Couple creates a home from historic church building.
In the winter of 2019, partners and music aficionados Kelly Clement and Steve Bucher stumbled across something grand. It was the realization of a dream that was years in the making. For Clement, an expansive barn turned residence and stage “for garage-jams” had marked her daydreams. Bucher envisioned his ideal future in a modern home crafted within the ruins of a European castle. But the two eventually found everything they could ever want in something they never envisioned. A historic church. A friendly community. The perfect home.
The Carpenter Gothic Church has seen many iterations since its construction in 1889. Nestled on Stewart Avenue in the heart of downtown White Bear Lake, the oldest standing church in town has seen additions and remodels, stained glass windows removed and rows of theater seats installed. It has been painted and stained. A home to Lutherans and Baptists, actors and theater goers. It is a place with a rich history, and when Clement and Bucher (then Minnetonka residents) learned the building was set to be torn down, the path forward became clear.
“Neither one of these things [garage jam house or English ruins] was going to happen, and this sort of fit somewhere in between,” Bucher says.
They negotiated and purchased the building, hired Elk River-based Legacy Contracting to head the renovation and set off on what would be a nearly two-year project to create the untraditional home and community gathering place they dubbed “Old Stewart.”
Resembling Its Past
While still grand in many aspects, the storied building retained few of the original elements by the time Clement and Bucher stepped through the front doors. Over nearly 50 years as the home of Lakeshore Players Theatre, it had transformed.
In a video shared on the Old Stewart Instagram page, the contracting team stands beside rows of theater seating as they tear layers of plywood and insulation from tall windows. From behind the camera, Clement gasps as the sun illuminates the building’s interior for the first time in decades.
“Opening up these walls and exposing the windows was really cool because we didn’t know if there was still stained glass underneath it,” Clement says.
While the original stained glass was found to be taken by the First English Evangelical Lutheran Church upon their move in the 1950s, the duo replaced the remaining colored-glass with authentic 120-year-old Munich-style stained glass windows, made by Ford Brothers Glass Co., and salvaged from a Minneapolis church.
The contracting team spent three months and nearly 40 dumpsters gutting the interior before beginning the long process of restoring Old Stewart to its former glory. After starting anew with the essentials (electrical, plumbing, HVAC, insulation, sheetrock) and hiring a structural engineer to fix the sagging walls, Clement and Bucher began to build their dream home piece by piece.
And while the pair disagree on whether there was an ultimate vision or plan for the place from the start, they agree that they wouldn’t change a thing.
“A lot of times people ask, ‘Well, did it go according to plan?’ And I just laugh,” Bucher says. “There was no plan. These were all just tactical decisions in real time. ‘Oh, we found a bar, let’s see if we could make use of that. We found these windows, well what could we do with these windows?’ There was no plan.”
“That was a piece of cake. He doesn’t think the same way I do,” Clement says. “When I walked in here, it’s like, I could see what this is.”
Today, the building has become a three bedroom, four bath home, sporting a deep blue exterior and a roof lined with solar panels. The main room (complete with a large center stage, modern kitchen, koi pond and a plethora of velvet sofas and chairs) is Clement and Bucher’s living area. An industrial staircase leads from the entryway to their bedroom and, downstairs, a refinished basement is a space for their young adult children. A side yard featuring a fountain and hot tub can be accessed from a cozy sunroom (which Clement calls the “dogs’ room”).
As the pair walk through the space, sharing the stories of each piece that makes up one beautiful whole—from the original Douglas fir floors to the antique chandelier from the Minneapolis Club ballroom—it’s clear that the building has been remodeled to resemble the best of its past. “Even though it looks a lot different, there’s some recognizable pieces still,” Bucher says.
As the project went on, the pair were surprised by the sheer number of passersby that came to their front door. “Every day, Monday through Friday, over the course of the past two years, we have had at least two or three people that have stopped by every day from the community. And they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh are you saving it? What are you doing with this? What’s going to happen?’” Clement says. They are neighbors and locals, many of whom have connections to the historic building through church and family gatherings, weddings, funerals and the theater. “There’s a lot of memories that go along with the place,” Clement says.
While Clement and Bucher’s dream had initially been a personal one—a place to live and play music together—as the community came knocking at their door in droves, the pair realized that keeping their home to themselves wasn’t in the realm of possibility. So, they embraced it.
“The building, for 130 years, has been a community gathering place, and it still wants to be,” Bucher says. “… The community wants the building to be accessible to them, and so we’re trying to make sure there’s a way for that to happen.”
“It’s basically welcoming people into our home,” Clement chimes in.
They began by planning a series of open houses featuring musical guests—first for their contractors, supporters and friends, then for the broader community. At one of these events, they met Patty Hall, the founder of local nonprofit H20 for Life. The nonprofit would go on to be the beneficiary of Old Stewart’s first fundraising event in September 2022.
When Clement and Bucher aren’t exploring their new community in White Bear Lake, entertaining friends and strangers or enjoying their cottage in Ireland, you can find them playing a variety of instruments together on the Old Stewart stage. The pair are also busy planning their upcoming wedding that, yes, will take place in Old Stewart. And they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“The neighbors and the community have been fabulous and support what we’re doing,” Clement says. “… Every time we turn around, we’re meeting someone new, and everybody is very welcoming. It’s a very inclusive community.”
Old Stewart has a layered history as the oldest standing church building in White Bear Lake. Here is a glimpse into the congregations, organizations and families that have called it home:
The Carpenter Gothic Church is first constructed to house the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church, later renamed the First English Evangelical Lutheran Church.
The building’s footprint doubles with the addition of a transept and new alter area.
Further remodeling is done to the exterior with the installation of the mid-century stone façade and bell tower that are still present today.
The First Baptist Church (later renamed Eagle Brook Church) takes up residence.
The building is sold to Lakeshore Players Theatre.
Lakeshore Players Theatre vacates, and the building is sold to a developer with plans to tear it down.
The building is sold to Kelly Clement and Steve Bucher and undergoes renovation to turn it into a private residence.