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LocalTies

The Villafaña Story

Mar 08, 2019 02:20PM ● By Chris Pederson

Legacy supporting Local

It was a bright summer day when our delivery truck pulled up to 1482 Hunter Drive in Medina. It was the summer of 1997. Or was it 1998? I can't recall for sure, but my driver's license was fresh enough to still be nervous delivering rental equipment for the "Party Store.” As I wrangled the rumbling, 20 foot box truck down the long driveway, a mythology of stories I'd heard about this place swirled through my teenage brain.  "They have a collection of Rolls Royces stashed away in a barn? I heard they imported their ballroom from France. I guess the guy who owns the place invented a heart valve for Medtronic."

Yet as soon as I put the truck in park, shut off the diesel engine and my feet hit the chevron brick courtyard, any anxiety I had instantly melted away as I was transported out of Medina and into the quaint European village that stood before me. Even 20 years later, it is a moment my mind's eye has yet to forget; and though I would come to realize it was not a village, it would always be the first fairytale home I'd ever laid eyes on in real life.

This was the home of Manny and Elizabeth Villafaña and one of many deliveries Highway 55 Rental and other local vendors would make to this home over the next 20 years. When interviewing Elizabeth, one of the first things she said was, "I was thrilled when you first got the Tentnology tents because they are so beautiful." Mind you, we've been renting this canopy brand for nearly 2 decades and for her to recall this moment so nonchalantly was impressive. Anyone who knows her wouldn’t be surprised by her uncanny recollection of such details regarding local businesses, brands and the people behind them. Elizabeth has been a steadfast supporter of local businesses while big boxes bulldozed Main Street and still as Amazon continues to uproot even the deepest foundations of brick and mortar.

Her care and passion for supporting local talent is illustrated as she leads me through every room of their 8,714 square foot home. “Dave from Long Lake Glass is just terrific,” she tells me as she points out the beautiful custom glass and mirror work throughout various parts of their 12 bathrooms, indoor pool and exercise room. “Not many people are capable of doing this well.” The tile work done by Scott Vanwhye of Delano is another of Elizabeth’s favorite local craftsman who put some of his best work into this home. And though it was an absolute treat to view the unique aesthetic beauty in each of the home’s 30+ rooms, seeing how clean, up-to-date and technically remarkable the control rooms that actually run the house was impressive in its own right.  Elizabeth takes care to mention the incredible job Blue Water Pools & Spas of Medina does at managing the complex system of pumps for the indoor and outdoor pools.

When you consider that this home is perched atop 400 feet of private Mooney Lake shoreline, sitting on nearly 10.5 acres of pristine manicured country living, complete with a French ballroom imported from the Smithsonian Museum, you realize this is an exquisite beauty found only in places like southern France -- and apparently southwest Medina.

A Private Lakeside Retreat only 20 Minutes from Downtown

"We found this setting enabled us to have the feeling of a cabin, without having a cabin. So when our [extended] family flew in from out of town, they only had to get as far as the MSP airport. It has this very serene, north woods feeling with privacy but without having to go farther north. Although we cooked a lot out here, we could get to Manny's on a Friday or Saturday night for a good steak in 20 minutes."

Billed as one of the top 5 in steakhouses by Zagat in the U.S. and one of the top 10 in the world by Men's Journal, Manny's Steakhouse in Minneapolis got its namesake from Manny Villafaña, one of their investors.

Elizabeth continued, "We'd get all the kids dressed up, go to Manny's, then come home to canoe and run off their dinner. The first time we hosted our 4th of July party was the summer of 1989.” They entertained the annual tradition for 27 family members for nearly 30 years. “The last two years we haven't hosted because nobody is home, everybody is gone. We decided a couple years ago the writing is on the wall.  It's time [to move]. We have to go where everybody else is now. They don't have time to come to us anymore."

A Magical Moment in Time

A somberness tiptoed into her voice as she looked out onto the snow sprinkled upper deck of their sprawling backyard patio. “If this patio could talk…” The leafless winter trees provide a sweeping view of Mooney Lake on this dreary Tuesday afternoon in January.  The sun was beginning to set and since the patio couldn't talk, Elizabeth did. Her briefly melancholy tone adjusted to a more content reflection as she recalled the last 30 years of raising their family from Beauty and the Beast ballroom dancing to week long parties that would’ve given Gatsby a run for his money.  

