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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

This old house, a love story about a duplex

Kathleen McQuillan
Posted 8/25/21

This story begins in March of 2007 when I took ownership of a nearly one-hundred-year-old dwelling in one of Virginia’s south side neighborhoods. It continues over the next fourteen years while …

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This old house, a love story about a duplex


This story begins in March of 2007 when I took ownership of a nearly one-hundred-year-old dwelling in one of Virginia’s south side neighborhoods. It continues over the next fourteen years while I occupied and leased this duplex that would surprisingly become an important feature in my life. I jumped into the role of “landlady” without much forethought, employing my useful “on the job” training model. My primary goal was to ease one of the stressors related to my occupation. And it worked. In 2016, when I retired from my “grief support” role on one of our local hospice teams, my relationship with this old house changed. This is a love story about a place.
Without a doubt, my years of working with hospice, offering information and emotional support to our patients and their grieving families, was deeply rewarding, and an experience for which I will be forever grateful. But it was also emotionally strenuous.
My daily routine would start with a 37-mile drive to our Virginia office and then many additional miles visiting people in their homes. While driving, I’d spend that time engaged in a blend of prayerful anticipation and a process of “grounding” in my knowledge and experience, the goal being to deliver helpful support. My days could be long and no two were alike. The journey home each evening would include reviewing scenes and events of the day and the complex human emotions I had encountered. As time went on, I felt the effects of continuous exposure to high levels of emotional stress. Caregiving professionals often refer to this experience as “compassion fatigue”.
An accompanying strain came from all those hours sitting in a fixed position behind the wheel of my car. Routinely, I’d watch the odometer spin two hundred or more miles in a single day. One day, after taking the car to my long-trusted mechanic for its recommended “every 3,000 mile” oil change, he handed me my receipt, slid my keys across the counter, and nonchalantly stated, “See you in a week.” His wink was my cue — that maybe it was time to consider ways to shear some miles off my daily drive.
I started talking to friends about renting a guest room or finding my own apartment. All I needed was a clean, safe, quiet place where I could lay my head after a long day or take refuge when bad weather made driving risky. Then, I discovered an ad in the paper about a duplex for sale — something I hadn’t considered. I decided to check it out.
I found this great big two-story house on a funky little alley. It was enshrouded by a cloud of white apple blossoms from a very old tree on one side of the front driveway and an equally ancient mountain ash. Together they provided the building with a level of privacy not seen in this neighborhood where houses were stationed less than three feet apart. The inside was as captivating as the outside. After touring several other properties, I knew that “903” was it.
Once the paperwork was signed, I started prepping the upstairs unit to be my “nest”. Furnishings from secondhand stores and garage sales fit perfectly. My mother coined my decor “Early Attic”. Who could argue? For the next decade, “903” became my home away from home.
Then there was the apartment downstairs. I’d never planned to be a “landlord”. Even the word turned me off. But I needed to forge ahead with my new endeavor. Thank heaven for the internet and Legal Aid Services of MN! I was able to learn the do’s and don’ts of selecting a tenant, the rights and responsibilities of the lessor and lessee, and how to draw-up a rental application and lease agreement. It was all kind of scary. But I recalled a book title from my past, “Feel the fear, and do it anyway!” I began by hanging a poster in our local food co-op. Within a week I received some calls of interest.
As the benevolent universe would have it, the first person who took the tour was related to people I knew from my hometown of Cook. As we toured the place and shared bits of our stories, I could tell we shared some views in common. I loved her humor and sisu spirit. I was surprised at her spontaneous reaction to the living room’s 1970 vintage lime green shag carpeting (for which I immediately apologized). “I love it!” She said. “It’s so ‘retro!’” She was also very cool! I knew I’d be checking her references only because the “Manual for New Landlords” said I should.
Melissa turned out to be the renter from heaven. She lived downstairs for the next four years until she met her fiancé and put roots down elsewhere. She was the first of many tenants who would bring smiles, and challenges, for years to come.
The apartment served me well. I had my place of retreat from the cares of the outside world — warm and welcoming every time I’d arrive. It was there I could collect books, stones and other cherished momentos from my travels near and far. I hung art wherever I wanted. And, I could offer shelter to friends and co-workers whenever they needed it.
Following my retirement, I stayed there less and less. Eventually, I decided to rent both floors. That presented new challenges but nothing I couldn’t handle, until the COVID-19 pandemic struck. The quarantine period made going into the building more stressful. My two young tenants were not convinced of the risks of contracting the virus. It was difficult to conduct my routine cleaning and maintenance visits when they would not wear masks. For the next 18 months, I remained “on call” to field any crises. I worried a lot!
Friends and family began to ask me why I was keeping the place. It was hard to find a good answer. The purpose it had once served now seemed to have vanished. I finally decided to sell.
Soon I’ll have signed the deed over to new people, who I am told swooned over this place, much like I did! That warms my heart. There’s just something special about this big old house that has dominated the neighborhood for over a hundred years. Countless characters have filled these rooms with their cherished objects and curious stories, and it seems its welcoming spirit can be felt by everyone who crosses its threshold!
It’s my turn now to lock the door one last time behind me. I know that my story is now enjoined with all the others that came here before me. I’ve loved this place. So, all I can say is, “Good-bye ‘903’. Thanks for the memories.”


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