John Thelen turned unique life circumstances and a long-time vision into a downtown Grand Forks residential space that rivals any new dream home.
John Thelen sits at his new dining table across from his stunning new kitchen, scrolling through his pink, butterfly-encased iPhone looking for old pictures of his law office before the renovations started. His new dining table and kitchen are actually in what used to be the old law office. Six years ago, Thelen began a massive renovation project to turn the downtown Grand Forks building he acquired in 1986 for use as a multi-lawyer commercial space into a residential setting that he always believed could become a quiet oasis in the heart of the city. Six years after carrying the first load of debris to the dumpster behind the building, Thelen now believes he’s achieved a bucket-list type accomplishment with the completion of his dream space—even if the oasis he now calls home includes several unique features he never could have imagined when he started.
Once a funeral home, the building has been standing for more than a century. During demo, Thelen found a newspaper dated from 1910 in the walls. The two-story building has more than 3,400 square feet of space on the main level and the equivalent in the basement and garage space. Since 1986, Thelen and his law associates used the space for their offices. At one time, the building was also broken into separate living quarters. Now, all of that has changed. “I’ve always been interested in old spaces and I wanted to live downtown,” Thelen says.
Nearly every element of the space has been altered. Thelen says the renovations required him and the contractors to create walls within walls and a floor on top of a floor. Thelen worked at 5 am most mornings during the entire process to help where he could. When his day-duties at the courthouse were over (Thelen is a District Judge), he was right back in his space working or cleaning or thinking about what it would look like.
The interior was eventually reframed and a new, level floor was placed over the existing structure. New windows replaced existing windows and in some places, windows were added. A massive I-beam was added above the large kitchen space. A freight elevator space was turned into a walk-in closet. A fireplace in the rear of the building is the centerpiece of what has become the master bedroom, the bricks cleaned but left untouched. White trim and crown molding encases the entire space and sliding style barn doors or pocket doors keep the natural rhythm of the halls and walking areas unhindered.
In the back, a large deck was added on to an existing deck. The addition has created a large, quiet outdoor spot with an unrivaled view of downtown. On summer nights, Thelen says he can hear the music from downtown in the distance and after 5 pm during the week, the entire area around the building is void of any activity.
After entering the space for the first time, it is hard not to spin in circles, trying to take in all of the charm and change. When you tell Thelen and his wife, Tammy, that you would have never known such a space in such a place could exist, they will most likely respond with a smile. “It is fun to see people’s reactions to this place,” Thelen says.
Below the deck, there is also a piece of décor you wouldn’t expect at such a downtown gem: a basketball hoop. Roughly halfway through the project Thelen thought would be his crowning residential-space-achievement (he isn’t interested in taking on another project like this ever again), he was presented a set of circumstances that were even more unique than his building plans. In his 60s, Thelen adopted three of his wife’s grandchildren to remove them from a difficult situation. “It was an easy choice,” Thelen says. “We wanted to do whatever we could to help them.”
Although the place is certainly a beautiful downtown oasis, it can’t be described with the term quiet anymore, his wife says. Thelen’s former office in the front of the building was going to be retained for a library and desk setting. Instead, the desk in the room has legos on top of it and it is now considered a play room. Time spent in the back isn’t reserved for quiet reading sessions or a glass of wine, but instead for shooting hoops or playing baseball in the courthouse parking lot. The guest room—at least that was what it was supposed to be—is now a young teenager’s room. The family additions have certainly added a massive different dimension to the dynamics of the space, but both Thelen and his wife say they wouldn’t change a thing.
Thelen still remembers sitting, exhausted, in a worn chair near the main kitchen area during construction. The walls were just going up and there was dust and debris everywhere. Today, with the renovations mostly complete (Tammy still has some honey-do’s and wishes) Thelen is sitting at the dining table where that chair he described used to sit.
With our team there, he is trying to find photos of the construction phase to show us. “I remember thinking about what it would look like during that time,” he says. He is looking out through the soft light pouring through the kitchen windows in between phone swipes almost as if there is more in that space than anyone else can see or understand. In his view, there is a beautiful island in the kitchen flanked by a chef-worthy range top and a huge space for baking. “This was always a project we knew we had to commit too,” he says, turning his gaze back to his phone, his hand wrapped around the pink, butterfly decorated phone case that he was forced to use after one of his new family members caused his regular phone to stop working. Then he stops and puts the phone down. He seems to forget about the photos and once again moves his gaze to the kitchen and then to Tammy. “It’s all been worth it.” G
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PHOTOS BY: RUSS HONS PHOTOGRAPHY