time period, a family wedding reception or funeral could have taken place at the home.

The mansion was constructed in 1871 for John Cook, an Austin businessman, mayor and state senator. George and Lillian Belle Hormel, the founders of Hormel Foods Corporation, bought the home in 1901 and lived there until 1927.

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Their families may have never imagined that well over a century later — 138 years, to be exact — their stately home would continue to host wedding receptions, various celebrations, clubs and business meetings.

The home has been left to the public in one form or another ever since the Hormels left it. In the early to mid-1990s, it was restored to its period style, and the public has rented it out for various events ever since.

Beginning last week, following the completion of a $1.8 million expansion, The Historic Hormel Home now extends its hospitality even further, and with ever the more grandeur.

The expansion

Inside the original mansion, there are three fireplaces, six bedrooms, three bathrooms and seven other rooms. The spacious living room, dining room, and library were able to seat about 80 people before the expansion. While this worked well for open-house-style events and medium-sized parties, the Historic Hormel Home was forced to deny requests for larger events, HHH executive director Laura Helle explained.

In addition, the kitchen was not up to code, so the only option for party hosts was to bring in cooked food, Helle explained.

“We wanted to be able to offer a lot more, and the community was interested and really supported the efforts,” Helle said.

HHH needed to host more events to generate income to support the home turned community center/museum, which has been on the National Register of Historic Places as the Cook-Hormel Home since 1982.

Following a successful capital campaign, ground broke with the destruction of the carriage house in March. This part of the home had already been enlarged in 1939, and it had been used as a Girl Scout house.

The Hormel Foundation gave $1 million and the other $800,000 came from the community — $100,000 of which was from James C. and Thomas D. Hormel, sons of Jay Catherwood Hormel, and grandsons of George and Belle.

All but a few finishing touches were completed on schedule — by Nov. 1.

The expansion was added to the north end of the property, where the carriage house was.

The space is now a banquet room that can seat 200 people and is divisible, byway of collapsible soundproof walls, into three meeting rooms. The three spaces will be elegantly adorned the “George,” “Lillian,” and “Jay” rooms. Outside of the banquet room is a lobby or parlor space that opens to a verandah and the Peace Garden. A commercial kitchen is attached to one end of the hall for on-site cooking. It is complete with video cameras to aid cooking classes. Guests can even eat off of plates stamped with the HHH logo.

Helle said the expansion has been booked for events nearly every day since becoming available Nov. 1. As of Nov. 3, 14 events were booked and paid.

Angela McDermott Himebaugh of the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau and new wedding coordinator with HHH said it is a wonderful event space.

“It is really nice to have this variety in town,” she said. “It is nice for people to have another choice, and something unique.”

Her only complaint is that she wishes it could have been even bigger.

The design

When the Hormel’s left their home at 208 Fourth Ave. NW to retire in Bel Air, Calif., they gave their house to the YWCA. Meetings were held there, and rooms were rented out.

It was not until the 1990s that the house became a home again, at least in its look.

Belita Schindler of Belita’s Commercial and Residential Interiors in Austin took on the task of restoring the house to how it might have looked when the Hormel’s lived there.

“I wanted to look at old photographs, but we just could not find anything that really showed what the home looked like,” she said.

“So I just imagined what an old home would look like in the 1890s,” she said.

To that end, Schindler studied the 1893 World’s Fair that took place in Chicago, under the impression that a man like George Hormel might have attended and purchased from those vendors.

She had wallpapers and carpets commissioned, and furnished the home with many vintage, often donated, pieces.

Artwork, lamps, a baby grand piano and dining room table that belonged to the Hormels are still in the house.

When it came time for the expansion, Schindler was thrilled to work on the design again.

“I wanted it to be inspired by the home, but not exactly like it. I want it to give you the sense that it might really be old,” she said of the expansion.

To that effect, she seems to have thought of everything.

To design the custom carpet, she looked at thousands of designs, and hundreds of colors. She had 20 mock carpets printed on paper. Once she had her retro color scheme — warm burgundies, oranges, wood and metal tones — she had curtains, furniture and chandeliers created, most often from area shops.

Among the people who helped are Marge Wobschall, who made heavy metallic peach orange drapes out of her home, right before retiring. Bill Regner of Regner, Inc. customized chandeliers, and Brick Furniture did the chairs in the lobby. Vince Hirsch of Woodworks did all of the custom woodwork. These are only a few on a long, long list.

“There was a virtual army of people who made this happen,” Schindler said.

Schindlers favorite pieces include a wooden swan, that she purchased online, which sits underneath the sink in the ladies’ restroom. It gives the illusion that the graceful swan actually supports the stone sink on its back. Another classic darling is the genuine 1890s stained glass window that greets visitors at the main entrance of the hall. She ordered it from a dealer in Oregon, and it originated from a house in Minneapolis.

Another interesting feature are custom wooden sliding doors that hide a serving window between the kitchen and the banquet space; typical stainless steel curtains would just not be the right vintage.

“Everything just came together. It has been a gift for me to be able to work on this,” Shindler said.

The history

The Historic Hormel Home has a chapter devoted to it in the book, “Minnesota Open House: A Guide to Historic House Museums,” by Krista Finstad Hanson.

The book explains that Cook built the home by brick in an Italianate style. The Hormels added many of the features that can be seen today. They remodeled the front in Neo-Classical Revival style, adding a porch and four wooden columns. In keeping the Italian influence alive, the columns were imported from Italy. They also covered the front with stucco.

Inside the home, woodwork, including floors, were added by the Hormels. Original Quezal and Tiffany artglass fixtures are seen throughout.

A solarium was added in 1997.

McDermott Himebaugh said the HHH is a popular attraction that she regularly shows on her tours, often in conjunction with the SPAM Museum.

“It is nice to see the personal aspect of the Hormels. We all know the famous canned food product, but it is interesting to walk through their house, see their photos and how they lived,” she said.

Photos of the family are displayed throughout the home and the expansion.

“It is also fun for people to see how well restored and maintained the home is,” McDermott Himebaugh continued. “I know everything is not original, but the level of restoration and upkeep is so much higher than other historic homes I have seen,” she added.

There will be an official Expansion Open House Friday, Nov. 27 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“I love that the home is really truly beautiful, but not totally over-the-top-extravagant. I hope that is what people see in the expansion too,” Schindler said.