"At night we’d go down to the lake where there is a big bonfire pit. On the night of the 4th of July, dads hosted the fireworks. We'd go to Wisconsin and get the real deal, bring them back and haul them down with the tractor. Guys would get their cigars. All the kids grabbed blankets and sat on the steps overlooking the fireworks. Then we'd put on our own personal fireworks display. Over time, there were a few other families that had fireworks on the same night. So there’d be a bit of a competition, which was really fun. We did that for many, many years.

"The kids and cousins would run out in the morning and we'd cook breakfast. They'd go in the bouncer or the pool or the tennis house or the playhouse. When you went down to the pool during the day, it felt like you were removed from the main house. It was like you were going somewhere else to swim away from the house altogether. The pool overlooks the lake; I'd set up snacks and drinks and the kids would just live out there until we got everybody fished out and cleaned up for dinner. So it was breakfast. Swim. Swim. Dinner. The layout is for a big family and we lived the space. Every inch of it. This was every day for about a week. And everybody stayed in the house. There were bodies everywhere and....well at least all of the parents had beds."

The home's estate included eight bedrooms, an amusement room, an exercise room, 2,000+ square feet of other living areas, five fireplaces, a ballroom imported from the Smithsonian Museum, a stable house, tennis court and an indoor pool to match any northern Minnesota Resort. In fact, given the level of amenities present, the guests who stayed here likely felt as though they were lodging at a luxury summer resort; albeit a rare one as there are few properties that offer this level of natural beauty, privacy and spacious living so close to Minneapolis.

“We had a magical moment in time over this period. They were all babies and they all grew up here."

Crafting Memories

The home also has an in-law apartment (or perhaps for young adults home from college) with a full kitchen and heated floors, which was an attic prior to the Villafaña’s remodeling it. Initially Elizabeth had intended it to be where their nanny stayed, but decided she'd rather raise their two daughters, Manuela and Elisa, without the help of a nanny, so it became a study room. The room has one of the best views of the house. Elizabeth smiles and laughs while memories flood her mind as she gazes over the space. "Boy oh boy this was something else when they lived here. Oh goodness gracious! Art projects, I mean stuff.....EVERYWHERE. And they have to do this poster and this project and there's glue and there's paint. I just kept cutters and markers here and this became a craft center, there was always something to do for school."

The excited yet exacerbated inflection in her voice told me through the chaos of kids’ craft projects came the creation of magical memories made many times over in this room. A room that inspired a level of creativity their daughters most certainly now bring to their new careers. They currently both work in New York, likely living in apartments smaller than their "crafting center” which sits tucked away in a past corner of a charmed country life any young child’s footsteps would be lucky to follow.

In fact, much of the artwork Manuela and Elisa created has since been framed and proudly hung throughout their home. Their girls' works of art wound up replacing the Villafaña's previous art collection, which was quite valuable. Manny and Elizabeth had been growing concerned about the safety and security of their art collection, so when Manny was told one of his pieces was worth more than their entire home, they called up Christie’s Auction House and requested it be appraised. After receiving a "very good minimum bid offer," they sold the entire collection. Manny jests of a time when a friend was over, and upon passing one of their daughter's paintings in his office exclaimed, "Manny, how did you get your hands on a Picasso?!" The gentleman was dead serious and it wound up making for a pretty great joke when Manny let him know who the original artist was. To be fair, though, when you are walking through a home where priceless tapestries adorn the confines of sitting rooms, hand painted tiles from Paris gleam in the kitchen and Chinese silk elegantly clings to 20 foot high walls in the anteroom, you don't expect the artwork to have been painted by children born near the turn of the 21st century and framed by Nash Frame Design out of Minneapolis.

Manny Villafaña

Most also wouldn't expect one of the "Living Legends of Medicine" has been living off County Road 24 in Medina for over 30 years. Whether you’ve heard of Manny Villafaña or not, it’s likely you or someone you know has relied on one of the multiple lifesaving medical devices he’s developed over the past 50 years. Born in the South Bronx, New York in 1940 to poor Puerto Rican parents, Manny Villafaña rose to become a nationally recognized entrepreneur as well as philanthropist who, among many other things, donated $250,000 for a swimming pool to be built at The Kips Bay Boys and Girls Club of America near his childhood home. The Halls of Fame for The Boys’ & Girls’ Club of America (Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club); Cardinal Hayes High School; and Medical Design Association Lifetime Achievement Award and Minnesota Business Lifetime Award all include Manny’s name.

