Patrick Flanagan didn’t come to co-own the Lion House — a 16-room, eight-bathroom mansion on St. Paul’s Midway Parkway — the easy way.
He had to drink himself there.
The house — situated between the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory and the Minnesota State Fairgrounds and recognizable from afar by the two stone lions fronting its walkway — was home in 1914 to Lt. Gov. Thomas Frankson.
A tumultuous and unlikely path inspired Flanagan and his partner, Tara Heald, to buy the roughly 7,000-square-foot property in mid-2019 and convert it into a sober house — sober mansion, really — for up to 14 women at a time.
Uniquely adorned in the neighborhood with ceramic glazed brick and a green clay-tile roof, the carefully preserved four-level structure is a study in millwork and natural light with some 130 windows. A baptism in light is as apt a metaphor as any for Flanagan’s own journey to sobriety.
Sometime around his second stint in rehab, a substance abuse counselor urged him to consider graduating into a sober home for an extended stay. Flanagan declined, noting he had his own home to maintain, a well-paying job and kids in high school to look after. The counselor warned him that without a supportive, alcohol-free environment to buffer his re-entry into society, he wouldn’t have those things for long.
“He said, ‘Well, you’re going to lose all that,’ ” Flanagan recalled.
A year later, he did.
Flanagan, a former private wealth manager and sales trader with Morgan Stanley, RBC and Wells Fargo, completed his third and final rehab stint two years ago, having been disinvited from his daughter’s high school graduation for a host of ugly reasons. After 40 days at The Retreat, an alcohol and drug recovery center in Wayzata, “I knew my family wasn’t ready to have me back,” Flanagan said. “There’s been some damage.”
So he moved into a sober house — a substance-free men’s group home on Summit Avenue — for five months, desperate to rebuild. “I was at that point of just surrender,” he said. “I’ll do anything you tell me to do, because my next stop was going to be dead or in jail.”
After half a year in structured sober living environments, the then-45-year-old Flanagan moved home and set about reinventing himself. He began dating Heald, an interior designer he had met in rehab. Inspired by their own experiences, the two set out to find the right environment to launch what Flanagan envisioned at the time would be a men’s home.
EVOLUTION OF A MANSION
When they chanced upon the property at 1349 Midway Parkway, Heald realized eight bathrooms would be lost on a gaggle of guys. The brick-exterior mansion, a former single-family home that had initially gone on the market for $1 million, sold for $830,000 to Flanagan and investor-partner Tom Rothstein. Flanagan and Heald knocked down a wall separating a basement apartment from the rest of the structure, opening up a total of eight bedrooms.
In October 2019, the St. Paul Women’s Recovery House at the Lion House was born.
As a courtesy, Flanagan presented his plans to the Como Community Council, the neighborhood association. He recalled a sizable crowd eyeballing him from the audience, and the looks on their faces told him they feared an absentee landlord. Many residents were familiar with the interior of the home from decades past, when it hosted dance lessons. Flanagan, who lives by the Cathedral of St. Paul, assured them he was local and his business was personal.
“I talked to them about sober housing and being an alcoholic myself, and you could just feel the tension in the room drop,” he said. “We spent 20 to 30 minutes just talking about the bushes and landscaping.”
Michael Kuchta, executive director of the Como Community Council, confirmed as much. “The hedges did come up,” Kuchta said. “This obviously is a very historic and prominent facility. Once Patrick came in, I think people just needed to hear that information and get a fuller perspective on who the new neighbors were going to be. People are happy that the house is being kept up and fulfilling a larger mission. We’ve heard nothing but ‘Can we bring meals to them? Can we bring welcome packets?’ ”
HELPING EACH OTHER
The current group of women range in age from 18 into their early 40s. About a third have kept office jobs working remotely. Monthly leases, which include utilities and cleaning supplies, range from $825 to share a double- or triple-bedroom to $1,075 for a single. A $500 sobriety deposit is refundable after three months.
Janet Christensen, an education specialist in her 40s, lived in sober housing years ago: a small duplex where she shared quarters with just a few other residents. The expansive Lion House, she said, has provided a more comfortable and supportive environment for the past four months, partly because of the strength in numbers.
A widow, Christensen was living alone on St. Paul’s East Side when she found herself relapsing, repeatedly, over the past two years. Then the pandemic hit, and she realized facing winter on her own was not going to end well.
“It’s really about reaching out to each other and picking each other up when they’re feeling down,” she said of the communal environment. “We all have tough shells on the outside. We’ve all been through enough, and most of us have some trauma in our past. We’re solid, independent women with the commonality of having addiction in our lives, and in our futures. It doesn’t just go away.”
Residents are expected to move in for anywhere from three months to a year and attend three weekly Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, which emphasize self-care, taking responsibility and putting faith in a higher power. The house isn’t rooted in any particular faith, but it structures time for meditation and reflection, yoga and other exercise. Most women already are enrolled in outpatient treatment through remote technology.
“It’s really a supportive environment where everybody is learning how to live sober,” Heald said. “One person will say, ‘I’m dealing with this with my relationship with my parents,’ and someone with more experience will say, ‘This is how I dealt with that.’ I find out sometimes the substances are really secondary to bigger things, like trauma, things from childhood.”
The program, now full with a waitlist of at least eight more women, runs differently from many sober homes. It’s a completely independent living situation, for starters.
Heald, the site director, visits frequently, but the women largely direct themselves. There’s no overnight staff, though a maintenance man is on call. And there are no posters on the walls listing the 12 steps of AA. Flanagan recalled a sober management consultant touring the site and remarking, critically, on the lack of self-help literature on the walls. But that’s by design.
“People are excited to say they live here,” he said.
Added Heald, a mother of three: “Sober living shouldn’t be punishment. I didn’t have the opportunity to do something like this, and that’s something I regret. For women, we’re so responsible for everyone else, and sometimes there’s shame in taking this time out, especially to take time away from kids and your husband and job. There’s definitely shame. I had never taken time for me (before rehab), and I was 40 years old.”
With shared experiences behind them, several women who have moved on from the house have continued to rent apartments together in order to support each other in sobriety.
Flanagan, who is launching an addiction intervention and recovery consultancy called The Irishman & Associates, is location hunting for a second recovery center. He foresees no shortage of demand for sober housing as a result of the pandemic. Just the opposite: While remote technology now allows supportive communities to form anywhere there’s an internet connection, establishing that intimacy without in-person meetings strikes him as a tall order.
“There’s people like Elton John who say Zoom saved them. It’s saved me, too, but if I were two or three months sober, boy that would be hard,” Flanagan said. “The opposite of addiction is connection. … Alcohol and addiction issues, if you had a problem going into 2020, it was exacerbated. The isolation poured a lot of gasoline on it. I think we’re going to see a need for addiction recovery services.”
That said, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for many, and Flanagan said he’s living it. The daughter who disinvited him from her high school graduation three years ago? At the memory of it, Flanagan caught his breath, turned his head and quietly blinked away the past. “Now, when she’s back in town, she lives with me,” he said.
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