Clarence H. Johnston meets Coco Chanel in a Crocus Hill kitchen
Architect Clarence H. Johnston was quiet and industrious, prompt and pragmatic. The kind of draftsman who wore three-piece suits with high Gladstone collars, parted his hair in the middle, and imbued his designs with a defining sense of order, above all.
Though his professional rival, the more artistic Cass Gilbert, would win the commission for the capitol building in St. Paul, it was Johnston who built up Minnesota’s college campuses, who designed the famous Glensheen estate in Duluth, and no fewer than 44 houses on Summit Avenue, plus dozens more around Crocus Hill, Cathedral Hill, and St. Anthony Park.
Johnston was steady and even-tempered, analytical in all things. In other words, he probably would have got on very well with Peter Wilhoit, a wealth management advisor and senior vice president at Morgan Stanley in St. Paul who finds art in angles and comfort in symmetry. In 2008, Peter and his fast-talking, super social wife, Michelle, plus their two kids, Kaitlin, now 10, and Jack, now 4, were living in a new house near the Mississippi River, and looking for a change. Michelle wanted a neighborhood with more kids around and Peter “missed that old-house feel.” When the couple toured a 1905 Clarence H. Johnston–designed brick house on Goodrich Avenue, designed at the height of the architect’s fascination with Tudor Revivalism, Peter fell in love.
The problem was the kitchen. An “update” in the 1980s completely erased the original floor plan in favor of an open U-shape “that just flowed horribly,” says Charlie Simmons, principal of Charlie & Co. design in Minneapolis, who was commissioned by the Wilhoits to bring the kitchen back to its old grandeur while matching the bubbly personality of Michelle Wilhoit. Here’s how he pulled it off:
Old Shape, Plus a Little More
To create the Wilhoit’s new (old) kitchen, Simmons simply restored the original floor plan with its hall and butler’s pantry and main cooking space, but enlarged each one to meet contemporary kitchen standards. His design called for an 8-foot addition to the back of the house, which actually became the major issue of the remodel. When the builder, John Kraemer & Sons, broke into the tan brick walls, the team expected to find the usual historic-home setup: brick, followed by air space, followed by timber frame construction, followed by plaster and lathe construction.
Instead, they found three layers of brick, 13 solid inchesof it. “Apparently the house was built for a Minnesota Supreme Court Justice who wanted his own private fortress,” says Simmons.
To make the project work, John Kraemer & Sons brought in a crane and a skyscraper-grade steel beam to reinforce the structure. “Remodeling the Wilhoit house was like remodeling a tank,” says Jeff Kraemer, project manager at Kraemer & Sons.
Simmons says he was honored to work on a home designed by one of the state’s most prolific and important architects. To bring the spirit of Clarence H. Johnston into the new space, he took a careful survey of the home’s fine details to build in subtle references or outright homages.
In the dining room, Simmons was intrigued by the lateral ceiling beams on the ceiling. So for the new kitchen, he copied the profile of the beams and arrayed them into a grid rotated 45 degrees, so the number of right angles wouldn’t be overwhelming. He also extended the home’s elaborate, six-piece crown molding and wall paneling into the hall and mimicked the shape of the Wilhoit’s dining table in the form of the custom marble island top.
During the course of the remodel, Simmons playfully teased Michelle Wilhoit about her Shiny Ball Complex. Indeed, whenever Michelle was out shopping for lighting or hardware, she was drawn to the shiniest thing in the showroom, like an entranced mosquito floating blissfully toward a polarized light. The Schonbek chandeliers over the island were one such find. “I thought the chandeliers were little much at first, but they really are very Michelle, and they give the room a lot of energy,” says Simmons.
Contrast and Balance
To give the room enough weight and light, Simmons used three colors: cream, white, and walnut brown. The custom-designed refrigerator cabinet, modeled in part on Coco Chanel’s iconic interlocking double-C logo, adds the brown, along with the Emperador Dark marble on the walnut island, and Thomas Pheasant-designed walnut chairs at the 8-foot-long banquette. (The chairs, too, have a sculpted, Coco Chanel-ish back.) White-painted cabinets (in Benjamin Moore’s classic “Decorators White”) and white Venatino marble perimeter tops add visual lift, and cream upholstered Hancock and Moore barstools at the island play of the cast limestone range hood with its unusual Gothic arch. “When we’re awake, we spend 95 percent of our time in this room,” says Michelle. “Which is kind of a shame, actually, since the rooms in this house are so gorgeous.”
Alyssa Ford is an architecture and interior design writer in Minneapolis.
For more information on featured products and suppliers, please see our Buyer's Guide.