A classic 1950s Golden Valley home gets a 21st-century facelift
Robin Preble’s deliberate preface to a tour of her mid-century home is telling: “We didn’t change the footprint of the house,” she says. “We opened up the kitchen and fixed what was broken. I think that’s fair after 55 years.”
Anxious about the remodeling police? No, it’s just that Robin and her husband Dan Hedlund own a bit of Minnesota architectural heritage: a two-story Golden Valley home, designed by Close Associates, then headed by husband-and-wife team Winston and Elizabeth Close.
The Closes were pioneers on two fronts: They created boldly rectilinear ornament-free designs, and they employed a female architect—both avant-garde notions in 1938 when they opened shop. (Close Associates still operates under the direction of architect Gar Hargens.) During their 50-year careers, the Closes and their associates designed hundreds of houses, a treasure trove of them in St. Anthony Park near the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.
Like other modernists, they favored a strong connection to nature through large windows, skylights, an open floor plan, and extensive use of wood and stone. The feeling of space, though not necessarily huge square footage, permeated Close designs. Win and Elizabeth felt good design need not cost a fortune: Robin and Dan’s 3,100-square-foot home cost $45,496 in 1956.
Robin and Dan intended to stay in their vintage Dutch Colonial in the Lake Harriet neighborhood of Minneapolis, but wanted more space and a more open floor plan. They had no intention of buying a modernist home when they started looking in Golden Valley, where they were introduced to the flat roofs and horizontal tendencies of modernism. “We drove by this house, called our realtor and said, ‘No way,’” recalls Robin. “We didn’t think we’d like it, but now we’re hooked. Every square inch of this house is useful.” And that’s how a Dutch-Colonial-stained-glass-window-and-carved-wood family of three turned into a low-profile-mid-century-modern family of four (their younger daughter was born two months after they moved here in 2003). They’ve since added two cats and a dog to the mix.
They loved the nonstop built-in storage, the light, and the feeling of space in the house. But a few things cried out for remodeling: a dark and cramped entry, a closed-in kitchen with Formica countertops and the original wood cabinets that no longer functioned properly, vast plains of off-white shag carpet that had turned more off than white, and a lack of accessibility to the patio and profoundly scenic backyard.
“We wanted to maintain the architectural integrity and we’d never remodeled a modern house. It was kind of scary,” says Dan. They were soon reassured by the knowledgeable voice of architect Lars Peterssen, then principal of Domain Architecture & Design and now of Peterssen/Keller Architecture of Minneapolis. “The intent was not to remake it exactly as it was in the ’50s—families use their homes differently now, and materials are available that didn’t even exist then—but rather to enhance the good things about the design and make it more functional for Robin and Dan,” says Peterssen.
Photo by Andrea Rugg
And so they began.
Under the carpet, they found the original cork flooring, common in mid-century homes, too damaged to reuse. Robin wanted to pick up the gray tones in the pickled wood wall paneling. Joseph Max Johnson, the designer/manager on the project and Peterssen’s associate at Domain, suggested stained floors.
Staining hardwood floors, however, isn’t out-of-the-box easy. Johnson worked with Amy Schaefer of Schaefer Hardwood Floors in Minneapolis to find the perfect mix of four colors, staining wood swatches with at least eight variations. “We agonized over whether it was too blue, too brown, too dark,” said Robin. “It was literally a big decision because of the huge surface area that would be this color.”
In contrast to the openness of the rest of the house, the kitchen was walled off, with only a narrow doorway and small pass-through to the dining room. Peterssen and Johnson widened the doorway and opened the wall of cabinets between dining room and kitchen. The new glossy white cabinets with softly glowing resin doors, white countertops, and sky-blue glass wall tiles are an eye-pleasing vista both from within and when seen from the living/dining space. “By not having wood [cabinets] in the kitchen, we actually highlighted the cool wood paneling and stained floors in the rest of the house, and made them stronger, almost sculptural,” says Johnson. “The square-edged sink, recessed cabinet handles, Silestone countertops—if these had been available in 1955, would the Closes have used them? Hard to say, but they meet functional needs and they hew to the pure, clean tenets of the house’s design.”
The most transformative agent in the way the family lives in the house is a door at the side of the living room that leads outside and down via spiral stairs to the patio and backyard, regions previously accessible only through an egress door in the master bedroom. It was also the most intrusive change and, thus, thoroughly considered. The metal staircase fronts the house’s most playful elements—a sprinkling of colored glass windows, light boxes really, that follow the stairs to the lower level inside and punctuate a big, blank wall with color outside. “The open stairs and ribbon-like handrail disappear against the house,” says Johnson. “And the outside stairs provide another way to experience the light boxes.”
On a Saturday afternoon, Robin and Dan were experiencing their home’s new and improved beauty, their daughters sprawled on the living room floor, cats at the window, and the sun streaming in. The rightness of making good design even better was all around.
Sarah Barker is a St. Paul writer.
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