Doting grandparents Jim and Colleen Ryan asked renowned architect David Salmela to design a darling cabin on the shores of Eshquagama Lake
When Jim Ryan was a 12-year-old boy in 1954, his parents did a magical thing: They bought a cabin right on the edge of Eshquagama Lake, (Es-kwa-ga-ma) about 60 miles north of Duluth. Every summer from then on, the Ryans packed their clothes, loaded all their beds into a dump truck—the family owned a construction business, which would eventually become Ryan Companies—and moved the whole household from their home in Hibbing to the banks of Eshquagama.
For a boyish Jim, this was a brilliant way to live. Summer at Eshquagama meant cramming into the tiny waterfront sauna with his seven brothers and sisters and then bursting out like a herd of overheated elephants and racing head-on for the lake. It meant lolling around on the hammock, jumping off the end of the pontoon, and fishing for northerns and walleyes.
After Jim grew up, got married, and had kids of his own, he tried to instill an undying love for Eshquagama in his own brood. But when you come from a family of eight kids—and have eight kids of your own—things can get a little cramped. “When we all gathered at the lake, Grandpa’s little cottage was just crammed with people,” says Kate Ryan, the third eldest of Jim’s kids. “I mean, there are eight of us, and about a million first cousins.”
But once his six grandkids came along—Trinity, Owen, Marley, Nell, Henry, and Seamus, now ages 4 to 8—Jim became fascinated with the idea of building a darling little cabin on a blunt point next to his parent’s original, 1954 cabin, now owned by his sister, Pat. To make the sentimental dream a reality, Jim and his wife, Colleen, reached out to David Salmela, the Duluth-based architect known for his modernist interpretations of classic Scandinavian forms.
Salmela was intrigued with the idea and the spot. The blunt point sits on Eshquaguma Country Club property, known for attracting some of the most well-known and well-to-do Iron Rangers. (For decades, former Minnesota governor Rudy Perpich owned a cabin on Eshquagama. No matter its spelling—the lake is “Eshquagama,” while the club prefers “Eshquaguma”—the word derives from the Ojibwe and means “the last water.”) Salmela wanted to capture the idyllic, carefree feelings that Jim Ryan associated with his childhood summers, as well as the historic nature of the country club, which opened in 1914, and saw its first patrons arrive for their lakeside vacations in horse-drawn carriages and brand-new touring cars. “Eshquaguma is the closest thing northern Minnesota has to an exclusive club,” says Salmela.
For the Ryans’ nostalgic cabin, Salmela sketched out a perfect 32-by-32 foot square with a green metal roof and white-stained cedar lap siding. The form is simple and precious: The small box looks almost like dollhouse, with a magical chimney tower rising up from the center, and a cantilevered roof that extends from two sides like a bird ready for takeoff. Working with landscape architect Bob Close, Salmela relocated the original driveway so that visitors now have to park relatively far away and walk up to the cabin on a narrow path buffeted by airy grasses, thereby heightening the anticipation of arrival.
From the outside, the cabin looks small. But inside, it feels large and light—a trick Salmela achieved by dropping the second floor down into the volume of the first floor, as if to push all attention and energy out toward Lake Eshquagama. The arced ceiling here is made of fine-milled, two-inch-wide pieces of basswood. It’s just one of the subtle details that Salmela incorporated to lend the space a sophisticated edge: a slatted screen of finely milled wood pieces divides the kitchen and the stairwell; a slab of black granite, quarried in nearby Babbitt and cut to an exceptionally thin three-quarters of an inch, creates a dramatic cantilevered countertop.
The main level of the house feels like an Oslo art gallery, all light and carefully curated accents. The upstairs, by contrast, is a darling hideaway with two identical bedroom suites awash in blonde wood and whiteness. Here Salmela designed a softly undulating ceiling that seems to roll across the room, with two gentles waves cresting just over the bed. The matching rooms look almost too innocent to have been designed by a 60-something-year-old Norwegian Ranger, and not Goldilocks herself. The grandchildren’s bunkhouse, situated directly across a patch of yard, is similarly sweet. Its upper-level sleeping room holds four floating bunks, two of which hang from the ceiling on powder-coated steel frames. The bunkhouse’s lower level holds a cedar sauna and a small hidden room behind a two-door cabinet that’s perfect for games of hide-and-seek.
When Jim Ryan dreamed up the cabin, he imagined it would help him jumpstart a new Ryan family tradition. His idea was to steal all six of the grandkids away from their parents each summer for at least a few weeks of pontoon fishing, sauna overheating, and hammock lolling. But before the cabin could be completed, tragedy struck the Ryan family when Jim was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma. In the spring of 2009, when the house was 99 percent finished, Colleen and Jim drove up north so Jim could experience the summer cottage—he told his wife it was “perfect.” After three days, they returned to the Twin Cities for Jim to resume his cancer treatments. He died just after Memorial Day weekend that year.
The next summer, Colleen rounded up all six of the grandkids and took the whole passel to the cabin for four days. The following year, she did it again. They fished off the pontoon with princess and superhero–themed fishing poles, they ate popcorn and watched Monsters Inc. They swung on the hammock and drove the golf cart to the Eshquaguma clubhouse for lunch.
Colleen says there’s no getting around the cabin’s bittersweet nature. It is a place where she feels Jim’s loss acutely, and yet feels his presence strongly. One night during last year’s trip, she opened the windows between the bunkhouse and the main house. As she listened to her grandchildren’s giggles, she imagined that Jim was hearing them, too. “He would have loved how much the kids love it,” says Colleen. “The cabin is exactly what he imagined it could be.”
Alyssa Ford is an architecture and interior designwriter in Minneapolis.
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