Creating a haven for the pleasures of poetry, painting, or
Somewhere between Thoreau’s two-year outback experiment in simple living and Virginia Woolf’s less remote room of her own, the contemporary food writer Michael Pollan found the sweet spot of artistic seclusion a few hundred meters from his back door. In fact, his self-built writing shack provided both the inspiration and the sanctuary for a book about the process called A Place of My Own. In it, Pollan describes walking out to his backyard aerie as going to a separate place—a distraction-free zone of focused contemplation—and at the same time, being close enough that his wife could wave him in for dinner.
For those same reasons, backyard retreats are finding a sweet spot in the hearts of local artists, musicians, writers and thinkers. Neither constrained by the parameters of an existing home, nor the necessities of a full-time residence (no plumbing, no bedroom, no kitchen, no traffic flow), backyard retreats are architecturally empowering, too—a blank slate on which to create the perfect small world.
Jack Dant bought his St. Paul bungalow about 10 years ago and says he was planning to create a separate workspace almost from day one, immediately dismissing the idea of adding on to the house. “I just didn’t see it,” he recalls. “Partly because at first I was thinking this would be a woodworking and welding studio.”
Dant developed plans for an undefined work space with his friend Mark Larson, of Rehkamp Larson Architects, but being a handy guy, Dant undertook the construction himself, in between his full-time job as a product development engineer for a medical device company and his many, many hobbies— sailing, surfing, woodworking, welding, etching, and cello among them. During the three years it took to add the airy 22-foot-by-26-foot loft above his renovated garage, Dant took up oil painting, so the space evolved into a painting studio with a bank of windows on the north side, where the light is bluer, and more neutral than the yellow rays that come from the south.
“There are so many good things about a retreat separate from the house, but separateness has to be a priority because it’s more expensive than, say, a room in the basement,” Larson explains. “Jack has a lot of hobbies: He really valued a place for his many creative pursuits.”
While he admits to losing track of time in his pleasant, canvas-filled sanctuary, Dant is far from reclusive. “With the sound system, it’s a wonderful space for parties,” he says. “And I’ve made it clear that Penny [Dant’s wife, Penelope Freeh, a professional dancer] is welcome.”
Dick Nicholson’s backyard retreat on Summit Hill serves a particularly niche function, as a haven for stogey aficionados to enjoy a few Kristoffs and Montecristos along with what the noted philanthropist dubs “the best view from a cigar shack in all of St. Paul.”
Tucked between a carriage house and the alley, the rough-hewn log cabin is nearly overgrown with “native plants” and completely out of sight of the main house. It serves as smoking room, male retreat, and architectural relief from the imposing grandeur of Nicholson’s primary residence, Dove Hill, the Georgian manse next door to the James J. Hill edifice, which was built for the tycoon’s son, Louis.
Nicholson likes his cigars. His wife, not so much. “We tried smoking in the ballroom, thinking the smoke would go up the chimney, but Nancy said no—no smoking anywhere in the house,” he recalls, laughing. “I saw an ad for an Amish log cabin and that was the start of the cigar shack.” Or the Dove Shack, as the boys like to call it.
Drawing on his experience as a part-time antiques dealer, Nicholson decorated the shack in early man cave style, with an antler chandelier, boar and cowhide rugs, stuffed fish and fowl, and a delightfully atmospheric Cigar Aficionado poster featuring martial arts guru Chuck Norris. A chosen few (mostly male) of the many guests the Nicholsons host in the main house make their way past the splashing fountains on the back terrace, down the steeply sloping backyard, and along some stepping stones to the shack’s loosened-tie, jacket-free comfort, where they’re encouraged to light up, set a spell, and sign the guest wall. Among the storied guests to have enjoyed the shack’s rustic sanctuary? Politicians Norm Coleman, Richard Daley, and Rahm Emanuel, as well as actor Woody Harrelson, to name a few.
In addition to being a private home, Dove Hill is also part of St. Paul history, and therefore closely guarded by the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission. Gar Hargens, president and owner of Close Associates Inc., Architects, authored the home’s historic renovation and successfully proposed the seemingly incongruent cigar shack to a doubtful Commission as a “folly,” an architectural form that frequently accompanied grand houses of Dove Hill’s ilk, but purposefully didn’t emulate their styles.
Nancy Nicholson, for her part, rarely joins her husband in the boys’ club. “I brought a pizza down once,” she says. “That’s about it. Oh, and Dick plays his harmonica out there.” Which may or may not have something to do with her avoidance.
A Poet’s Scriptorium
Caroline Giles Banks, a retired professor of anthropology, now poet, who lives in the Linden Hills neighborhood of Minneapolis, says she’s always been fascinated by little houses and the idea of having a separate place to write. “I drove around looking at plots of land, but realized that was just never going to happen,” she says.
Instead, she rented writing space at The Loft Literary Center in downtown Minneapolis that gave her blocks of uninterrupted time away from her busy household of two teenage grandchildren, three cats, and a dog. But the drive (particularly irksome in the winter), the cost, and the need to pack everything up and clear out when her four hours were up, created writer’s blocks of their own.
Dale Mulfinger of SALA Architects has done extensive renovation in Banks’ 1907 bungalow, including a gazebo raised on stilts from the sloping back yard that’s accessed by a walkway from the home’s second story. Further inspiration struck, Banks says, when her house was part of a home tour. “People were trooping through saying, ‘What’s under the gazebo?’ And I said, ‘Nothing.’ That’s when it dawned on me.” “Le Shack” as she calls it, or “The Scriptorium” à la Mulfinger, is a 16-foot by 8-foot structure exactly 13 steps from the back door, tucked under the gazebo. Its large sliding glass door faces the southern light, an inviting patio, and Banks’ profusely botanical backyard.
Her requirements were few: A one-person space separate from the house (“I thought about dedicating a room in the house, but there’s cleaning, radio, phone—a million distractions”), green construction, natural light, and a view. Le Shack is protected from the elements by the gazebo overhead, with a sloping metal roof that funnels rainwater into a barrel. Bamboo floors, no-V.O.C. paint, shredded denim insulation, and a gas heater that’s turned on only when Le Shack is occupied make the space comfortable, eco-friendly, and fuss-free. A desk, a chair, a file cabinet, a lamp, a bookshelf, and a small couch are all the poet needs. That, and three or four hours of uninterrupted time.
“As soon as I walk in, I’m in the flow,” Banks says. “The little effort it requires to get here cements the idea that I’m in another place.”
Sarah Barker is a freelance writer in St. Paul.
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