‘We feel very blessed’: New owners of Prince’s purple house site settle in (and yes, they’re saving the gates)

Tonia and John Roemer in front of their new home. All photos by Jay Gabler/MPR.

One of the most significant sites in Prince history is also one of the most mysterious: the site of Prince’s legendary purple house, on Lake Riley in Chanhassen, Minnesota. Prince lived there in the first half of the 1980s, and recorded portions of Controversy1999, and Sign O’ the Times in the house. With 1999 celebrating its 35th anniversary today, we’re sharing photos and video from a recent visit with the property’s new owners.

“It’s amazing,” said Tonia Roemer. “Some days it’s a little surreal, but we’ve had a little time to get used to the idea. It really feels like where we should be, and we feel very blessed and grateful to be able to live on this property.”

Tonia and her husband John are building a new house for their family to live on the site; Prince himself owned the property until the end of his life, but he tore the house down about 15 years ago. When he moved to a large Chanhassen house, his father moved to the Lake Riley house. After John Nelson’s death in 2001, Prince tore down both the Lake Riley house and his subsequent house, but kept both the properties.

The Roemers are Prince fans — but they were also his neighbors. They’ve lived in the area for 20 years, explained John, and their kids used to play soccer at the nearby Bandimere Park. The family knew Prince owned the lakeside property but wasn’t using it. If he ever decided to sell, the Roemers decided, they’d love to live there.

“So a couple years ago,” John explained, “Tonia wrote a letter to Prince. Prince never responded.” He may have been considering their offer, though — because as they later learned, he kept Tonia’s letter. After Prince’s death in 2016, his estate began the process of gradually selling Prince’s many pieces of Minnesota property.

“When they put it on the market,” continued John. “We got a call from the real estate agent. He said, “We have your letter you wrote to Prince. Are you interested in looking at the property?”

The site was as beautiful as the Roemers knew it would be, and they quickly agreed to purchase the property. The sale was closed earlier this year, and they began the process of opening the site up. The iconic front gates are part of a fence that completely surrounded the property — including the lake frontage. The Roemers are keeping the fencing except for the part that blocks the lake, and they’re clearing some trees to make room for their new house.

Few photos of the original house during Prince’s residence there are known to exist. One is below, showing the gate; here’s another view. Prince painted the house purple when he moved in, and installed a 24-track recording unit. The classic songs recorded here include “1999,” “Little Red Corvette,” “Controversy,” and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man.” Prince also recorded tracks here for The Time and Apollonia.

Prince did a pretty comprehensive site of tearing the house down: when I visited the site late this summer, there wasn’t much evidence of his years there beyond the gates. The outline of the house’s foundation was still visible, and a front step remained embedded in the ground. The hilltop house site opens onto a beautiful view of the lake, which the Roemers were already enjoying through overnight stays with their children.

John and Tonia have met the neighbors, some of whom are longtime residents and remember Prince’s time in the house. “He used to drive his motorcycle up and down the long driveway, training for Purple Rain,” John said the neighbors recall. “He was a very friendly guy. He even attended their graduation parties.”

The Roemers are excited to settle in, and yes — they’re keeping the gates, which they plan to restore to working order. “We feel it really embodies the property,” said Tonia. “It was part of who Prince was, and we want to preserve that and honor his memory.”

Video: Hanna Bubser and Jay Gabler. Thanks to Johnny Vince Evans for audio assistance.

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