Medical Devices of Past and Present

When Manny joined Medtronic in March of 1967, the company had annual sales of less than $5 million. For the next 5 years, he spearheaded the company’s expansion into the international marketplace, even living in Argentina for a two-year period of time as Medtronic’s Latin American sales manager. Upon his return to Minnesota in 1972, Manny moved on and founded CPI/Guidant, developing the first lithium powered pacemakers and defibrillators. A technology incorporated in nearly every defibrillator and pacemaker in the world, since then purchased by Boston Scientific for $27 billion. In 1976, Manny became the co-developer of the St. Jude heart valve and founder of St. Jude Medical Inc. Manny stated,  “This heart valve is the most commonly use prosthesis in the world, having been implanted in over 3 million patients.” Abbott Medical of Chicago recently purchased St. Jude Medical for $30 billion. Manny developed several other companies including ATS Medical, which is now part of Medtronic, Inc. through a purchase in 2010.

Manny Villafaña continues his work in revolutionizing cardiac surgery, with his most recent effort, Medical 21, Inc. Currently based out of Plymouth, Minnesota, his company is developing an artificial artery, which promises to eliminate the harvesting of vessels from the patient during bypass CABG surgery. According to Manny, the potential market for this product is bigger than the markets of pacemakers, heart valves, stents, and defibrillators combined. LocalTies plans to closely follow Medical 21's progress as human trials are expected to be pursued later this year.  

A Bronx Boy’s Dream

In short, Manny has done seven financial IPO’s; raising capital for his companies and charities over 45 different times.

"Try to find someone who has done seven IPOs without a background in the financial industry”, Manny tells me with a half smirk and gleam in his eye. As we walk toward the ballroom, one of the crown jewels of the home, we first pass through a room where framed original stock certificates, patent drawings and stories of Manny's philanthropic deeds decorate the walls. Of course all the framed stock certificates on the wall have the number 1 on them signifying they were the first issued share of that company.  This was to be expected given they were companies he founded, but it's not every day you see multiple first issue stock certs hanging on the wall of a private residence for companies as recognizable as these. The entrepreneurial fanboy in me was having a hard time containing myself at this point.

I then noticed a Perkins Family Restaurant logo prominently overlaid on a first issue ATS Medical Stock certificate. "Why is there a Perkins logo on that one", I asked him? Manny smiled and says "It's where that deal first started. We met at Perkins." This inimitable detail served as a notable reminder of how a company that would later be sold to Medtronic for $400 million dollars could start with a simple meeting at Perkins. In essence that logo symbolized the inescapably human connections required for any deal, big or small to be created.  Elizabeth had alluded earlier to Manny's love for meeting people and interacting with them as one of the main driver's behind his success. After since spending more time with both of them, it was impossible not to see that Manny's ability to connect human to human was one of the main secret ingredients to Manny’s professional success.

"When he pulled up to this house for the first time, he told me, 'Elizabeth, THIS is what a Bronx boy dreams about'." The house designed by Chicago architect, Jerome Cerny and built in 1966 by SJ Groves & Sons, a global contractor recognized for projects such as the Key West Bridge has since been known as 'The Bronx' for the past 30 years when the Villfafana's took up residence in January of 1989.  The original owners of the home, the Groves family were famous for their Saddlebred horses. At one point, Franklin Groves owned 1% of the all thoroughbred racing stock in the U.S. The original stable house on the property has since been home to Manny’s collection of 30 antique classic cars and 3 Rolls Royces. Turns out every rumor I had heard about this place when pulling up as a teenager 20 years ago, was true.

A New Medina Legacy Home in the Making

This home, which has raised two incredible families whose legacies run almost as deep as the courtyard’s French Fountain from the mid-1800’s, is now on the market for the next generation of family looking for a lifestyle most only dream about. A place that has housed and entertained surgeons, scientists and captains of industry from around the world. A home that nurtured breakthrough medical technologies conjured up from beautiful minds, where international guests were greeted by hosts who would raise their respective country's flag in the courtyard upon their arrival. This was the home where family gatherings lasted for weeks on end. A place where endless summers of swimming and splashing were seamlessly followed by whimsical winters of sledding and skating. A home where a generation of children would play with ponies in the pasture or put on plays in a ballroom with backdrops plucked straight off the pages of a fairytale fantasy rarely experienced in real life. This home was built to be special but it took a family like the Villafañas living every inch of it, to etch it into the history of a place and time never to be forgotten by those who experienced it. It is my sincere hope that soon a new family finds this home and picks up where they left off; continuing a tradition that epitomizes the beauty and extraordinary country lifestyle that only properties in places like south Medina can still offer.