When Osmo Vänskä moved from his native Finland to become music director for the Minnesota Orchestra, he looked for a place to call home in the Twin Cities. Vänskä was drawn to a 19th-century flour mill on the eastern edge of downtown that was being converted into condos.
“I was the first one here, in the fall of 2003,” he said of his two-level, 2,754-square-foot home in the Humboldt Lofts. “I liked the idea of an old building that had been used for something else and now had a new purpose.”
And he liked the original arched windows, exposed ductwork and thick walls of vintage brick. “You could sand the brick to make it more fancy,” he said. But he preferred the texture and imperfections that spoke of the building’s past. “You can see the marks. That’s something I like. It doesn’t need to be pretty, like a dollhouse.”
The Humboldt Mill renovation was unusual in that it combined the historic 1878 building with a new structure of glass, brick and Corten steel. Designed by architect Julie Snow, the project won an award from the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission.
Vänskä chose a unit in the old mill building, with the bedroom located on the quieter back side, facing the mill ruins, old grain silos and beyond them, the Mississippi River, which he can see in a slice of view framed by the silos.
At the time he moved in, the historic Mill District was just beginning its renaissance. Its best-known landmark, the blue-hued Guthrie Theater by famed architect Jean Nouvel, hadn’t been built yet, and Gold Medal Park was just a parking lot.
“I practiced my motorcycle driving there” in preparation for taking his Minnesota license test, Vänskä recalled. “It’s totally different now — so many blocks full of new buildings.”
As the first resident of his new home, Vänskä was able to finish it to his specifications. He opted for a loft-like open floor plan and natural wood flooring. “That was a must for me,” he said.
He created an office off the bedroom, where he can read and listen to recordings. “I’m working a lot. I have to study my music,” he said.
Another must-have was a Finnish-style sauna, with pine walls and special wood imported from Finland for the seats. “It’s one of the first things I wanted — an important thing,” he said. He uses it often, up to five times a week. “It’s a great way for me to relax after a concert.”
Vänskä’s favorite spot at home is his kitchen, where he enjoys cooking and entertaining friends. “Fish is my thing … and meat stews,” he said. Off the kitchen is a large walk-in pantry with an open ceiling. “I like that the wall doesn’t go all the way up — more air.”
He recently updated his kitchen, adding a glass-tile backsplash, new appliances and repainting the walls in an atmospheric blue, a task he undertook himself. “I like to paint,” said Vänskä. “When we play, the music goes away, but when you are painting, you can see it, the good and the bad.”
Vänskä, who also has a home in Helsinki, loves living in the Mill District, with its proximity to the river and so many urban amenities.
“There’s nothing better than a summertime walk over the Stone Arch Bridge,” he said. “You’re in the middle of many things: the [Mill City] Farmers Market every Saturday … the Mill City Museum is a great place. When I get visitors from Finland, it’s great to show them the history. … I don’t have to park when I go to the Guthrie.”
And when he wants to go out to eat, “there are so many nice restaurants.” What’s his favorite? “Brenda’s place” (better known as Spoonriver, the eatery owned by chef Brenda Langton, which is right downstairs), he replied quickly, then named several others. “There are 10 restaurants in less than a five-minute walk.”
And it’s only a 20- to 25-minute walk to Orchestra Hall, although he admits he usually drives. “I’m a lazy guy,” he said with a smile. (The condo comes with two large garage stalls, enough room for two cars and his motorcycle.)
Vänskä, a newlywed, and his bride, orchestra concertmaster Erin Keefe, appreciate the condo’s thick brick walls and insulation, which allow them to practice their instruments (violin for her, clarinet for him) without disturbing their neighbors.
But they’ve decided to move to another loft just down the street. “I really love this area and don’t want to leave,” Vänskä said. “We’re moving to have a bit more room. And I would like to have a balcony.
“I have enjoyed these years here,” he said. “This is a unique place — that unique people can appreciate.”
Cynthia Froid of the Cynthia Froid Group, Keller Williams Realty, has the listing, 612-578-1303, firstname.lastname@example.org.