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Sunday Magazine. Minneapolis Star And Tribune. August 3, 1986.
The barn-red house on Sheridan Av. overlooking Lake Calhoun was a refuge for two European immigrants. But over four decades, it has become more than an anchor in a new world. It is a monument to a lasting love.
"Isn't this the moat beautiful place in all Minneapolis, in all Minnesota?" says Gisela Konopka, 76, gazing out at her well-tended half-acre from under a grape arbor. "It's so peaceful! And these heavenly, beautiful trees! When we came hero there were no trees, nothing but a plank to the door. The steps were all broken. We built all this with our own hands."
Nearly 40 years ago, Berlin-born Konopka and her late husband Paul took a chance on a decaying cottage in a deteriorating neighborhood.
"We had a very unusual life before Minnesota," she says, seated in an outsized yellow porch warmed with orange and yellow '60s modern furniture. "Preceding this it was a horror and eight years of constant moving. Paul and I were both active anti-Nazis. We were thrown from one place to another, from Germany to Austria to France. We lost each other in the Nazi invasion and miraculously met in France. Finally, in 1941, we came to the United States.''
They were married in New York, he joined the U.S. Army and she attended graduate school in social work. In 1947 they moved to Minneapolis, where Paul Konopka worked as a mechanical engineer for General Mills and his wife as an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota. Their home for a year was a oneroom apartment provided by the university.
"And we thought it was pure heaven. My husband said he didn't know how to live in a place where you couldn't touch the refrigerator from the bed. That was what we were used to," says Konopka. "People told us to buy a home, because in those days there were almost no apartments. But we had no money, really no money. We thought we'd never in our lives have enough for a car."
Friends drove them out to look at the Lake Calhoun house, advertised as "$8,500, overlooking lake, needs repair." But they didn't believe ,they could afford it,
"Then one day Paul came home and pulled out a paper from his pocket and said, 'I bought the house.' I screamed! We were so close. We had always done everything together. But he said we had dreamed all our lives of a house on a lake, and he had seen the 'sharks' walking around it -- people who would buy it and paint it up and sell it for much more."
The house had originally been a summer home for a wealthy Minneapolis family, but had gone from hand to hand since the Depression. Because the neighborhood was viewed as a bad investment, the bank refused the Konopkas' GI loan. A friend convinced the seller of their trustworthiness, however, and they bought it with a small down payment and monthly payments to the owner. ("And we paid it every month double," she recalls.)
"We felt like such poverty-stricken new arrivals," she says. "We had only a small table, four chairs and a mattress. Everything was mud. There were two inches of water on the floor after it rained. The wind blew snow on our blankets, and we felt like pioneers.
"One day an 8-year-old came to visit and said, 'Oohl What an ishy place!' There were cracks all over, and it was dark, and we had no furniture. In summer we had picnics here, and the students loved to come, but years later they told me they lied felt sorry for us."
The "tossed-about poor "refugees" set to work: Paul Konopka not only rebuilt the roof, floors, walls and other structural aspects of the house, but added shelves; cabinets and cupboards and built chairs, picture frames, mosaic tables, lamps and benches. He sewed and upholstered, painted, tiled and organized. Basement coal bins were converted to storage for his wife's publications and records, a slippery outdoor staircase was covered to prevent her falling, and he built an indoor swimming pool so that she could exercise an injured back.
His woodcarvings, etchings, sculpture and a back-lit sliced-rock coffee table share rooms with her bright abstract needlework and pottery, with rafts of perfectly organized books of history, poetry and sociology. The walls are hung with artwork on the Indian, black and Jewish experiences. His homemade double reading chairs with adjustable lights allowed them to sit and rend aide by aide.
"It's heaven, isn't it?" says Konopka, now professor and director emeritus of the School of Social Work and the Center for Youth. Development and Research at the University of Minnesota. "Sometimes I wonder, how did he do this in a lifetime? It's like a museum. You have to take time to see it all."
"From the beginning we said nothing will hold us anyplace," she says from her secondfloor office overlooking willow, elm and honeysuckle and Lake Calhoun. "We were into causes. But somehow this house held us. I had several, high job offers in other states -- Kentucky, Puerto Rico -- and Paul was willing to go wherever I wanted. But I love this house. I like the neighbors. And we were always concerned to live with a variety of people. One old couple across the street told me how she grew up here, stories about the local Indian uprisings. It was exciting to have a history and kind neighbors."
Although the Konopkas never had children, they have many visitors and livein friends. One of their early guests was Ruby Pernell, one of the first black faculty members et the university, who could not find housing in Minneapolis because of racial prejudice. Konopka still has many visitors, but much has changed about the Lake Calhoun house and its neighbors.
"Now people here are much more wealthy," says Konopka. "Even I have status now. I'm well-off. I'm no more the poor refugee. But it's still a neighborhood, and we still fight about things like high-rise buildings. It's so unusual. I don't know a city that has this rural nature aspect with pheasants and rabbits. It's such a charming place. A high rise would instantly destroy all that."
The only, unwelcome change has been the loss of her husband, who died suddenly 10 years ago.
"I wondered why I didn't die. Other people die of broken hearts," she says. "They are lucky."
But Konopka has gone on and then some. Her house is immaculate and warm, her desk calendar is "filled to the brim. I don't ever want to be retired. I haven't stopped writing and speaking, and I won't. But to share your life with someone you love -- like I had -- that I wish for everyone."
Karin Winegar is a staff writer for Sunday Magazine